By / Feb 2

Since the fall, people build culture on the basis of many varied and competing authorities. Gone are the simple days of Genesis 1 and 2. Now the cultural canvas is stained with sin, and until eternity human culture will not perfectly reflect the will of God. This is why our response to culture is so important. It is one of our primary moral struggles. Teenagers need to grow up understanding this and being prepared for it.

The struggle with culture is inescapable, and it is always moral. People always interact with the world in a spirit of submission to God and his Word or in rebellion against him and dependence on their own minds. The cultural struggle is always about right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, belief and unbelief, human desire and God’s will. Isolation is impossible. Assimilation is capitulation. We need a better way.

The need for protection

You can see the influence of culture in the way we dress. Few of us wear the same style of clothing we wore ten years ago or maybe even five. Skirt lengths go up and down, and tie widths go from narrow to wide and back again. Have you ever looked at a family photo album and said, “I can’t believe I wore that!”? Fashion is a pointed example of the influence of culture. It shapes not only what we do but also the way we think and the way we see. 

The example I used with my teenagers to capture the insidious influence of the surrounding culture on them (and us) is air. Like the air we constantly breathe, culture is the spiritual air that our hearts constantly absorb. Many of the pollutants in the physical air are unseen. The same is true with culture.

We as parents have made a great error in our tendency to emphasize obvious issues (sex, drugs, violence, abortion, and so on) while neglecting the more deceptive, unseen pollutants in the cultural air around us. The result is that although our children may not participate in the “biggies,” they end up serving the idols of the surrounding culture.

(See the figure at the bottom for examples of these idols, their impact on our teenagers, and their biblical alternatives.)

Surely, these idols are more to be feared because they creep up on us unseen, appearing harmless and attractive (see Col. 2:8). They also powerfully play to the desires of the sinful nature—that is, they feed the very thing that God, by his Spirit, seeks to destroy.

Another error we have tended to make as parents is to blame the vehicle rather than focus on the idol themes these vehicles promote. A variety of vehicles—internet, social media, government, music, movies, education, television—all transmit and promote the philosophy of the culture. None of these vehicles are in themselves bad or dangerous. The danger is in the way they are used to promote the things they promote. 

The point is not to slay the messenger—these vehicles are used for both good and evil. We must be aware of the power of the media to transmit a culture’s ideas, but it is the ideas that are dangerous, so it is the ideas that must be the focus of our attention. For example, many Christian parents will not let their teenage children go to R-rated movies but will permit them to scroll for hours through social media, which is also a vehicle that transmits the perspectives, relationships, and values of the surrounding culture.

This is where the pollution metaphor helps us. When there are poisons in the physical air, people wear protective equipment that filters them out. In the same way our teenagers need spiritual filters against the unseen poisons in the cultural air. They need the protection of a biblical world- and life-view, and, as parents, we want to begin giving them one from the very earliest moments of their lives. We also want to have eyes of faith to see that every situation, relationship, and problem in their lives is an opportunity for us to encourage them to rethink and carefully apply a biblical view of life to concrete situations.

Talking to your teenager about culture

In light of this, don’t be hesitant to talk, talk, talk to your teenager. This cannot be a time when your relationship grows distant. Your child needs your parenting as much as ever, so seek him or her out.

Let me suggest some strategies for these conversations.

