When I spent a year teaching 6-8 grade students in Detroit, Michigan, I had hoped that with my high ideals, I could influence the children to become thinkers, perhaps even sway them towards a Godly life. But I found a tragic situation. American children of today are seriously brain damaged from computer games, TV, movies and pop music. They have an attention span no longer than a commercial and if something is not flashing lights and making bleeping noises they have no interest in it. They have a huge problem translating their thoughts into written words and they have a hard time sitting still. They really require - and want - adults to manage their behavior.
Concerning sex education, it was painfully clear that there was nothing I could do for these kids, except maybe an occasional isolated miracle. How do you convince a girl not to date boys when her own mother goes out on dates? You and I know that she is too young to think about such things, but the fact is, by 6th grade these kids' minds are set into the pattern created by the mass media. It made me realize that you really have to focus on protecting your kids from a very young age and arm them with knowledge.
The religious kids, if they are going to stay clean and innocent, they have to have made that choice well before 6th grade. Parents need to realize that the kids are going to learn everything about the facts of life - if not from school then from the songs playing in the supermarket - so we have to protect them. We have to tell them that they are persons of value who deserve to be respected and cherished and to enjoy happy and healthy relationships. Many children never hear these words from their parents so they seek affection and positive encouragement elsewhere. Most kids chase after boyfriends or girlfriends because the media tells them this is how you find happiness. Parents really need to walk the middle line between saying too much and not saying enough.
Young kids don't need the "details" of how babies are made but they do need to be told at a young age, for example, which parts of their body are off limits, even to family members, and the child should be made to promise to report any violations even if done in jest. Since they are giggling about boys as early as first grade, girls need to be advised well in advance that their lives will be miserable if they fall in love with boys before they are old enough to get married. They need to know the rules of clothing. They need to be instructed never to be alone in a room with a boy. Their brother should go with them if they are visiting the neighbor kids or cousins. You really can't be under-prepared.
A child needs to make an internal promise to keep chaste until marriage, if it is to be. If the kid has not gotten any good advice by age eleven, he or she may easily get lost. Whatever you tell your kids, it has to make sense within the context of the way that their peers explain the world. Although, "We don't do that because we are Muslim (or whatever religion)" goes a long way.
American children have full knowledge of how babies are made and how to prevent them, but they are very protected from knowing how babies come out. I believe that in families where the mother gives birth at home and the children are there to emotionally support her and know what women go through, these children will probably have a healthier attitude and reverence for their bodies and for life itself and will be less likely to make light-hearted decisions. Even many religious men, who were chaste until marriage, still lack the appropriate respect and reverence for the extreme sacrifice that a woman makes when she obeys her husband. A man that heard his mother's screams when he was a boy will probably be more helpful and more emotionally supportive towards his wife than if he was raised in ignorance.
The good news is that there seem to be more and more kids in high schools and colleges that choose to be chaste and who give each other moral support, and I have to assume it's because their parents talked to them about when sex is appropriate. Looking at online teen discussions it seems clear that there is a group of kids who have zero self esteem and are actively striving to crash their lives because they have no guidance other than the desire to be "cool" - while there is another group of kids who are actively striving to be responsible. When I was a kid there were no kids striving to be responsible in matters of chastity. If anyone was religiously motivated they would be treated like a mentally ill person and no one would be their friend. America is becoming better in many ways. At least, there are better choices available. As parents we have to make sure our children are aware of the choices we hope our kids will make, to balance the information they are getting from society about the choices that corporate military consumer culture hopes they make.
Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based writer on Middle East affairs and US politics. She is Director of the Division on Muslim Civil Rights and Liberties for the National Association of Muslim American Women. Joachim Martillo contributed to this article.