Thursday, June 26, 2008

Building Confident Young Women

In the past, when I have been interviewed for ministry related positions I have had many individuals get stuck when they read my educational and research related experience. Yes, my major is pretty banal (psychology) yet my minor is what tends to raise eyebrows occassionally - sociology with a concentration in human sexuality.

What's a nice, Christian girl like me doing studying such a topic as SEX you might ask? Actually, the assumptions begin to fly through some knuckle-dragging neanderthal's heads when they also see that I have been a card-carrying member of the Episcopal Church and strongly moving towards ordination to the priesthood at one time in my life. All of a sudden I have to clarify some interesting stereotypes.

Yet the reality is that for far too long many in the more conservative world have discounted the role of sexuality in the church and in the lives of Christ followers. Sex is a good thing. It is a gift given to us by the Creator to enjoy within the proper confines. We live in a hypersexualized culture. The messages that surround us are grounded in misconstrued sexual images. Men and women are objectified rather than respected. Perceptions of what constitutes beauty are contorted to where they no longer represent reality.

My undergraduate thesis surrounded the pressures on youth with regards to sexuality and sexual activity. We'd like to think that our youth are all being abstinent, yet Jennifer Parker writes in a March/April 2003 issue of Christianity Today that "specific studies of sexual trends among Christian teens have been limited, but all indications are that, on average, there is little difference between their sexual behavior and that of non-Christian youths, other than a tendency to delay their first sexual experience slightly longer." My thesis and belief was if we can provide small group learning experiences, coupled with increasing a youths positive self concept and emotional stability their ability to make choices which include abstinance would increase and/or continue to raise the age of first encounters. At the time, research was very limited on the outcomes, yet longitudinal and anecdotal evidence does indiate that teens who foster spiritual and social relationships within a church or parachurch setting do seem to do better than their counterparts with abstinence issues.

So, how do we begin to encourage and educate our children? As soon as they begin to recognize body parts. Use language that is age appropriate when explaining to children their body. Don't use baby language. Begin to affirm the beauty of their bodies, how uniquely they are created by God. As our children begin to mature, I hope that the children's ministries of the future will have a safe place for girls and guys to begin to address the changes and challenges that begin in their preteen years.

This past week we began our first foray into this realm. After listening to many parents, I began to discover that Christian parents are also at a loss as to how to begin to walk their children through the begining stages of adolescence. Many feel ill equipped because of the decisions they made in their youth; others struggle with how little/much to share and when to do so. Still others struggle with what is an appropriate way to introduce their children to the larger issues that they will undoubtedly face in life, school and social settings - and yes, even in the Church. After several months of research and finding parents comfort levels, discussing the desire to start a group such as this with my EP and getting his support and buy-in, "Faith Girlz" was born.

"Faith Girlz" is a seven-week small group experience for preteen girls in 4th-6th grades. Our first small group experience covers the beginning issues that our youngest preteens are beginning to experience. Health and nutrition; Exercise; Clothing; Self-Respect; Media Influences; Body Care are all tackled. Our 90 minute group time includes a check in period where the girls give feedback on their weekly assignments and their reading. We then have a 30 minute presentation on the topic with time for questions and feedback. A project that allows time to begin assimilating the information follows followed by an opportunity to ground the topic in Scripture.

Our first meeting was this past week - and VERY exciting! We had to increase the size twice to fit in all the requests and have 13 young girls participating in this group. Oh they fit the demographics of pre-teen girls so well. This past week we set out our expectations for small groups, introduced the first word in our faith girlz vocabulary (puberty) and discussed nutrition. We created our personal food pyramids on large conference sized post-it's and labeled our favorite foods in each appropriate section (based on the new USDA's Food Pyramid) Finally, we enjoyed healthy snacks and created a fruit smoothie with a surprise of cabbage and carrot included! Our dare for the week is to find and prepare (and eat!) a new fruit or vegetable or find a way to prepare a fruit or vegetable that the girls do not like.

The response from the girls was that the time was a hit. From parents the feedback almost immediately was astounding. One mom wrote me in an email:

"_______ really enjoyed faith girls, part one! I am working to rearrange our vacation times so she won't miss any of them. I am so excited that you've started this opportunity for the girls because honestly, half the time I find myself struggling with what to say to my little 'preteen.'

Pending the response of this group, we will look into a second in the series on exploring physical, social and emotional changes. This one would be done with parents participation - including medical, social and psychological experts to help guide parents in dealing with important questions.

I also want to have a group similar to this for young boys called "God Guys." It's interesting that I am finding it a challenge to get two young men to facilitate the group. I don't know if it is due to fear an apprehension which I wouldn't be surprised or challenges with regards to their own adolescent experiences. If anyone wants to chime in on reasons they believe the reluctance might be there I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, June 12, 2008