  • Don’t wait for your teenager to talk to you. Seek your child out in a way that is warm, friendly, and affirming. Teenagers who are on the defensive won’t talk freely and won’t listen well.
  • Don’t settle for non-answers. Follow up the yeses and nos. Ask questions that your teenager cannot answer with a yes or no and that require him to disclose what he is thinking, feeling, and doing.
  • Be positive. Don’t be like a detective hunting for what is wrong. The purpose of these talks is not to “catch” the teenager but to help her to understand, desire, and do what is right. So much of the talking that goes on between teenagers and their parents is negative and discouraging to the teenager.
  • Lovingly seek to expose the faults in your teenager’s thinking without making him feel ignorant or stupid. Teach him, in an affirming way, to see where he has breathed in the pollutants of his culture.
  • Become a partner in your teenager’s struggle by sharing your own struggle to live a godly life in an ungodly culture. Admit to the places where you have been influenced. Ask your teenager to pray for you as you promise to pray for her in her struggle.
  • Always point your teenager to Christ. Remind your child that Christ daily gives us mercy and grace in our moments of need and patiently continues to work in us until his work is complete.
  • Always keep in mind that you cannot protect your children from culture. The only effective strategy is to prepare them to deal with culture in a biblical fashion. This will take years of loving commitment on your part.
  • Model the character of Christ. Don’t be drawn into negative verbal power struggles. Greet anger, negativity, and accusation with soft-spoken strength. Don’t beat your teenager with words but win him with Christlike love.

Excerpt taken from Chapter 9: Life in the Real World, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens, Revised and Expanded by Paul David Tripp.

By / Nov 9

Anxiety is widespread among teenagers. If you lined up 100 teenagers between the ages of 13 to 18, you could expect approximately every third teenager (31%) to experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their teen years. And almost every 10th teenager (8.5%) would experience anxiety that causes severe impairment.[i] As the parent of an anxious teen, you may feel a sense of fear, uncertainty, or powerlessness. How can you help? What if you can’t help? How severe is your child’s anxiety? At what point should you consider counseling? 

Perhaps you even feel a sense of frustration. Wouldn’t your child feel less anxious if he would listen to you and and stay off his phone? Or maybe you have stepped into “fix-it mode,” searching for causes and next steps to take. You want your child to find relief, so your natural tendency may be to brainstorm solutions and offer suggestions of what you think will help. While suggestions can be helpful, oftentimes the best place to start is by having an open and ongoing conversation with your teen about their experience. Here are some questions to help you begin.

Questions to get the conversation started

What is anxiety like for you? Many teenagers don’t realize when they are anxious. Their back tension, racing thoughts, counting rituals, insomnia, nervous energy, or other anxiety symptoms feel normal because these experiences are the only thing they know. Teenagers often need help verbalizing their anxiety symptoms so they can begin to recognize when they are anxious. Ask specific questions to help them gain awareness. What does anxiety feel like for them? What thoughts race through their minds? Where do they notice anxiety symptoms in their bodies? 

What seems to trigger your anxiety? Teenagers also often need help connecting their anxiety to specific situations in their life. Is the tension in their shoulders related to homework? Do the racing thoughts occur when they spend too much time on the phone? Does the anxiety tend to happen at a certain time of day, in a specific location, or around particular people? Ask questions to help your child begin to make these connections. 

When is the first time you remember feeling anxious? You can also investigate when the anxiety first started and what was happening in your child’s life at the time. The onset of anxiety can often be traced back to distressing events such as a parent’s divorce, an experience of bullying, or the death of a family member. The impact of events such as these can linger for many years. Sometimes, present symptoms of anxiety can be resolved when teenagers have the chance to process past distressing experiences.   

How do you think your habit of _______ impacts your anxiety? Many teenagers have bad habits that make their anxiety worse. Don’t we all? Parents often recognize that their teenagers would feel better if they would go to bed at a more reasonable time, stay more active, spend less time on the phone, or stop other stress-inducing habits. But how can you help teenagers make important changes if they bristle the moment these topics are mentioned? While you may need to enforce rules surrounding certain problem areas, it’s often best to start by helping teenagers assess their habits for themselves. 

Teenagers need to begin taking ownership of how some habits such as isolating, talking to certain friends, overusing social media, or binge-watching TV impact their anxiety. Help them investigate areas such as these by framing your concerns as questions, instead of statements or lectures. For example, how does it affect them when they spend the afternoon on TikTok? If they notice that it negatively affects their anxiety, what do they want to do about this?

