A good life, depending on her decisions

April 15, 1997|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is usually the home of the wealthy and successful. But last week, it played host to a crowd that doesn't get there much. Inner-city girls from the ages of 9 to 18 gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Best Friends, an abstinence program that works.

The conventional wisdom is familiar: It is simply not possible to teach kids to abstain from sex. Their hormones forbid it. Yes, indeed, hormones surge through kids these days as they never have before in the whole history of the human race.

Elayne Bennett, founder of Best Friends (and wife of former Education Secretary William Bennett) decided to challenge the conventional wisdom with a program for girls that would stress abstinence from sex and drugs, positive role models and self-respect.

That's self-respect, not self-esteem, the current fad that hopes to boost the confidence of kids by teaching them imaginary history about their ancestors. The Best Friends message is a bit closer to home: that each child has it within her grasp to achieve a good and even a noble life. Everything depends upon the decisions she makes.

About character

A casual observer might suppose that the Best Friends program is about dance, or camaraderie, or fitness, or knowledge, or community service. But the girls know that it's really about character. Nine-year-old Katie Pantoja of Kagel Elementary School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, told the Kennedy Center crowd that Best Friends means ''enjoying being a child, not raising one.''

Best Friends provides a range of activities and instruction for girls starting in the fifth grade. They are taught how to distinguish a good friend from a destructive one, how to make realistic plans for their futures and work toward goals, and, most of all, how to handle the delicate matter of boys.

Elayne Bennett and the other teachers in the program are not anti-male. But they approach the issue of sex with humor and detachment. The Best Friends curriculum includes a list of ''lines'' boys have been known to use to persuade girls into having sex. Here's a sample: ''What are you afraid of? Don't be a baby.'' ''You're awfully uptight. Sex is a great relaxer.'' ''If you really loved me, you would.''

Thus armed, the girls are ready when boys come importuning for sex. Some of the boys do leave when they discover that abstinence is the order of the day. But those who stay respect the girls' integrity. ''I've never seen boys this age [13] act like such gentlemen,'' marveled Angela Rice, a Best Friends teacher in Washington, ''as when they escorted the Best Friends girls to a concert.''

Following its success in the capital, Best Friends expanded to 14 other cities, including Newark, New Jersey, Milwaukee and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Promising results

According to a 1995 survey of the Best Friends program in Washington by David Rowberry, only 4 percent of Best Friends girls had had sex by age 15, compared with 63 percent of girls in the District of Columbia generally.

Among girls who participate in Best Friends, only 1 percent become pregnant -- compared with 26 percent of their peers in the district school system. A 1996 survey of 1,100 Best Friends girls nationwide found that 96 percent were drug-free and sexually abstinent throughout their school years.

Alma Powell (wife of Colin), Renee Pouissant of ABC and Donna Britt, a Washington Post columnist, have been among the many successful black women who have taken the time to visit Best Friends and answer questions about their lives (Mrs. Powell is also on the organization's board). Mrs. Bennett has organized tours for the older girls to TV stations, ballet companies and newspapers to fire the girls' imaginations about possible careers.

This program works. It is demeaning to treat teen-agers as mere bundles of hormones unable to control themselves. Best Friends regards these girls as what they are: human beings who need clear guidance but who possess a divine spark and an infinite capacity for good. In the words of Yasmin Rice, a Best Friends graduate, ''When the time comes for me to leave home, I want my parents to say, 'I wonder what my daughter will become?' not 'What will become of my daughter?' ''

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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