Meddling in the lives of middle schoolers

Doesn’t matter if your kids are in home school, public school, Catholic school, or what — parents need to be more involved when their kids hit middle school, not less.

Gearing up for a future post:  what can you tell us about programs or books about sex that worked well for teaching your kids?

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35 comments

  1. I don’t have middle schoolers yet, but I wish my mom had read selectively to me from Toni Weschler’s Taking Charge of Your Fertility–obviously not the birth control parts, but the great sections about the ways the female body works. I knew about the birds and the bees, but I would have loved to understand and respect the mysteries of my body a little better.

  2. We have ended up writing our own, which we are currently doing with our eldest. We bought the American ‘Theology of the Body for Teens’. Not being American, I wasn’t quite sure of the age range. My daughter is 13 and in British Year 9, which I think equates to Middle School in America so this is the version we bought. However, it is really wordy. There are long, long passages to read, even for our teen, who devours books, it was all a bit much in the evening after a long day at school. So we gave up. I do however, intend to still use the materials for my daughter to read in between sessions.

    Also, the Theology of the Body materials start at the point of discussing human freedom. I wanted to start at the point of God’s love for us and what he intended sexuality to be.

    In preparing our materials, we drew on :
    -Alexander Schmemann’s images of circuits of life and death from our reading of “For the Life of the World”
    http://foryourmarriage.org/
    -The British materials “Lovewise” (http://www.lovewise.org.uk a bit protestant but good interviews with couples)
    -Rob Bell’s SexGod book. (again, a bit protestant, a bit light on theology but clearly explained and accessible for teenagers in most parts)

    All that is about marriage but we are also going to do a section on the link between sexuality and spirituality which will also look at celebacy and I want to look at body image as well.

  3. Also the people who wrote Theology of the Body for Teens have lots of clips on youtube which are really helpful.

  4. Great post! Simcha, I really enjoy your blog.

    Re: the first comment: Weschler’s TCOYF is a highly informative book. My husband and I used it to learn NFP (The FAM she teaches is basically sympto-thermal.) It was so fascinating to learn all that about my body that I hadn’t known before, I also wished I had known some of it growing up.

    Weschler has also written Cycle Savvy, a book for teen girls. I have not read it, but I would like to, to see if it is something appropriate for a Catholic, whether I would recommend it to someone, etc.

    But yes, there is a lot I wished I had known when I was younger, both things that would have helped me understand my body better and things that would have helped me make some better choices.

  5. I really think that talk about sex is weird, no matter what, when you “teach” it like a lesson. Natural discussions about it seem to me to be ideal, but then again I also have had good luck with an inquisitive and scientifically-minded oldest son, and the second son is not so much…so those discussions havent’ happened as often as with my first.

    Based on my experiences teaching moral theology to h.s. students, I know that many older kids (15?16? and up) often like being able to listen to something like a testimony or have a discussion (not with parents!) in a group setting. Based on something real, though: a person’s own experience, or a piece of literature, art, or film.

    “Text books” are the worse possible way to teach theology, imo. Biology, yes. Theology? The high power graphics and COOL! words in boxes! on! the ! sides!? Not so much.

  6. Also, to me, the sexual virtues are linked very much to the concept of being a person of Integrity, in which your body, mind, and soul are striving together for the same purpose, and what you think, say, do, and mean are all honest. Teaching Jesus as a model of integrity, and teaching about it from the earliest ages, lays the best foundation for teaching about sex. It makes sense in that context. And you can talk about honesty and purpose at any age. (Of course we have to also teach the mercy that we need to handle our failures at being integrates; integrity is a constant process of striving.)

    • In shorter version: Self-knowledge and self-honesty are the basic structures on which sexual virtue can be built. Without them, even chaste people struggle horribly and suffer, because so much of our neediness can be acted out in sexual behavior, if we do not understand what is happening.

  7. The Cycle Savvy book is intended for teenager girls around 15 or 16 who have had their period for about a year. It goes through the fertility cycle and hormones and basic charting, but it does not go into the rules of using the information for avoiding or seeking a pregnancy. It’s been a few years since I read it, so I can’t remember if there is anything that goes against Catholic teachings on chastity. I do remember her making the point, though, that a woman’s desire for sex is often highest during the fertile time in her cycle.

