Catholic Patheosi, Elizabeth Husted Duffy, posts her suggestions on what a “true” sexual education out to look like. I like and agree with all of her recommendations and I encourage you to check them out forthwith.
One point I thought could benefit from a little more reflection, though, is Elizabeth’s initial reaction to a call she received during a recent radio interview. She says….
One mother called into the show wondering about how to present the Theology of the Body to her ten-year-old daughter. My answer, or rather, my non-answer was that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was developed over a series of audiences during the seventies and eighties. It makes for complex and sometimes difficult reading, and many intelligent minds disagree on its practical application. I think it might be a mistake to use Theology of the Body as a starting point for thinking about or talking to our kids about sex.
I would both agree and disagree with her point. For example; if you see TOB as a series of philosophical reflections on the nature of the person broken up into 130-ish segments and delivered over 5 years and intended for a largely academic audience, well, yeah. TOB would be a terrible place to start talking to kids about sex–or anything for that matter.
This view of TOB is certainly correct as far as it goes, but I would respectfully suggest that it misses the larger point, and this would be where I have my limited disagreement with Elizabeth’s otherwise terrific post.
What Does it all Mean?
Pope John Paul II said that he developed TOB in an attempt to provide people with an “adequate anthropology.” What does that mean? Well, you’ve probably noticed that lots of people have lots of different opinions about what it means to be a healthy person, what it means to be in a healthy relationship, what it means to be authentically Christian, and even what it means to be authentically Catholic. When Pope John Paul II said he wanted to present an “adequate anthropology” he meant he was presenting his answer to those questions.
If we accept that he knew what he was talking about, then I think that makes the case for why it is completely appropriate to ask the question, “How do I teach TOB to a 10yo?” Or a 7yo, or a 4yo, or a baby for that matter.
Well, again, if TOB is just a phenomenological reflection on both the Book of Genesis and the nature of embodied love, then TOB would be a tremendously stupid place to start the sexual formation of any child. BUT, if the TOB simply uses this academic reflection as a launching off point to answer the rather profound but straightforward questions I mentioned above, then its exactly the place to start. What parent doesn’t want their child to know what it means to be a healthy person, to be in a healthy relationship, and what it means to be an authentically Catholic Christian person?
TOB proposes to help parents answer exactly these questions.
TOB: A Lesson Plan
Another reason the TOB is exactly the place to start the sexual education of our children is that it gives a parent the lens through which to apply all the other recommendations Elizabeth makes. She is absolutely right to recommend teaching children the bible, the catechism, the rules, and being a good model of love in marriage. But there are lots of different ways to do these things.
For instance, there are many ways to read the Bible (a book of stories? a book of commands? a book that proclaims an angry God? a book that proclaims a cuddly God? etc.). TOB gives Catholics a very specific lens through which to read the bible (e.g., a book that reveals the evolving love story between God and his people; a story that begins and ends in nuptial union with God).Likewise, there are many different ways one could view the Catechism (a book of rules? a book of answers? a doorstop? etc.). TOB gives Catholics a very specific lens through which to view the Catechism (e.g., a book the reveals the basics of our quest to understand the heart of God and his plan for humankind).
Similarly, there are many ways we could teach morality (a list of don’ts?, a list of reasons “God’s gonna getcha”?, a list of ways to be impure? etc.). TOB gives us a very specific way of talking about morality (e.g., a call to love ourselves and others as persons instead of viewing ourselves and others as things).
Finally, lots of couples think they are presenting a healthy model of love in their homes (be strict? be indulgent? put kids first? put marriage first? put work first? use contraception? be providentialist? etc.). TOB provides a very specific model of what love looks like (e.g., it is embodied, dedicated to meeting the needs of the “unique and unrepeatable” other, and always images the intimate and extravagant nature of God’s love for us).
Teaching a 10yo TOB
Teaching TOB to a 10yo, or a 5yo or a baby doesn’t mean sitting them down and saying, “Repeat after me, child. ‘The body and it alone makes visible that which is invisible…’ “)
Oy, vey. I can’t imagine something more stupid or horrible. Elizabeth and anyone else would be absolutely right to be allergic to that idea. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what teaching TOB to kids really means.
I would suggest that teaching TOB to kids means presenting the Bible as the love story between God and his people that begins and ends in union with him. It means discussing the Catechism in a manner that conveys that it reveals the basics of our quest to understand the intimate heart of God and his loving plan for his people. It means discussing morality, not in terms of rules and punishments and lines we may tiptoe up to but never cross, but as a guide to what it means to be truly loving to ourselves and others. And it means presenting a model of love that is openly physically affectionate, ordered to meeting the unique needs of every family member, is extravagantly generous (and expects extravagant generosity in return), and is rooted in a life of both communal and individual prayer.
Anytime parents do these things, they are teaching TOB to their kids. TOB isn’t supposed to be a subject we study. If that’s all it is, then it is useless even as an intellectual exercise. As an “adequate anthropology” TOB was always intended to be a message we live; the internal structure that guides our thinking, relating, and decision making as we live the gospel of Jesus Christ and labor to build his Kingdom (aka the “Civilization of Love.”)
TOB Not an Idea. A Way of Life.
TOB’s power is not as an intellectual property. It’s power is as a lifestyle that takes our narcissistic, disposable culture by the collar and shocks it into reality through both a stunning display of what real, self-donative love looks like and by bearing witness to the amazing ability self-donative love has to facilitate the flourishing of the human person.
And I do happen to think those are lessons that are worth conveying to a child of any age.
If you’re interested in how to make these lessons a reality in your family, I’d invite you to check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids and for a look at what it means to build a family around the principles of the TOB, pick up a copy of Parenting with Grace: A Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.