Are there any calming activities you would like to use as an alternative to habits you realize may be problematic? Small changes such as getting outside for regular walks, taking five minutes a day to breathe deeply, or taking breaks from homework can make a difference. Talk about some possible changes, but don’t send them off to implement these practices alone. Go with them. Go on that walk together. Breathe deeply together. Stay off social media together. Go out of your way to communicate that you are on their side and in this struggle with them.  

How does your relationship with God help you when you feel anxious? And if it doesn’t seem to help, how are you making sense of that? The way we frame conversations about anxiety and faith with teenagers is important. Teenagers are often black-and-white thinkers. They sometimes misinterpret our encouragements to “bring their anxiety to God” as pressure to simply pray harder and read their Bibles more. They can then feel guilty, confused, or angry when they do these things and still feel anxious. 

Instead of asking a teenager “are you praying?” or “are you reading your Bible?”, we need to make the connection between anxiety and faith more compelling. More invitational. More honest about the mysterious ways God does and doesn’t work through Scripture and prayer. Less focused on hints of legalism and more focused on the relationship we can experience with the Lord. 

God does not stand over us and demand that we pray more and read our Bibles more when we are afraid. Rather, we get to go to him for help. We get to be completely honest with him about our experience. How can you help your teenager grasp this comfort? This is an opportunity to share your own experience of how you go to the Lord when you feel afraid.  

Do you want to try counseling? Some teenagers fight the idea of counseling. Other teenagers want counseling but hesitate to ask for it because they have real or imagined fears about how a parent may respond. It’s worth initiating the conversation to see if counseling has crossed their mind. If they do desire counseling, always honor this request. 

Is there anything that I am doing or anything that is happening in our home that makes you feel more anxious? This is a difficult question to ask, but I encourage you to go here. You may or may not agree with what your teenager says, but either way you will gain valuable information. It’s important to assess how the atmosphere of your whole household affects your teenager’s anxiety. Children are like sponges, absorbing their parent’s energy and emotions. This is especially true of young children, but we can’t ignore how teenagers also soak up the emotions of adults. When a parent feels anxious, angry, stressed, or worried, a teenager picks up these feelings. When a parent feels calm, a teenager absorbs this sense of peace. 

So when you notice anxiety in your teenager, it’s always an invitation to consider your own inner life. If you find anxiety, fear, worry, or stress within yourself, it’s likely affecting your teenager as well. 

However, before you discuss with your teenager the questions listed above, consider answering them for yourself. Do you know when you are stressed or anxious? Are you using the habits you encourage your teenager to use? Sometimes helping your anxious teenager begins with addressing your own inner struggle. 

Exploring your own anxiety should not lead to discouragement or self-criticism, though. We all feel anxious at times. Rather, beginning with yourself may be a needed invitation. God has given you an opportunity to slow down and nurture your own anxious heart. As you do so, you will become more equipped to understand and help the anxious teenager in your care. 

[i] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder

By / Jul 6

Children today encounter an online world unlike anything experienced by prior generations. They are introduced to devices early and often, and families increasingly accept them as a normal fixture of everyday life.  Over 50% of American kids have their own smartphone by age 11, and on average, 13-year-olds now devote more than seven hours a day to non-school-related screen time.

This rapid and widespread adoption of personal devices has changed adolescent life in America in many ways, both positive and negative. While the benefits are widely acknowledged, such as convenience and communication among family members, many of the downsides are not yet fully appreciated, especially by parents. One of the most troubling trends associated with our ubiquitous devices is the increased exposure to inappropriate content and the rapid rise of sexting. Sexting is when people send sexually explicit or revealing pictures or texts.

The statistics on this trend are devastating. Two out of every 3 girls ages 12-18 have been asked to take and share a nude image. One study found that 14% of teens have sent a nude photo or video of themselves, and 24% of teens have admitted to receiving photos. Alarmingly, 1 in 8 teens has said that they have had their photos shared without their consent to others.  Given the growing prevalence of this phenomenon, parents need to address the uncomfortable topic of sexting.  As awkward as the conversation may be, it is preferable that children learn about this issue from their parents, rather than an anonymous stranger online or from their peers. Parents should help their children understand in an age-appropriate way that the power and freedom afforded by these devices must come with the responsibility to use them well. 

