By: Ron DeBoer
The day the pickle jar was scheduled to appear on my desk at the front of the classroom was the day no one even considered skipping class. It was the only day of the school year when 30 boys could sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a tiny classroom and make not a sound as they scrawled on scraps of paper their most burning questions about sex and relationships. The boys knew that any question was acceptable no matter how dirty they thought it was, and they knew I would spend the next two hours pulling questions out of the jar and answering them honestly. Not one boy would ask to go to the bathroom.
The purpose of pickle jar day was to help teenage boys and girls (the girls’ health teacher was doing the same on the other side of the wall) navigate through a highly sexualized culture in a safe and honest place with caring adults guiding them. They knew after a few minutes that I wouldn’t judge the question, I wouldn’t skip over a question, and I wouldn’t be embarrassed or disgusted by a question. Every question had value and my answer was designed to shape impressionable minds about the confusing messages they were receiving in a culture that often turned sex into pornography. My answers were also designed to reassure these teenage boys that their thoughts were normal but that it was possible to add perspective to the images and views of girls and relationships that were shaping them in the media and the locker room.
The questions the boys asked varied from phrases they had heard but didn’t know the meaning of to questions about masturbation and pregnancy. When a question laid bare the influence of pornography, I took advantage of an opportunity to talk about trusting and meaningful relationships, about love and the myths of pornography that normalized unhealthy relationships that were most often degrading to women.
At some point during these sessions, someone would get the courage to ask personal questions about me—how do I know about pornography and masturbation and birth control? Good questions and ones that were probably on the minds of many of the boys. Albeit risky, these questions are the ones out of which an adult can make the deepest impressions on a teenager. If the adult shuts down the questions, the teenagers get the message that none of their questions really have value because they don’t apply to the trusting adult who has cultured a classroom of honesty but doesn’t apply it to himself. When teenagers hear that the trusted adult has had the same questions and struggles, they walk out of the classroom knowing their questions and guilt are normal and someone has walked the journey before them.
At the end of the session, I always offered myself up as a resource if students wanted to talk to me privately about something for which they wanted an honest answer. While some teachers and youth leaders might not want to put themselves in a position like this, I have always found that when you communicate the purpose of these sessions to teenagers and parents, a trust develops. However, I would recommend if a teenager has a private question, good practice would be to have two trusted adults meet with the teenager.
The context of my pickle jar sessions was a public high school, and although I was limited in my desire to use overt language about how God intended sex and relationships, I found I could still deliver a message about love, respect, honesty and open communication in relationships. I always felt the Holy Spirit in the room with me as I searched for the right language and phrases to respond to questions.
Here are some of the ways I cultured my pickle jar sessions:
- Give teenagers lead time about these sessions so they can think about what they might want to ask.
- Communicate to parents in a letter the intent of the session and have them sign-off on their son or daughter’s participation. Some parents will opt their child out of the session.
- No topic is off limits.
- Teenagers may need a prompt in their questions. A prompt I offer is “Is it normal to/that…” and have teenagers finish the sentence.
- Make clear that teenagers can use any language they wish in their questions (they may not know the correct language or they may want to know the meaning of slang they have heard) but that your answers will be in anatomically-correct and respectful language. I always use questions with slang as a jumping-off point about the importance of respectful language (without judging the question or language used.)
- Questions will give rise to other questions that teenagers may want to talk about privately. Be prepared for teenagers to disclose potentially highly personal situations and have a plan or people who are qualified in place to help them.
- Be honest, respectful, unflinching, and calm in your response to all questions. It’s okay to admit you don’t know the answer to a question but that you will find out. Answer those questions from teens who are purposefully trying to trip you up with complete normalcy and respect.
These days, teens can go to the Internet with their questions and can not only find answers but images of the answers. Never before has there been greater need for trusting adults to enter into the lives of teens as a resource for questions about sexuality and relationships.
Ron DeBoer is author of Questions From the Pickle Jar: Teens and Sex (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2008).