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HEARTS program helps parents reveal truth of sexuality to children

Editor: The following article was published in the Family Perspectives Journal of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (NACFLM). Visit www.nacflm.org to read more articles about ministry to families.

Studies report that young people learn about sexuality and relationships from media and peers. They say they want to know what their parents think and value, but parent-child conversations about sexuality rarely happen.

Why is there silence about sexuality from parents and other trusted adults? What 'story' of sexuality is being told by media and peers? Is it a 'story' that will help young people develop and sustain loving relationships? Is it a 'story' that will help them to value commitment and to understand the depth and meaning of sexuality in their lives? What else impacts a child's developing sexuality? What help do parents need to communicate more effectively with their children about sexuality?

In the mid-1990s, the Archdiocese of Omaha explored, via a formal study, what might be effective and appropriate ways to approach sexuality education. Diocesan and parish level staff, priests, principals, counselors, parents and others who worked with adolescents discussed the study's results and together decided efforts should be directed at helping parents effectively communicate with their children about sexuality. To this end, the office of Formation and Education in Sexuality was initiated in July 2000 and charged with developing ways of helping parents. A program, HEARTS. for Parents (Helping Every Adult Reveal the Truth of Sexuality) was initiated.

The first concern was: "Why is it difficult for parents to discuss sexuality with their own children?" Insights regarding this question emerged over time. It became clear that most of today's parents never talked with their parents about sexuality; a rare few reported they would be happy to parent their children as they had been parented in this area but most parents want to do better. They just were not sure where to start. Many parents carry wounds from their own experience of sexuality, either because of something they did or something that was done to them, and this inhibits their ability to discuss sexuality. Some worry that talking with their children will "give them ideas" and encourage sexual experimentation. Generally, parents recognize today's world is different from the one in which they grew up. They are not sure how and when to start conversations. Nor do they know what to say or how to say it.

Children are increasingly exposed to sexual information - accurate or otherwise - at younger ages. When taking her four-year-old daughter shopping, one mother related that her daughter asked for "sexy" clothes. The mother was astonished and unsure about responding. Where did her daughter hear about "sexy" clothes and what did that mean to her? This scenario is not surprising given the sexualized media that influences children. Many parents are unaware of media influence on their child's developing understanding about gender roles, sexuality and relationships. They do not consider the many hours of "screen time" or how media messages are absorbed by young children. By early adolescence, children have already learned a great deal, often without parental awareness.

Engaging parents about the realities mentioned above in a religious context is challenging. Parents bring who they are to the discussion, including attitudes learned from their family of origin, feelings about church teaching, understandings of sexuality, and their personal sexual history. Most parents have not considered what they hope for in terms of sexuality for their children or how to prepare their children to understand and live their sexuality as a gift of God. Many parents long to communicate better with their children about the topic of sexuality than their parents did.

Understanding the complexities of assisting parents with sexuality education is the key to developing a program that is respectful of each kind of parent. Most Catholic parents have never gathered formally with other parents to talk about topics related to sexuality and their children - fragile, close-to-the-heart topics. The atmosphere must be comfortable, that is, conducive to hearing and discussing things that might be new territory.

Parents are likely to ask questions of themselves such as: "How did I learn about this? How did the way I learned about it affect me? What do I really want for my child in terms of sexuality?"

Parents begin to consider how sexuality, love, intimacy, desire and relationships are intertwined. They begin to make connections between their own search for love, intimacy and their relationship with God. They find a new appreciation for the relationship between sexuality and spirituality - in some cases, seeing this for the first time. And, hopefully, they experience a desire to communicate all this to their children.

We began HEARTS in the Archdiocese of Omaha with 17 parents who agreed to meet for a kickoff retreat and then twice monthly for six months. Topics for meetings included media and culture, spirituality and sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, Catholic sexual teaching, psychosexual development, homosexuality, boundary setting, and more. Each session included prayer, a topical presentation, discussions and communication tips. Parents were given reflection sheets to encourage private reflection on their own sexual story.

Some parents wanted a "rule book" approach that told them what to say and when. A more effective approach, however, is to help parents understand and integrate the values of Catholic teaching about the gift of human sexuality and its potential to bring life and love. As parents begin to more deeply appreciate the dignity of person and body and apply these insights to their parenting, they are able to communicate these important values to their children at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. No two parent-child relationships are the same. No "rule book" could be as effective as caring parents who appreciate sexuality as a gift of God and value opportunities to talk with their children.

One significant challenge is that many parents who come to the HEARTS program have a more negative than positive impression about Catholic sexual teaching. Some experienced relative silence around the subject in their childhood, at home and church. Others were shamed at a young age, discouraged from asking questions, and generally given the message that "sexuality is not good." Most have never heard that the church teaches sexuality is "a good, part of that created gift which God saw as being "very good," when he created the human person in his image and likeness, and "male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). Insofar as it is a way of relating and being open to others, sexuality has love as its intrinsic end, more precisely, love as donation and acceptance, love as giving and receiving. Parents begin to recognize that communicating about sexuality is part of teaching about loving. Over the course of the program, participants acquire a better understanding of Catholic teaching and integrate their own experience and understanding of sexuality with that teaching.

In the past seven years, over 650 parents have participated in HEARTS. In each subsequent year, the program has been adjusted to meet parent and parish/diocesan needs. What has become clear is that Catholic parents want a program that helps them communicate with their children about sexuality. They want a program that presents Catholic teaching and fosters open discussion of the realities of parenting in today's society.

Debbie Sheehan is the coordinator of Formation and Education in Sexuality for the Archdiocese of Omaha. She is a wife of 35 years and a mother of four young adults. She can be reached at dlsheehan@archomaha.org./i

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