I had an interesting experience at the middle school where I teach that got me thinking about teaching kids to stay away from risky behaviors. A teacher shared a letter with me written between two 8th grade female students. The letter had some pretty explicit language about sexual experiences that these girls had been involved in. Both girls commented that they didn’t think their parents cared if they had sex, just when and how they had it. When I finished my conversation with this teacher I walked to another room where an 8th grade boy was having a conversation with a member of the school staff. He explained to the staff member about a code of health that he followed based on his religious beliefs. The staff member seemed shocked at the seemingly strict code, but the boy seemed happy, almost excited, to follow the code.
These two contrasting incidents highlighted for me the importance of value based teaching. Most parents want their children to abstain from sexual activity and dangerous substances. Most parents teach their children to stay away from these things, at least while they are young. Why then, do so many children become involved in risky behaviors at a young age? The key is teaching values, not just behaviors. When children are taught that they should stay away from risky behaviors, but there is no underlying value to support their abstinence the pull to stay away is short lived. The longest lasting lessons are those that are tied to stable belief systems and accountability checks. Stable belief systems can be found in many religions and in some value-based organizations. Those that require members to take an oath or promise, along with some system of accountability, are more likely to be successful.
So, if you want to teach your children to abstain, you will be more likely to find success if you tie those teachings to a stable belief system.