My teen years landed smack in the middle of purity culture’s best intentions—which admittedly got a lot of things right, but a lot of things wrong. I was warned of time alone in a car with a boy. Gratuitous emotional attachment. The power of cleavage.
But if I were to visit my younger self, I’d focus on a more significant complication: my identity.
No, I didn’t sleep with someone before marriage. But I was wooed by a near eating disorder, top-of-class performance as a human doormat, and insatiable hunger for validation from boys and other Christians. When sexual purity became a spiritual barometer, moral performance welded itself to my sense of worth, even in God’s eyes (or so I thought). I quickly chose a shiny exterior.
Maybe your experience growing up was like mine. I was good at obeying, but I was poor at thinking critically. When it came to sex and dating, I faithfully drank the Kool Aid of formulaic, fear-based interpretations of God’s Word.
Convictions were easier for me to establish than a sense of worth. And the resulting undertow proved perilous.
For this overachieving people-pleaser, my cravings simply “got religion” and a little moral lipstick. I see now that teaching my own kids about sex and other spiritual life skills involves cultivating an identity and a voice honed by the Holy Spirit … rather than other people.
Maybe identity and sex were mixed up for you in a completely different way. You may have felt like damaged goods, internalizing and maybe acting from profound shame. Or maybe the gaping holes in your soul led to serial dating, belittling others, or fear of relationships altogether./p>
Sex, lies, and sieves
Don’t miss this: To kids flailing to understand who they are, a misled sense of identity can undermine our efforts for their sexual integrity. And even a misguided pursuit of sexual purity can reinforce performance-tinged lies about identity.
But I couldn’t hear Him, couldn’t fill up on that satisfying love. And in that loss and instability, approval, control, and performance seemed like the meal replacements I was starving for (see Isaiah 55:1-3). My insecurity’s imbalance led to flirtatiousness and gaps I longed to have occupied by guys.
Pastor Henri Nouwen said we believe three lies about why we’re valuable:
• I am what I do. (I’m talented, helpful, or unique.)
• I am what others say or think about me. (I’m loved or respected.)
• I am what I have. (I want control, comfort, or safety. I have family, friends, possessions, or reputation.)
These lies taunt us every day—inflating the balloon of our ego when everything works out, deflating us when it doesn’t. Tragically, these lies never deliver fulfillment.
As a parent, I see that I carry some of my own gaps on to my kids. (Even our kids’ success or failure on the sexual journey impacts a parent’s sense of worth!)
Which of Nouwen’s lies are most tempting to your kids? To you?
You are more than this: Shaping an identity that protects
It’s like God’s words in Jeremiah 2:13 imply: “My people have committed a compound sin: they’ve walked out on me, the fountain of fresh flowing waters, and then dug cisterns—cisterns that leak, cisterns that are no better than sieves” (MSG).
God gives us and our kids unchanging, solid value. He tugs us out of the daily courtroom determining our worth. Because:
You don’t have to keep wearing yourself out! He whispers.You’re my deeply beloved child. It’s who you are. It’s why you matter.
Not their likes on social media, sexual orientation, or superior moral choices.
And His is the only voice in the universe worthy of naming us. This truth, spoken by the Word, can be invalidated by nothing. We must only receive it, rejecting false selves.
What can healthy identity messages around sex sound like?
I can tie my kids’ sexual identity to what Jesus has said about them and done for them by communicating truths like these:
- Even if you mess up, Jesus has done enough.
- We’re all broken sexually. You don’t have to pretend to be morally “clean.” It’s Jesus who makes us holy, not you coming to Him with all the boxes checked.
- God made your body and emotions. You can listen to what they’re saying and bring that to Him. Both your body and emotions communicate valuable information (including about what isn’t safe)! Hating your body, emotions, or self isn’t holy. You are loved by God as you are.
- When something makes you feel “dirty,” guilty, or bad, you can run toward God, bringing Him everything. God accepts us because of Jesus.
- You don’t need to be the attractive person. The unique person. The popular person. The desired person. The person with someone on their arm. You are already precious to God.
- You don’t need to stay in a damaging friendship or dating relationship. God declares you valuable and gives you what you need—which they can’t give.
- You are a deeply beloved child of God, living among others God loves. You can treat your body, your voice, and every person in your community with honor and respect.
Talking to kids about sex: “Caught” more than taught
Our kids are always watching—and smarter than we think they are, right? Your lived example of identity—your relationship to your own body, how you respond to your own and others’ stories, failures, or successes, what life goals you consider worthy—will be far more powerful than words. Try ways like these for still-in-process parents to show and tell of an identity rooted in God’s love:
- Live in a way that shows Jesus is your ultimate identity. Through our words and our lives, we as parents can demonstrate that we wholeheartedly choose Jesus as King over every affection, every other identity.
This might be demonstrated in the way you respond to your lack of housekeeping perfection or your child not making that audition. It could mean you work at being more present in conversation with your kids than your to-do list. Or that when you work out or choose clothing, it’s because you want to honor God more than vanity or fear. Your child might see it in how you react to conflict—when you lose control, comfort, safety, or someone attempts to dominate you.
- Practice your unshocked face. Convey your kids can come to you with anything. From the time kids are small, talk about sex matter-of-factly and with emotional wholeness. Kids gain the idea they can trust us, and they can bring themselves, their issues with friends, and their questions as they are. Without us being horrified by their humanity.
- Be the first to apologize when you mess up. Generating a culture of humility, confession, and forgiveness can help remove the pressure of self-righteousness and false pretenses (i.e., false identity). Rather than your perfection as a parent, give kids the idea that we all need Jesus here.
- Continue to work toward your own lifelong sexual wholeness. Have pockets of sexual shame or wounding you’ve ignored for years? Is it hard to embrace God’s gift of your body and sexuality because of unbalanced messages from your past? Welcome to the club! Model for your child the courage and conviction needed to keep pursuing healing, freedom, and truth.
- Nix the judginess. Your emotional safety is assessed long before it’s tested. Without it, you may lose the relational bridge allowing you to speak into your child’s identity.
Say you have a teen dealing with same-sex attraction. He hears you, in the comfort of your home, berate a guy caught sexting. Or dole out an outspoken opinion on alcohol. If I were in his Nikes, I’m thinking, If they’re convinced a margarita is a sin, I can imagine what they’d say to urges of a more questionable caliber.
This doesn’t mean we don’t discern. Judging others creates “us/them” categories, where one superior category of people condemns the other. Loving discernment remembers we’re all equal at the cross. It offers hope and unity as we bear the burden of sin and weakness together (1 Corinthians 13:7, Galatians 6:1-2).
- Love lavishly. On that day your daughter goes all Chernobyl on you? Without being a doormat, maybe she would receive your message of unconditional love via her favorite snack. This restates, Who you are is more than what you do. You are accepted by God when you mess up, and you’re accepted by us.
Identity: Accept no substitutes
Like identifying counterfeit currency, it’s impossible for me to anticipate all future ways the enemy of my kids’ souls may offer fraudulent identities.
The enemy may convince them to find their sense of self in their gender or who they’re attracted to. He may woo them with the effortless false intimacy of pornography. He may attach their worth to their body type, as he did (does) for me.
But with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can consistently direct my kids to the Living Water. Hopefully, they’ll be more likely to identify the taste of lies corrosive to who they are.
Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.