    I read James Dobson’s “Preparing for Adolescence”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on the most recent edition, so I don’t know if it had as many outdated pop culture references that would have a modern kid rolling their eyes, but I thought it handled a lot of the other information about puberty and sex really well. The only chapter that I saw to be inconsistent with the Church was the one on masturbation, but since I would want to discuss every aspect of the book with my kid, I didn’t find that a deal-breaker. The book is marketed for kids as young as 8, but I’ll probably wait until my daughter is closer to 12.

    For her ninth birthday I gave her the American Girl “The Care and Keeping of You” which includes mostly hygiene issue and some introductory information about periods and using tampons (with cartoon graphics).

    But personally, I have found that continually being pregnant has been the best program so far. My older girls (9 and 6) ask me questions and I try to answer them as honestly as possible for their age and level of understanding. They know they have eggs, ovaries, and a uterus. They know that it takes a woman and a man to make a baby, but they don’t know exactly how just yet.

  8. Barbara C,
    Not to go down a rabbit hole, but is it realistic these days to think that a 15 or 16 year old has only had her period for a year? I started at about 11.5 which was early for my peer group (and sucked!), but by 13 I would be hard-pressed to think of a friend who hadn’t started and it is my understanding that puberty starts even earlier now.

    And let me say middle school is the most miserable creation on the planet! It is true that many parents check out just as their kids need them the most.

  9. Well, I didn’t start until I was a freshman in high school (age 14), and neither did about a quarter of my class (much to the surprise of our health teacher). And early onset of puberty seems to be linked with childhood obesity…since a woman’s weight can have major ramifications on her menstrual cycle.

    But the book recommendation for Cycle Savvy is kind of like the car seat guidelines…they recommend rear-facing until the child is 2-years-old (previously 1-year-old) AND 20 pounds but there are some kids that hit the age marker but not the weight marker and vice-versa.

    The point is that there is no reason to teach a young teen the intricacies of charting if there is nothing to chart; it would like charting while on birth control pills. Since the first year of a girls’ cycle can be really erratic (sometimes super long gaps between periods) it makes more sense to wait until it has some what settled down before they practice charting. And even if a girl starts her period at age 9, that doesn’t mean that she is necessarily has the maturity to handle some of the sexual content of the book or even the mental capacity to understand the complex bio-chemistry aspects.

  10. For me at least, all of this would have been too late had it been covered first in middle school. I had my menarche at age 10, the summer after 4th grade, and no, I was not nor ever have been overweight or obese (quite the opposite in fact). While I haven’t raised any children yet, I agree with others that a constant dialogue and openness to questions is more important than one big Talk or book. I hope that since my husband and I teach NFP and live being open to life, that these will be just a couple ways that the topic of human sexuality naturally arises.

  11. The All Things Girl and All Things Guy series are pretty good, although they don’t necessarily deal with sex directly. I don’t know if they would appeal to all kids, but certainly to some. Also, there is a an out-of-print book by Mary Reed Newland called “We and Our Children” that has an excellent chapter on talking to your kids about sex. (Sophia Press republished parts of the book under a different title, but I’m not sure if that chapter is in there or not.)

    Also, the best tip I ever heard from a mother of 5 was that if you are going to have a serious talk about sex, a) acknowledge from the outset that it is awkward (in an ideal world it would be beautiful, etc.etc., but at the end of the day, it’s just plain awkward, and the kid will feel better if you just say so!) and b) don’t have a face-to-face talk. Talk while you are doing something else like driving or cleaning or painting, etc. – so that they don’t feel so embarrassed about having to look you in the eye when they are feeling so uncomfortable.

    Ascension press just put out a series on “Theology of the Body” specifically for middle-schoolers, which is quite good. It doesn’t necessarily deal with the act of sex directly, but has good general info, etc.

