It's summer—the season of warm weather and, unfortunately, revealing fashions. Take a stroll through your local department store and once again you'll be confronted with the challenge to find modest—yet fashionable—clothing for your child. But beyond the too-short shorts and the skimpy tees is the message our over-sexualized society sends children about their sexuality. What's a Christian parent to do?
Christian Parenting Today decided to talk to Dannah Gresh, 37, a nationally recognized expert on the subject of teen sexuality and the author of the bestselling books And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity for Teen Girls and Secret Keeper: The Delicate Power of Modesty (both Moody). In 1997 Dannah (pronounced like "Hannah") and Bob, her husband of 15 years, founded Pure Freedom, a ministry that seeks to equip people of all ages to live a life of purity, to experience healing from past impurity, and to build a vibrant, passionate marriage. They conduct roughly 25 youth conferences and retreats a year, some co-ed and others specifically for girls or for girls and their moms. In 2004, the Greshes were invited to take their message to Zambia, where they taught purity in the AIDS-ravaged cities of Ndola and Lukasa.
Dannah's most recent release is Secret Keeper Girl: 8 Great Dates for You and Your Daughter, a DVD and workbook aimed at helping a mother build a strong connection with her eight- to 12-year-old daughter. Dannah knows from firsthand experience—she's the mother of Lexi, 11, and Rob, 14—the importance of providing children with the tools to remain pure until marriage.
Christian Parenting Today: What triggered your desire to take on the issue of sexual purity?
Dannah: About 11 years ago, as I was driving down the highway with my six-month-old daughter, Lexi, I heard an interviewer on a radio program about teen sexuality ask his guest, "What's the number-one question about sex on a teen girl's mind?" Without hesitation, the interviewee said, "Mom, did you wait?" Suddenly engulfed by ten years of grief and denial, I pulled my minivan to the side of the road. I realized I didn't want my daughter to experience the hurt I had from stepping outside God's plan for sexuality.
CPT: Had you been sexually active before marriage?
Dannah: Yes, when I was 15 and in a Christian dating relationship. I'd thought I was incapable of that kind of sin, but I got tangled up by lust. So here I was ten years later, holding my baby in my arms, crying and thinking, OK, God, how do I protect her from making the same mistake?
The first step was to tell my husband. It took me three hours to work up the courage. Bob's warm embrace and Christ's forgiveness after my confession began the healing process. As the Lord healed my heart, my story started bubbling up with the teen girls with whom I had contact.
CPT: Were you in youth ministry?
Dannah: No, I was a corporate trainer for a marketing consultant. But a leader at our church asked me to hang out with the teenage girls one weekend and talk to them about sexual purity. At first I didn't want to do it—the topic was still too raw for me—but she kept bugging me. And what I saw on those young women's faces was the hurt I'd lived with for so many years. I started to share my story, and it's been amazing to see how God has used my past.
CPT: Should parents be honest with their kids about their mistakes in this area?
Dannah: This is very controversial. A lot of wise Christian experts encourage parents not to share any of their weaknesses. But I've come to the conclusion it's wise to be truthful with your children. Here's why: When I talk to teen girls at a retreat, they know when their mom's holding out. And that only closes down the channels of communication.
But you have to be careful. I shared my story with my son, Rob, a couple years ago, using very careful words. You don't want to paint a picture; you want your child to see what happened in your heart. I haven't had that type of conversation with Lexi yet. While she attends some of our events and knows I talk about what's in my book, there are certain times—like when the discussions get more honest and more specific—when she hangs out with a staff member instead. Parents have to decide for themselves if this is something they should do and then seek God's face and ask, "Is this the right time?"
CPT: Were you nervous telling your son?
Dannah: Oh, yeah. It was terrifying. As Rob looked at me across the table, I said, "What do you think of that?" "What do I think of what?" this seventh-grade boy asked. I replied, "That I really messed up." Rob said, "Mom, you've always told me that's why we need Jesus—because we all mess up."
CPT: Why did you start Pure Freedom?
Dannah: Bob and I started it eight years ago because while we love what True Love Waits does to increase abstinence awareness, we felt kids needed some practical skills to avoid the pain of sexual sin. It's not that I didn't want to live a life of purity when I was a teen; it's just that no one was telling me how. So we hold guys-only retreats that include sports-themed teaching. We conduct mother/daughter summits and girls-only retreats that include slumber-party pampering and girl talk to explore the subjects of self-esteem, modesty, emotional healing, refusal skills, and envisioning a godly husband.
CPT: What kind of feedback do you get for your events?