Conversations should ideally take place before your child receives his or her first phone in order to guard against the risk that they send a sext, and to prepare them for the possibility that they might receive one. But no matter the situation, parents should talk to their children early and often about such issues. But how do we begin such difficult conversations? 

Sean Clifford, CEO of Canopy, a parental control app that can deter sexting, answers questions below about this dangerous trend. He emphasizes the importance of making wise digital choices and provides advice for parents on how to address the topic of sexting with their children. 

Jill Waggoner: What are digital footprints, and why are they important? 

Sean Clifford: The choices we make online can follow us forever. They exist in the form of digital footprints, which are invisible trails of data that every internet-connected device leaves behind during normal use. Even when a photo, for example, is posted and later deleted, there is no guarantee that it is truly gone for good—some trace of it may be left somewhere. 

In addition, there are numerous ways other individuals can capture a digital image or video without permission, even if it’s only up for a moment. Some apps, like Snapchat, automatically delete content after a certain period of time, providing the false security that whatever is sent is fleeting and will soon disappear. However, even on such apps there are easy ways for others to save the content, such as taking a screenshot or recording the screen from another device.

JW: What are the potential consequences of sending a sext? 

SC: The consequences for sharing inappropriate photos can be significant. What may seem harmless, rebellious, or impermanent, often can result in painful, embarrassing, and unhealthy outcomes. Such consequences include: 

  • The message can be shared beyond the intended recipient. It sadly is not uncommon for such posts to go viral at a school or end up on websites that feature child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
  • Adults, including parents and teachers, could see it, resulting in suspensions, or in some instances, legal trouble. There are cases in which sexts have been prosecuted as the transmission of child pornography.
  • Sexting can damage real-life relationships and reputations, and the psychological harm that results when a sext goes public can be devastating.

JW: Sometimes children do not know where to draw the line when taking or posting pictures of themselves. How can parents guide their children in creating appropriate boundaries for their digital choices? 

SC: We know that digital is forever, so we encourage kids to ask if they would be comfortable sending the photo in question to their parent or teacher or having it posted in a public forum accessible to the whole school. It’s a simple but powerful question: if they aren’t comfortable with a parent seeing an image or video they intend to post or share, they probably shouldn’t send it at all. Most children would be rightfully horrified if their mom or dad saw an inappropriate picture of them. Asking a question like this makes them think twice about the pictures or messages they are willing to send and reinforces that what they do online far outlives the moment. This approach also opens the door for parents to help their kids understand what type of photos are acceptable when it comes to taking pictures of themselves. 

It also can be helpful to listen to the first-hand experiences of teenagers who have had personal images go viral. The stories are heartbreaking and can help illustrate the potential consequences as shared from someone in a similar stage of life. Kids will often respond to parental advice that ‘life is different’ and ‘parents just don’t understand’, and in some cases, they are right! Introducing voices of their peers can help make the case.

JW: As you mentioned, digital choices can affect the future. How should parents approach this in conversation with their children? 

SC: Parents should encourage them to think seriously about the following two questions:

  1. Who do you want to be?
  2. How do you want to be known? 

These questions place an emphasis on the future, rather than the present. As we discussed previously, digital choices stick with us forever, potentially even years after something was posted or sent. Help your child understand that sending or posting pictures might seem harmless now, but it can impact their future and their reputation. Regrettably, the cost of making a mistake today, if captured digitally, is simply higher than it used to be. As much as we may wish this weren’t the case, it is a reality of our new digital age. 

JW: How can parents prepare their children for situations where they are asked to send a sext? 

SC: First, help your children understand that it’s not only acceptable, but a good thing, to say no. Often, kids take part in sexting due to the fear of peer pressure, being judged, or made fun of for abstaining. Frame the request as a form of manipulation, which it is. As any parent of a teen can attest, they hate the idea of being manipulated to act against their own will.

