'Created by God' sex education targets pre-teens -- and parents
Jan Snider, Aug 2, 2006
The fifth- and sixth-graders filing into the church classroom have the enthusiasm of a slew of sloths.
After all, their parents insisted that they spend the weekend learning about, of all things, sex. Well, not sex exactly, but pending puberty and the physical and emotional changes these pre-teens are beginning to experience.
As they roll their eyes and fluff the pillows they've brought from home, the kids settle on the floor to hear what the Rev. James Ritchie has to say. He is an ordained United Methodist minister and author of the "Created by God" sex-education curriculum.
Designed under the auspices of the United Methodist Publishing House, the program is a comprehensive look at human sexuality, coupled with a faith foundation.
Dr. Ritchie picks up his guitar and begins singing about "he-bodies" and "she-bodies" as he lyrically affirms that we are all "wonderful, marvelous, glorious" creations of God. After the song, he holds up the kids' self-portraits, which depict their facial expressions when their parents told them they would spend the next three days involved in the course.
"It is a great cathartic experience for the kids," he says. "They get all their feelings out about not wanting to be there, the basketball games, the soccer games they're missing, the birthday parties, whatever, or just their basic resistance."
But somewhere amid the songs, the artwork and the get-to-know-you exercises, it finally occurs to his audience that this classroom isn't like anything in school. "Created by God" is an opportunity for the kids to open the door to communicating about their sexuality.
Dr. Ritchie travels the country as a facilitator at churches. Group leaders are recruited at the local level to help. While a church can present the study on its own, congregations often opt to have Dr. Ritchie come in to discuss this sensitive material.
"Churches are more comfortable bringing in an outside resource person to do that," he says.
The kids call him "Dr. J," a nickname that began at his local church in Pennsylvania. "When I put on my 'Dr. J.' nametag, it's like putting on your superhero suit," he explains. "I can answer any question the kids ask."
Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., hosts the seminar every two years. Rebecca Griffeth, director of children's ministries, says the study opens up communication between children and their parents.
On the first evening of the study, Dr. Ritchie exposes parents to some of the material their children will cover. He begins by handing out cards with anatomical terms. Within minutes, the parents whisper and laugh nervously as they read words that are more often spoken by physicians than heard in passing conversation.
The vocabulary is necessary, however, to connect parents and kids in conversation.
"Parents and kids are saying words that have never come across their lips before," Dr. Ritchie says. "All of a sudden they have the communication tools, they've had this experience, they have a common vocabulary to work from."
Laughter is essential in situations like this, he adds. "It's not because we're trivializing the whole issue of God's gift of sexuality, but it's because it's just sort of the way we're wired. It's one of those things that helps us get beyond it."
During the study, kids have the freedom to ask any question they want by putting their queries on index cards and leaving them in a "question box."
Their curiosity ranges from, "Why does it hurt to get kicked in the groin?" to such weighty questions as, "How can I be popular and not have sex?"
Kids often ask for definitions to particular slang terms. Dr. Ritchie has no qualms about using them and connecting additional street language to their queries. He then introduces the correct vocabulary and discusses word meanings and implications.
"They feel like they're safe and respected, and in that context they're willing to ask all the questions they have. And they have a lot of them," he says.
"There are times when kids ask questions for which there is no answer. And sometimes, the response is, 'This is one of those things you need to talk to your parents about.'"
Boys and girls take the course together. Boys ask questions about girls and vice versa. Dr. Ritchie directs the kids to be sensitive to the other sex about their changing bodies and not to tease one another. By the second day, the kids are much more comfortable saying the terms and talking with adult facilitators.
During the study, Dr. Ritchie stresses the importance of waiting to have sexual relations until marriage, the wisdom of dating in groups, the celebration of one's own body and its rate of development, and the need to continue dialogue with parents and trusted individuals.
Parents whose children have gone through the study have reported to him that the "wait until marriage" message hit home. Dr. Ritchie recalls a father approaching him four years after his son went through the program. "He said, 'My son says that he traces his whole value system around sexuality back to his involvement in 'Created by God.'"
This method of addressing human sexuality is not embraced by many churches, but Ms. Griffeth is a staunch advocate of the study.
"What other place than church are we supposed to come together and discuss the difficult subjects in life?" she asks. "Church is one of the foundational places where children learn about who they are and how they fit into the world. It is imperative that children learn that they are part of God's creation, and as part of creation, they are created to be sexual beings."
Dr. Ritchie says his work allows him the opportunity to respond to a clear calling of the United Methodist Church. The church's Social Principles, he says, outline a commitment to children.
"We are responsible for being advocates, making sure that children have access -- actually that all ages have access -- to education related to human sexuality," he says. "I think it really is responding to what's in the (Book of) Discipline, telling us that this is what we should be doing as United Methodists."
This story was distributed by the United Methodist News Service. For more UMNS stories, see www.umc.org.