Dannah: At one event, I talked to a girl for a couple hours, prayed with her, and encouraged her to tell her mother about her sexual sin. "Oh, I could never do that. She'd freak out!" she told me. But a couple weeks later, I got this beautiful e-mail from the girl's mom that said, "I had the most heartbreaking conversation with my daughter today. I learned how alone she'd felt in her struggles. I'm so glad you encouraged her to come to me." She told me they now pray together every morning before she leaves for school, and how a new intimacy had developed in their relationship as a result of her confession.
CPT: When should a parent start training her children about modesty and sexuality?
Dannah: Research tells us we should start when they're four, five, or six. One way to begin developing age-appropriate sexual values is by taking your four- or five-year-old on a walk. Pick a flower like an iris, and point out that it has a stamen and a pistol. Explain that there's a mommy part and a daddy part.
When Lexi and Rob were little, every time a neighborhood pet had babies, we were there. We got phone calls all over the place to tell us, "Puppies are being born!" Lexi's girlfriends would show up, and we'd watch and talk about the beauty of birth.
CPT: What about when they're a bit older?
Dannah: Most experts say a child who understands the basic mechanics and value of sexuality by age nine or ten is more likely to live a life of purity. Most parents gulp and think, You want me to talk about it by then?
I remember the first conversation Bob had with Rob: "Rob, do you know what sex is?" Rob said, "Yeah." I'm in the other room going, Oh no, we missed it. He's nine years old and we've missed it. Bob replied, "OK, Rob, what is it?" And Rob said, "It's on my PlayStation game. Sex: male or female?" I breathed a sigh of relief!
I also think this is the time to start talking to your daughter about the importance of how she dresses.
CPT: For a parent, that often feels like an uphill climb.
Dannah: I know. A lot of times parents don't know if they should fight that battle. We're told to choose our battles wisely, and it's easy to feel as though you don't have the time and energy to argue over a T-shirt that's a little too short.
Certainly you have to pick and choose your battles. But I've learned you can fight with fun instead of saying "no" all the time.
CPT: How do you do that?
Dannah: Sometimes Lexi and I take some of her girlfriends shopping, and I'll say, "Hey, let's make this a challenge. Here's $20 to buy something, but first everyone has to agree that it's really cool and really modest." Lexi and her friends learn it's OK to speak up and say, "I don't think that's flattering on you because …" or, "Wow, you look awesome." And sometimes I let my daughter do crazy things like get pink highlights in her hair.
CPT: Don't moms need to watch what they model to their daughters?
Dannah: Absolutely. When Lexi was nine, I taught her a fun way to dress modestly: "Can you raise your hands up without showing your belly with that T-shirt on?" Later that same nine-year-old asked me, "Mom, can you put your hands up without showing your belly with that shirt?" I realized I was going to be tested, too. Lexi also has the right to ask me if I'm passing the test.
When I was a teen, my girlfriends and I would feel depressed about getting a zit or gaining another pound. So what did we do? We ate chocolate! Now girls cut themselves or make themselves throw up. One Harvard study of 12-year-olds asked them how they felt about their weight. Two-thirds of underweight 12-year-olds thought they were fat!
As moms we can never forget what it feels like to be 12, to lock yourself in your room and throw yourself on your bed and think, I'm ugly.
That's why it's so important to instill truth in our daughters. Lexi and I look at magazine covers, and then I show her how Photoshop software can manipulate the images. It helps her understand that's just not how real people look.
CPT: You're saying parents have more influence than they think they do?
Dannah: Yes! One study of middle-school girls and their mothers asked them if they talked about sexuality enough. Eighty percent of the mothers said "yes." But every single daughter said, "I wish my mother would bring it up more often." Even though parents are afraid they're not going to have any input, the fact is, our kids want to hear the truth from us. But often we feel they don't because they shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, or say, "Aw, Mom, Dad, back off." It's all about stepping out of the comfort zone.
CPT: What should dads be modeling to their kids?
Dannah: I always encourage a dad to hug his daughter every day. Meet the void in her life for affection so she won't be tempted to find it in a sexual relationship with a boyfriend. And be present for your son, because so many boys struggle with loneliness in their middle-school and teen years. Bob and Rob go out together every Thursday night for barbeque wings and guy talk. Every Friday morning, Bob has heartburn—but it's worth it!
Too often our culture turns us into workaholics, and we aren't even aware it's happening. Sometimes even our church work is so overwhelming that we aren't able to slow down and be there for our kids. When we do our mother/daughter events, we ask the girls, "How well are you and your mom communicating?" Their number-one response is: "I wish she'd stop doing so much and talk to me like she does with her friends." As a parent, I need to be reminded to do just that.
CPT: What do you hope to accomplish through your ministry?
Dannah: It's my prayer men and women, teens and children will learn that they can live a vibrant life of purity. And, most importantly, that God can use our messed-up lives to his glory. I know he has with mine.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.