High-Stakes Game Of Birds And Bees


February 28, 1993|By MIKE BURNS | MIKE BURNS,Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

There's hardly a more agonizing experience for parents than to explain the facts of life, the birds and the bees, to their children.

Many simply avoid the issue. Others end up raising more questions or arousing suspicions, by foggy explanations and evasive answers. Few do it well, and none can say he or she is totally satisfied with the delicate effort.

There are a lot of straightforward, illustrated books on the subject, but it's the rare father or mother who can sit down and go through the simple, yet infinitely complicated subject that remains taboo for parent and child.

The stakes have always been high -- unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, psychological trauma -- and they've become even higher over the last decade with the appearance of deadly, incurable AIDS. The lessons have to be taught, even if they are much more painful for the teacher than for the pupil. That leads a lot of parents to say, "Let the schools do it."

For decades, there's been a division between those who are relieved to let the classroom teachers, with film strips or videos or approved textbooks, explain the mystery of human sexual activity and those who adamantly oppose that abdication of parental responsibility. Some parents insist that it must have a religious context.

But regardless of how parents hope that their pubescent offspring will learn these lessons of life, the reality is that most of these kids will learn from other kids, from the street, from forbidden "adult" books and films, from sensual experimentation.

And that's a pretty haphazard way to learn, as most adults would admit. The range in learning levels at the same age is excessively wide.

That's one of the strongest arguments for having a good grounding in sex education in the schools, where all students of an age have the opportunity for learning without fear or ridicule or embarrassment. It won't be the complete lesson, but it can provide a base for coping with the perplexing challenges of human sexual experience.

"Secrets," the controversial sex/AIDS education playlet that was performed in Harford high schools this academic year, travels from the street to the classroom to the home in bringing the deadly serious message that AIDS kills.

With a mixture of humor and tragedy and music, the theatrical presentation tells youngsters very bluntly that unsafe sexual behavior and shared drug needles are the ways the virus is transmitted.

Yes, the playlet mentions several means of "safe sex" for disease prevention and contraception, but it by no means preaches promiscuity. The young actors talk about sexual abstinence; and if there is any way to restrain the young libido, this sobering series of scenes should do it.

This may not be the best program ever devised for presenting the lesson that needs to be taught. But it seems well suited for the MTV generation, even if its open teen-talk about sex embarrasses or angers some.

That's a big problem for adults: putting yourself back into an adolescent mind to really understand how to effectively communicate on this subject. And that's why "Secrets" has a better chance to get through to its audience than the classroom chalk talk or the living room chat. It uses young people exclusively to talk to young people -- live and in person, not on a film.

No local subject in recent years has provoked as many emotional yet thoughtful letters to the editor from Harford readers as the school board's decision to approve that play, developed for nationwide use by the Kaiser Permanente health management organization.

Its use became a legitimate local political issue. The Harford board has decided to use "Secrets" in high schools again next year. And parents will again have the right to keep their children from attending the performance.

There is a genuine concern in the community about the playlet's bluntness, the tone, the unsaid warnings that should have been emphasized, the promotion of negative racial stereotypes. And there is a belief by many that such topics are best discussed at home, or at least outside the school.

One hopes that the matter is frankly discussed at home. And in other places where truthful, honest information is available, in youth organizations and in churches and synagogues. And that this subject is not just left to the school system to handle, because the consequences are deadly; the blinder approach and the blame approach have failed miserably. The prevalence of AIDS among younger age groups is growing at an alarming rate, mainly the result of sexual activity.

"Secrets" will not prevent sexual misadventures by every youth who sees it. Neither will it necessarily encourage dangerous experimentation. Youth will make blunders in painfully finding its own way. The "my kid wouldn't do that" theory is too often proved wrong.

But the drama can provide an important education for youth on a vital subject, regardless of how these teen-agers choose to use that information.

And if parents, those who object to the play and those who don't, fulfill their proper roles in moral instruction, their children will have a better chance of maturely coping with the dilemmas of human sexuality.

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