Rules are made to be broken (so how do we teach kids about sex?)

by Kristin on November 12, 2008

in Culture, ideas & paradigms,Love, family & community

Photo by Dan Brady

The kids didn’t have school yesterday, so S, my eight-year-old, decided to spend part of the day doing what any dutiful writer’s child would do: churning out poetry.

She wrote eight poems in total, including this one, which made me laugh. It also happens to serve as the perfect intro to the post I want to write today. (Sometimes my kids are helpful, without even knowing it.)

Rules Are Made To Be Broken

If your mother says…
Do not play with bears,
or eat a pickled skunk,
Do not race with hares,
or play monkeys on your bunk,
Do not invite
an elephant to bed,
Do not drink three cups of coffee,
Do the opposite!

What’s especially funny about the poem to me, the poet’s mother, is that of our three girls, S is the one most bound by rules. She’s cautious and careful, and is more eager than either of her older sisters to please us.

So why did she write this poem?

I think it speaks mostly to her quirky sense of humor and her love for poetry written by the likes of Shel Silverstein. But there’s certainly a bit of deviousness in her, too, and a desire to break some rules, just like there is in all of us. It’s inherent.

If that’s a true assessment of human nature—that deep down inside we feel like rules are made to be broken, or at least bent as creatively as possible—is it possible that kids might feel that way about promises, too?

And if so, can someone please tell me this: Who on earth decided that pressuring kids to make definitive, public promises is a good idea? Aren’t we setting our kids up by presenting them with so many varieties of “forbidden fruit?”

Politics, religion, sex, and the psychology of promising

This is essentially Part II of my last post, Politics, religion and sex, which I wrote after reading the New Yorker article Red Sex, Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?. There was so much to chew on that I couldn’t resist writing at least one more post.

To me, one of the most fascinating issues addressed in the article is the clear “gulf between sexual belief and sexual behavior,” especially among Christian teens. The gulf is particularly apparent when you look at teens who have participated in “abstinence-pledge movements.”

As far as I’m aware, no one I personally know has made a public promise about remaining abstinent. That’s why I was shocked to read that somewhere around two and a half million people have pledged to remain celibate until marriage.

I wasn’t surprised, however, to read that more than half of those who make the pledge end up having sex before marriage, or that the rate of S.T.D’s goes up in communities with high rates of such promising.

What is perhaps most interesting, on a macro “psychology of promising” level, is this:

In some schools, if too many teens pledge, the effort basically collapses. Pledgers apparently gather strength from the sense that they are an embattled minority; once their numbers exceed thirty per cent, and proclaimed chastity becomes the norm, that special identity is lost. With such a fragile formula, it’s hard to imagine how educators can ever get it right: once the self-proclaimed virgin clique hits the thirty-one-per-cent mark, suddenly it’s Sodom and Gomorrah.

That just tells me that adolescents will be adolescents. They’re not carefully thinking through a promise they’re about to make and asking themselves if it’s reasonable and helpful in the long-run. They’re making choices based on a very complex system of social rules—the same ones that create the push-and-pull that is Teenagerdom. It’s a formula we seem to forget as adults, along with most of what we learned in math: If no one else does/wears this it’s not cool, but if too many people do/wear this, it’s not cool again.

Whatever the formula is, it’s not a good one to apply to promise-making or -keeping.

In search of good alternatives for our kids

Jason and I were talking about this for quite a while last night. I said I was glad our girls would never be in a situation (in their church or school, at least) where they would be asked to make such a pledge.

Then I remembered that one day at school last year, when she was in fourth grade, Q made a pledge to never use tobacco or drugs. It was not something that was sent home for parents to discuss with their children, and ultimately give the proper weight. The kids just listened to someone, then signed something, en mass, and then were given certificates.

Please understand—I’m not against the concept of promises. I think they’re important. I just can’t figure out what this highly-public, peer-pressure-affected, stern-adult-induced form of promising teaches our children.

After all, one of the highest moral achievements in our society isn’t making a promise, it’s keeping it. When kids are being asked to make promises they don’t fully understand or have good strategies to keep, aren’t we setting them up for lives of chronic disappointment, distrust, and guilt? (Yes, there’s that nasty G-word again.)

I’m just thinking out loud here, but how about this. Maybe instead of urging kids to make big promises in churches and schools, we should be teaching them to respect the concept of a promise, with all the awe and grandeur they can muster. We should have them look closely at all the promising and oath-making that’s at the heart of Shakespearean dramas and ancient Greek tragedies—and then at all the drama and tragedy that ensues, in the wake.

Finally, maybe we need to give them permission to keep promises they haven’t made, so to speak, and to not make promises to anyone that they might but might not keep—even if the intention behind the promise is good and truthful.

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  • Mike

    I pledged to be obstinate. And you’ll not dissuade me from my purpose!

  • Arathi

    Great post. I agree…. keeping a promise is the important part. We may have a more sincere society if more people thought like this. It brings to mind apologies as well.


  • Alli Butler

    I like the poem. Very Shel Silverstein inspired!

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    The problem I find with these pledges is that these kids don’t realize what they are setting themselves up against (false ideals). When thrown into an intense situation, the promises don’t keep them from getting a STD or pregnant. I think what also needs to be taught & what I try so hard to instill on my daughter is the concept of grace & forgiveness.

    Saskia’s poem was wonderful! Like dutiful kids of an artist, my kids spend a lot of their free time drawing & creating. I often look at their creations & wish I could do what they do.

  • Jessica Bern

    I had no idea about that whole 31 percent deal. I have a five year old girl and I talk to her a lot about promises. Thank you for opening my eyes on this subject, as I will now approach the topic very differently.