Now that everyone is going back to school, I’m reminded of one of my formative experiences. In seventh grade I had a crush on two girls, named Louis and Dana. Louis had dark, wavy hair; Farah Fawcett without the blonde. She had a round, gentle face and soft voice. Dana was a strawberry blonde, freckled, bouncy and fun. When the time for our first Junior High School dance came around, I asked them to go with me. (No, not at the same time!) I actually ‘asked’ Louis by hurling myself on the ground as I threw a note into her lap, in a strange combination of spy-craft and slapstick.
Of course, neither of them could attend. Louis had a sick uncle, and Dana had a dying grandmother, or vice-versa. Bless their hearts! Well, the dance came around and my Dad took me to a movie. Who should be there, but Louis and Dana…together. Apparently their family members had made remarkable recoveries and wanted the girls to celebrate with popcorn and cinema. Though obviously happy that their loved ones were quiet suddenly healthy, I was quietly embarrassed. It was one of the first times that I began to base my value on the opinions of the opposite sex.
Fast forward to today. If you watch any television directed at pre-teen or teenage children, you’ll see that relationship is key. This is normal, in some respects. Adolescents are supposed to learn how to form and maintain relationships. But, from the television, the Internet, music, magazines and books, they also learn that they are defined by their romantic encounters and liaisons. What’s the reality? Many young people, in middle school or junior high school, often even in high school, have no romantic relationships. Or they have relationships that are tumultuous and negative. My experience was better than most, my high school sweetheart being a sane, stable, self-confident young woman, and my college love being the amazing woman I call my wife.
Early in our relationship, she explained that only I could make myself happy, and that I should do what’s best for me. She taught me that my opinion mattered as much as hers, and that it was alright to express it. And over the years, I saw the truth; it’s a grave mistake to define our worth by other people, whoever they may be. This was a spiritual realization, as I learned that God loves me regardless of anything I do or say, unlike the way people love. And very unlike the love we tend to give ourselves, which is usually the most judgmental and conditional of all.
However, millions of kids now face the struggle to develop premature intimacy, in the face of a media that tells them they should always have a girlfriend or boyfriend. And it isn’t just the media! How often do we ask small children ‘Well, who’s your girlfriend? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you kiss him?’ Usually we’re joking, but the larger message that youth hear is this: without someone else you are worthless. They are also taught, by the entertainment industry and other young people, that they should have frequent physical intimacy, often with many partners, because ‘that’s what your boyfriend/girlfriend wants!’ See, the intimacy is seen as a way to get a relationship. It’s also considered a way to keep a relationship. It always fails.
In reality, these children (and that’s what they are) are too young for the sort of intensity and passion that’s marketed to them. From a neurological and psychological standpoint, teenagers don’t have good judgment or impulse control. I was one and I know.
This could turn into a discussion of abstinence programs and morality. I don’t want that. What I do want to say is that young people need to develop a sense of worth that doesn’t involve romantic relationships. That way, when romance does come, it isn’t needy, co-dependent, desperate or pressured. The answer, in my opinion, is to teach our young women and men the good news that they have worth in the eyes of God. That they are unique, valued, full of goodness and greatness, and that they have a necessary place to fill in the world; with or without a partner. This way, they don’t see being ‘single’ as banishment. And they won’t view rejection as catastrophe, for they are ultimately, always, acceptable.
So, to Dana and Louis: I hope you’re well. Say hi to your family for me. You really missed out!

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