  12. I wasn’t a fat kid either. Also quite the opposite. But I guess I was asking if your recommendation had more to do with age or stage of puberty, i.e. a year after starting. Of course where I went to middle school, it wasn’t exactly uncommon to have pregnant students- some in the sixth grade. So maybe the young teens in my school would have been better off charting. My goal for my children is to protect them from some of the garbage I was exposed to,

  13. I think the important thing is to teach middle schoolers (especially girls, who get an extra dose of crazy from the media at this age) to respect their own bodies and the bodies of their peers. That’s why I think teaching a girl to chart is a great idea: show her that her body is a beautiful thing! Empower her to understand what’s happening to her and why. Knowledge, coupled with a strong conscience, is a powerful thing.

    As for when girls hit puberty, Leondard Sax (Girls on the Edge) claims we can blame artificial estrogens in plastics. There is also a strong correlation between girls who hit puberty early and girls who don’t live with their biological fathers.

  14. (Sigh) I am not saying that all girls who start their periods at a young age are obese, but there does seem to be a general link between weight and onset of menses. A nine-year-old could not be obese but be on the high end of the normal range of weight for her age and/or body type and therefore hit the tipping point of triggering menses.

    The girls in my class who started the earliest were often the bigger girls, not necessarily over-weight but maybe having a bigger body type. The “late bloomers” tended to be the girls like me who were super thin or the little petite girls. And there are definite scientific links between weight/BMI and menstrual cycle. Since both childhood obesity and early onset of menses have been on the rise in the country, it is not crazy to think they are linked. However, there are exceptions to every rule…

    While I do not think that my nine and a half-year old is close to starting menses yet (she hasn’t shown any other precursors of puberty such as the advent of cervical mucus), I did make her aware that some kids as young as her have started having their periods. And just through discussions of seeing me with maxi pads and other things, she has a decent idea of what to expect. (When I was a kid, none of the parents talked about it with their kids and the school didn’t address it until grade 5.)

  15. I am totally for teaching girls to chart as an empowerment. I know that it personally would have helped me deal with a lot of insecurity (that ominous feeling that your next period could start at any moment without any rhyme or reason). But I’m not sure that using that particular book with a 10-year-old would be more helpful than over-whelming. If I was dealing with a ten to thirteen year old, I might have them do a really basic charting to show them how your temperature rises when you ovulate and then dips again just as you start your period.

    But I don’t think that “just charting” would help sixth graders that are getting pregnant. Like I said, Cycle Savvy does not get into the rules of using charting to prevent pregnancy. And taking your temperature at the same time every day and following the rules requires a lot of personal discipline that even many married adults don’t have all of the time. To expect a ten-year-old to be able to follow the rules of NFP/FAM is a bit much.

    And the rules that Weschler lays down are much less stringent than the rules suggested by the Couple to Couple League. (In fact, I have had two unplanned pregnancies because I bent CCL rules that are not rules at all in Taking Charge of Your Fertility.) Weschler is also very clear in her books that charting in order to avoid pregnancy should only be used if one is in a mature and stable long-term relationship (this rules out middle schoolers and most high schoolers).

    If a sixth-grader is getting pregnant, then she has much bigger issues going on in her life than not knowing how to chart her menstrual cycle. There were sexually active girls when I was in middle school, and most of them had either high school or even college boyfriends with their parents’ approval. I hate to say it but it really doesn’t matter how much “sex education” a child has before or during middle school. If the parents haven’t established honesty, trust, discipline, and a basic respect for authority (parental and ecclesiastical) before their kid reaches middle school the game is probably lost. Kids that age start questioning the credibility of their parents to begin with…it’s even worse when there is no foundation to even question.

  16. I understand there is a link between weight and early menses. The aforementioned pregnant sixth graders were usually giant girls. However, it isn’t really relevant here as to why girls are going through puberty earlier, but the fact that they are makes it important for parents to have age-appropriate resources for young girls.

  17. Oh, and I thought of another book. “You’re Teaching My Child What?” by Dr. Miriam Grossman.

    I wouldn’t necessarily hand it over to my kids to read, but there has been information in that book that I have selectively parsed out to my kids. And it covers a lot of the scientific gaps that are common in mainstream sex education programs.

    • This Dr is coming to speak at a Family First conference in New Zealand next month. I’m looking forward to it!

  18. I know that pregnant sixth graders have a lot more problems than not charting. That was kind of tongue in cheek there. But they do represent some of the rot that surrounds young teenage girls. And the other girls (whose parents have not checked out) need good information that is age appropriate. I completely agree with you that waiting until puberty to establish a good and proper relationship with your children is a recipe for disaster.

