By Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD
I grew up in a household where both my parents did anger in big and expressive ways. As luck would have it, I was an introverted, happy-go-lucky, but sensitive kid. This combo meant I learned very quickly to watch and read the emotional climate of my parents – and if the boilers were high, stay out of the way. Unfortunately this also meant I learned it was often unsafe or inconvenient for me to have feelings, or at least to express them. I could not be sure there would be someone to listen or understand. If one of my parents was caught in their whirlwind, my emotion would be dismissed or I would be needed to calm the storm.
Since I was often frightened by the strength of their anger, either at me or each other, I also decided I had better not do anger, for fear my anger might hurt, as theirs did. This led to years and years of stuffing my feelings and focusing almost entirely on the emotional climate of others. This deficit in knowing my own feelings, how to manage and express them, and much about what drew me to others, shaped my choices in partners, friends, even my career. My twenties and thirties were spent in therapy and grad-school unpacking these influences and reclaiming the wisdom of my feelings and the ‘me’ inside them.
I tell this story because I believe we do the same thing in the Christian church with sexual desire and sexual want. We frighten children from the time they are young right through their adolescents. We ignore the fact they will feel it. We fail to teach them about sexual desire, about the larger purposes in it, or how to be honoring with all their sexuality – as they grow up. We fail to have the nuanced conversations about their body and sexual education, about the role of self-control and surrender, of intimacy in all her colors – emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical and sexual. We fail to help them understand the ways the world deals with sexual desire and sexual want, how that is contrasted with what God’s potential, purpose and hopes might be for us, and under what conditions God’s potential is most likely to be experienced. We fail to make this an ongoing integrated conversation along with all the other important conversations we have along the way.
Instead we tell kids about the power of sexual desire in such a way that it frightens them. We tell them to stay away from it, to stop it, to run from it. We tell them that to act on it is to somehow risk ruining their future. We begin when they are five or six telling them to ‘watch-out’, and continue scaring them with sexual information like this which offers at a click of a button, videos that frighten them half to death! But of course, it does not stop them from feeling, it just helps them send their feelings underground where they can become ignorant of the feeling or how the feeling is shaping their life or their decisions. It delays their access to their wisdom or to the integration of the feeling of sexual desire with their values and their faith. It also interrupts their ability to see their parents as a resource to them as they are figuring it all out. This learning delay can (and does) have a much more negative result – and negates their parents as a resource!
I realize that what I am proposing, requires that parents become more comfortable with this subject and with the reality of how kids (humans) learn to manage sexual desire. All of us learn the delicate balance of self-control and emotional surrender as we mature. And most adolescents and young adults are low on self-control. God actually made the pre-frontal cortex of our brains, where we have the highest access to executive decision making, to not be completely formed until 25-28 years old. We are made to learn through trial and error. What we know from research, is that kids who have parents who talk (and listen) about sexuality, help them understand their developing sexual bodies, the sexually complex world around them, and who remain a safe place for them to ask questions and bring their mistakes, actually make less mistakes, have less regrets and make better decisions. They choose better partners and delay sexual involvement. And, my favorite research statistic, they describe themselves as closer to their parents overall! I love that!
The blessing of my family growing up, is that while my parents were explosive, they were comfortable talking about sex and sexuality. To this day, I am eternally grateful to them for that. For all their foibles and imperfections, that one gift, made raising my kids so much easier!! We did open communication about sex and faith integration, and IT WORKED!! My kids chose amazing partners, feel comfortable in their skin (watch "Chloe in Seattle") and see themselves as beloved of God.