This leads me to my second point, which is preparation. It is vital to proactively prepare your children and equip them with the reasons—and hopefully the confidence—say no when the moment arises. Give them some ideas for how to respond to a text that is asking for inappropriate photos and what they should do if they receive one on their device. For instance, they could respond with, “My parents put an app on my phone that will alert them if I send a photo like that.” Finally, it is important for them to know they should never apologize for not sending a sext. Saying no and standing up for oneself is a decision they can be proud of—now and in the years to come.

Conclusion 

Parenting in our digital age can be frightening. It has always been challenging to help our children protect their purity, but it seems almost impossible to guard their hearts and minds from technology’s pull toward the illicit. Yes, it is important to equip our kids with practical ways to avoid these temptations. But most importantly, as Christians, we must call them to the One who has the power to change their very desires. Jesus alone can give our children new hearts that want to walk in purity and find their satisfaction in him. And ultimately, as we seek to parent well in all the complexities of our society, we entrust them to the God who can lead them in paths of righteousness for the sake of his name (Ps. 23: 3).

By / Mar 9

Do you remember what it felt like to walk the hallways of high school between classes or sit at the lunch table? Hallways and lunch rooms were the primary stages for social engagement in high school in years past. Sure, you talked with your peers in class, but most of the time you were paying attention to lectures or doing work. It was that time in between classes or while eating lunch that the social dynamics were most active.

Everyone, even the kids who say they aren’t, is performing in some way. High school hallways and lunch rooms are like little stages on which teenagers craft their personas and identities among their peers. It’s exciting and stressful, just like performing on any stage. In the 20th century, teenagers left the social stages when they went home. Unless they had plans to attend a social function in the evening or hit up the mall, the social dynamics of high school were left for phone calls with trusted friends until the next school day.

Today, as Derek Thompson says in his book Hit Makers, teenagers are always in the high school hallways. There is no escaping the social stages on which teenagers perform, because instead of walking the runway of the high school hallways for a couple hours a day, five days a week, teenagers have their personal stages in their pockets, calling them to perform every hour of every day with no opportunity to retreat to a social backstage for rest from their ever-present performance.

If you remember the social stressors of the high school hallways and lunch rooms, you can empathize with the feelings today’s teens have as they carry those performance arenas around in their pockets all the time. Is there any wonder, then, why teenagers are more anxious and depressed than before? 

The relationship between social media and depression

Mountains of data have been collected in the last few years that point to a clear relationship between increased social media use and increased experiences of anxiety and depression. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the correlation between social media use and symptoms of anxiety and depression come from the current teenagers that make up Gen Z or “iGen,” as they have been called by researcher and author Jean Twenge. Authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff cite one particularly troubling study in their book The Coddling of the American Mind. Research shows that, in the early 2000s, just more than one-in-ten girls aged 12-17 had a “major depressive episode” in the previous year. But, by 2016, nearly one-in-five girls aged 12-17 had a major depressive episode in the previous year. The rate of major depressive episodes among adolescent girls nearly doubled in less than a decade. Haidt and Lukianoff note that adolescent boys also experienced an increase in depressive episodes, but not as dramatic as that of girls.

Girls are more likely to become anxious or depressed because of increased social media use than boys because the root of anxiety and depression in girls tends to lie more in social dynamics than it does for boys. Whereas boys often deal with social conflict through direct, physical confrontation, girls are more likely to deal with social conflict in ways exacerbated by social media, which is one explanation for their increased anxiety and depression.