  19. I worked for many years in a children’s bookstore, and I often had parents coming in to look for a book to start the sex discussions with their child. Strangely (to me, at least) usually a daughter. I guess sons weren’t provided with literature or something? Anyway, The Care and Keeping of You was what I always suggested as a starting point. It talked about puberty in general, rather than about sex specifically. But it offered down to earth information about body hair, physical changes, wearing deoderant, changes in the internal and external female body, etc. And it talked about periods, which is always what I was most interested in when I was 10 or so, not sex. That being said, it offered a good framework for the younger girl, and if parents felt that something beyond that was now called for, at least the girl had a basic understanding of her body. It’s hard to talk about sex when you still aren’t completely sure where your ovaries are, or to have a frank discussion about how hormones work in the menstrual cycle when you aren’t aware that they do other things to your body as well.

  20. I’m a middle school youth minister at a Catholic Church, teaching a weekly large group of about 200 of these lovely public school kids. (I ADORE them, and don’t care how crazy anyone thinks I am for doing so 😉 )

    We hit the sex subject every year. Obviously, more in-depth as they progress through the program. We don’t bother with the biology of it, since the schools do cover that pretty thoroughly. But we do cover the spirituality of it, pre-empting the “safe sex” stuff they get in school by a year or so (for now at least).

    For 6th, we just hit the “respecting your body and others’ bodies” and “temple of the Holy Spirit” kind of angle, since they’re so innocent at that age for the most part (at least in our smalltown area). But when they hit 7th, we get a little more strong, and 8th, they actually do a 4 week series using the Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition program. (So grateful they came out with a separate edition — we’d been having the TOB4T instructor just water down the high school edition.)

    My favorites beyond the Theology of the Body for Teens are Jason and Crystallina Evert at http://www.chastity.com (among other places you can find them — most of their videos and related videos are archived here!!) and Leah Darrow at http://www.leahdarrow.com. They are SO relatable for their age group, and funny enough to keep their attention and yet serious enough to get the message across. We’ve had Jason and Leah come in to speak different years, and they were each able to keep a middle school crowd’s RAPT attention for 45 minutes STRAIGHT: Clearly with the benefit of a huge dose of God’s grace, ha ha.

    Jason and Crystallina also wrote “His Body/Her Body”, a two-fold book from both the guy’s and girl’s perspective, which is fantastic, if you want to give your kid something to read in order to start a conversation.

    My major advice, though: LOVE your kid to the truth, and never ever be afraid of them; any time they act out, it’s because (at the heart of it all) they’re seeking love and affection the only ways they know how to do so.

  21. Apropos: Today I found a facedown copy of 1984 on my 10-year-old son’s bed. Open to the chapter that goes into the start of the sexual relationship between the main character and the woman, Julia. Immediately afterward I went to the library and asked the librarian *not* what book to get for him but, “How do you deal with a precocious, voracious reader who has gotten bored with the young stuff and is moving to his father’s shelf of classics..some of which you have forgotten contained frank sex talk and the suppression of sex acts as a theme?”

    Her advice was to keep talking to your kids. If they already read it, there is no point in freaking out or making a scene. But asking non-leading questions about what hey thought of the book can give you a good gauge about their attitudes.

    So we talk and he says to me, “Well, mom, it is interesting, it’s about Big Brother. AND a woman gets naked. In front of a man….. Also it looks at women in that way. The way you said the camera looks at women in Iron Man 2 so we weren’t allowed to see it. I know it’s wrong to do that but I just read around it.”

  22. My husband used the works of Elvis Presley to teach the topics of relationships to our kids. We are all musicians and writers, and it was a normal progression of other music-lyric discussions we had. It was really important for both of us that they understand the emotional manipulation that is in many relationships, and that is demonstrated so well in lots of pop music. Elvis has some real classics to teach this.

    I have a daughter with autism, and teaching her about her bodily functions was pretty difficult. Once they were happening it was easier because it was out of the realm of theory. There were no resources that were appropriate that I could find when she was younger (she’s 21 now), so her sister, her father, and I essentially made up our own curriculum.

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