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REAL LIFE

'90s FAMILY : A Class About Sex for Parents and Teens

November 22, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tired of talk about declining family values? Want action?

According to a recent family values study by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., most Americans do, but only about half think public institutions should be teaching values. The majority believes values are instilled in the home.

But when it comes to the highly charged matter of sex education, sometimes neither parents nor schools come through. "It's a no-win situation as it stands now," says one mother. "There's a lot of pressure from religious groups to keep that kind of thing in the home," she says. On the other hand, she says, "I want to tell my son a lot more than what my parents told me, which was virtually nothing." She wants help.

She and I and four other parents signed up for what looks like a promising solution: a novel six-week program in sex education for parents and their teen-agers. Funded by the California Office of Family Planning, the class is taught at various sites in Orange County by the Orange-based Coalition for Children, Adolescents and Parents, a nonprofit group aimed at preventing unintended teen pregnancies.

Sharing Healthy Adolescent and Parent Experiences (SHAPE) is offered in two programs, one tailored for 9-to-12-year-olds, the other for 13-to-15-year-olds. Our class, for the older group, had two girls, four boys, five mothers and one aunt.

Needless to say, some kids had to be dragged to come with their mothers to a course on sex. One 15-year-old boy agreed to come only after his mother coughed up a $10 bribe--per class.

Twelve-year-old Alexis Ary said she had already sat through sex ed classes in elementary school. "I thought it was going to be stupid. I'm not going to learn anything."

Within two weeks, my daughter Amanda, 14, and the others started realizing they were learning more in the two-hour classes than they had in school or at home. Do you remember ever having a sex ed class where participants play "Reproduction Jeopardy," trying to come up with questions like, "What is withdrawal?" (the least effective form of birth control) or "What is 12?" (the age a person can get birth control without parental consent).

As cheerful and unflappable as Dr. Ruth, our teacher, Linda Leser, charted a careful, apolitical path through the sex ed minefield, bringing up the sometimes banned topics of abortion and homosexuality and also abstinence as a positive--and the only foolproof--way to avoid getting pregnant.

After each class, we could each submit anonymous questions to her. Each week, there was a drawing to take home "Baby Think It Over," an electronically activated doll that cries annoyingly in a random pattern, just like a real infant.

By the end of the class, both the parents and kids not only knew all the right answers to "Reproduction Jeopardy," but also all sorts of details about male and female anatomy, childbirth and healthy and unhealthy relationships. Most parents said they didn't have the knowledge themselves to have been able to explain some of the new forms of contraception, such as film or the female condom.

The program's creators are now testing participants to determine whether the classes are more effective with or without parents.

Alexis said she liked coming with her mother, Pat. "On the way home, you could talk to somebody about the class and ask questions," she said.

Loretta Cunningham, a SHAPE teacher who came with her son Jeff, said, "At least it opens up a lot of communication that may never have been opened up otherwise. It tells the teen, 'My parent is now approachable on this subject.' "

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