By Mana Holman
“Guide me, Lord, to raise my kids to be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ it.” This has been a regular prayer since my kids became teens.
I’m a pastor’s wife (a calling in itself!), raising kids under the constant gaze of others. Our relationships and time commitments center on our church family. The local schools were the primary connectors for us to other parents and kids in our community. I wanted our three kids to engage with the world as Christ’s kids. For their elementary years, this worked well for all of us.
When my eldest kid started middle school, things began to shift. He went from a school with 300 kids where I knew all the teachers to one four times its size.
While my son did well and had a great friend group, education in this great middle school in a good school district seemed increasingly impersonal and distant. I learned what was happening at school from e-bulletins and notices.
In the spring of 2017, I received a notice about a new comprehensive sex ed curriculum that would be taught to all 7th graders. A California law had been passed several years earlier mandating a “comprehensive sex education curriculum,” and this new curriculum “complied with the law”. Parents were invited to review it and attend a meeting to discuss it. Parents also could notify the school if they wished their child to not participate. All standard parental notifications.
When my husband and I reviewed the curriculum, we were shocked. The first lesson defined terms: biological sex = sex assigned at birth, gender was fluid on a continuum in expression, identity, and attraction, a person who identified as a gender that matched biological sex = cisgender, etc. The Genderbread person graphic was used to explain the terms. The primary messages appeared to be 1) gender as social construct (gender theory) and 2) questioning/non-acceptance of LGBTQ students caused harm. The curriculum also covered HIV, abuse recognition, handling peer pressure, and pregnancy prevention, including a passing mention of abstinence. This comprehensive sex ed curriculum would be taught in science class over 5-10 days (teacher’s discretion).
We were concerned this curriculum—which was pushing gender theory as settled fact—would be taught in science class with no option for dissenting views. I spoke with the principal and the lead science teacher tasked with rolling out the new curriculum district-wide. I told them this curriculum was not developmentally appropriate for 7th graders: gender theory is complicated enough for adults, much less 12-13 year-old’s dealing with puberty! I sensed these adults shared some of my concerns, yet their primary concern was to follow the new law.
After much thought and prayer, my husband and I decided to pull our kids out from the sex ed unit, and we told them why. Of course, they didn’t like being singled out as the kid that left the class. We talked about that, too. I also reached out to other moms, to make sure they understood this was a new curriculum, not the benign one their older kids had. Most thanked me and, without reviewing the material, decided it was harmless. A school administrator told me we were the only parents to review the materials (out of 600 families).
This experience taught me a few things:
- Pay attention to the notices that come from school! Our frantic pace of life makes this difficult, but it’s important.
- Follow up with any concerns directly to people who have the ability to address them. Once I realized the principal/other district folk were simply doing what was passed down to them, I understood the forces at work were at a higher level. Another law is currently being written in CA that further strengthens this sort of comprehensive sex ed and makes it mandatory for all students (no parental notification, no opt out) beginning in early elementary school. This push to teach gender theory is heavily funded. I have heard that many other states have similar laws being written.
- Pray for God’s wisdom to discern what He is leading me to do. While some are called to lobby at the state level, I realized this was not my fight for now, in light of existing commitments and my primary calling to raise my kids in these fleeting years. I am happy to learn, advocate, and support, but I cannot lead that important effort.
- Be willing to revisit my convictions on school setting. Once I began asking questions about the education that was being offered, I needed to consider it for my particular kids.These are deeply personal and complex decisions that affect many aspects of our family life.
I had always believed school was a place to learn academics and social skills. I now understand my child’s school also teaches values: it is not a value-neutral place. My child is learning all the time, from other students and from what the teachers say and teach. Since this sex ed curriculum defines harassment as “non-acceptance” of LGBTQ kids, the curriculum in effect shuts down any possibility for my child and others to question what they hear for fear of being a bully or causing harm.
Why was this issue so important for me? Believe me, sex ed was not something I thought much about before it was put right before me. I kept procrastinating about talking about sex with my kids, other than in a very general way. Yet, as my kids grew older, I saw many confusing messages coming from TV shows, song lyrics, movies, and billboards.
As a parent of two teens and one tween, I see the confusion and stress surrounding my kids in our hyper sexualized culture every day. They constantly receive messages about their identity — who they are and who they want to be. This new sex ed curriculum gave us an opportunity to talk frankly about what the school curriculum teaches about sexuality and sexual identity: that we alone determine who/what we think or feel we are. We contrasted this with what we, as Christian parents, believe: we look to our Creator God alone, who loves us perfectly to learn who/what we are. Our sexuality falls under His design, not our own.
I am not naive: choosing to pull my kids out from a class in 7th grade doesn’t protect them forever. I know confusing messages about sexuality and identity are all around. Yet I am grateful this experience helped my husband and I think long and hard about our responsibility to shepherd our precious kids and to start an ongoing conversation with them about the messages they see and hear as they navigate growing up.
Lastly, I have realized I have a responsibility to other parents in my church family (and among friends) who are also navigating these tricky times with their kids. When I initiate conversations about some of these things with other parents, I typically hear others struggling with how to teach God’s truth. No one wants to sound judge-y or legalistic! Yet anyone with eyes wide open can see that the sexual messages coming from everywhere confuses our kids.
- Pastors need to talk about God’s wisdom in relationships and sexuality from the pulpit with wisdom and clarity instead of avoiding it. Other voices are very loud proclaiming sexual freedom and fulfillment. If Godly voices are quiet, only one side is being heard.
- Youth leaders need a good curriculum to teach God’s truth about relationships, which starts from our identity in Christ, not merely “right behavior.” I plan on using AFL’s Abundant Life: You Were Made For More curriculum with other parents and with my teens (unless my youth leader does it first!). I looked for something like this a few years ago and came up empty. How great it’s now available!
Mana is married to Rev. Rob Holman and has three lively children: Mitchell, Miko, and Benjamin. The family lives in California, where they seek to proclaim God’s life-giving and transforming love to those around them.