“Being a viewer in your own life”

Bo Burnham is a comedian, actor, and director. His career began when he started posting off-color comedic songs to a YouTube channel when he was in high school and YouTube was a relatively new platform. Burnham and I are roughly the same age, and I remember watching his videos in high school ashamed at how hard I was laughing because of how inappropriate they were (and are). Burnham’s 2021 Netflix special Inside is a comedy and a tragedy all wrapped into one hour-long program, and I could write pages about it here, as it is full of masterful commentary on the absurdity of the social internet. But instead, I want to call attention to a quote he gave when he was interviewed following the release of a movie he wrote and directed, Eighth Grade

The movie, which accurately depicts the most awkward aspects of the modern eighth grade experience, naturally features social media heavily. The film’s main character is an aspiring YouTuber, much like Burnham was when he was in high school. Burnham says regarding the social pressures young people face today that no one has ever had to face before:

What is the feeling of walking through your life and not just living your life, not just living your life—which is already [hard] and impossible—but also taking inventory of your life, being a viewer of your own life, living an experience and at the same time hovering behind yourself and watching yourself live that experience? Being nostalgic for moments that haven’t happened yet. Planning your future to look back on it.

Those are really weird, dissociative things that are, I think, new because of the specific structure of social media and how it dissociates ourselves from ourselves.

We find ourselves in a spot in which we feel we have to live our lives and create a documentary of our lives at the same time. We, as Burnham says, hover behind ourselves and watch ourselves live our lives while living our lives. Is it any wonder mental health crises are on the rise?

Another unfortunate reality is that this is not limited to teenagers. Data shows that social media use is adversely affecting the mental health of adults just as it is with teens. Sure, it’s safe to say that adults may feel less peer pressure to be as active on social media as teens are, but we’re all performing in the same way. With constant performance comes constant pressure. With constant pressure comes the gnawing anxiety that you’re going to fail in the spotlight at some point. How long can you really perform before you need to take a break? What if you feel like you can never take a break and log off?

Navigating the current technology and social media landscape as a parent, let alone as a Christian parent, is daunting. On one hand, outright banning all social media activity can unintentionally ostracize your child from his or her peers. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to show that social media can easily hurt young people. In the face of the fear and difficulty that comes with parenting amid such tension, we parents must run to the Scriptures and cling to our God, who says in Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” God is with us as we love our children and do all we can to lead them in the ways they should go. We must lean on him for our strength and our hope.

This article has been adapted from “Terms of Service” from B&H Publishing (2022). 

By / Feb 28

We’ve encountered a ton of parents who are reactive to a problem rather than proactive. The typical parental approach to the topic of sexuality is to avoid the subject as much as possible, drop one big “talk” sometime in their kids’ tween years, and then avoid it again for as long as possible.

One problem with this approach is that it’s too slow. Parents will be caught off guard if they wait. From an early age, kids encounter sexual content — by stumbling into illicit material online, by participating in sex education at school, through conversing with friends, and by watching suggestive or explicit content in music videos, television, and movies. The world will disciple your kids in the way of sex if and when you don’t. Do you want that? We certainly don’t for our kids.

What does a proactive approach look like?

Start from an early age

A proactive approach starts from an early age. Sexual discipleship entails teaching a biblical theology of sexuality as early as is developmentally appropriate. Your kids need to know what God thinks before the world gets to them. Disciple them often and early, so that these conversations will be natural and normal by the time they hit the tween years.

Use every opportunity afforded to you in daily life to teach your children the ways of the Lord. Consider Moses’s words in Deuteronomy 6:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your chil- dren, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (vv. 4–9)

Good parenting thrives in the ordinary, everyday teaching moments of conversation. Scripture emphasizes not only the content (“love the Lord your God with all your heart”) covered by these conversations but also the context (“when you lie down, and when you rise”) where these conversations happen.

Establish that no topic — even sex — is off-limits

Establish in your home that no topic, including sex, is off-limits. It’s an awkward topic but a necessary one. Conversations about sexuality are a vital part of discipling your kids — to teach them the ways of the Lord in all things. Have honest conversations with your kids so they don’t figure these things out on their own.

One family told us, “From experience we have noticed that sometimes our children feel guilty and don’t know how to tell us they are struggling. Simply asking them, point blank, ‘How are you doing with what you are looking at on your phone and computer?’ opens up a safe place for them to talk. Even if they don’t say anything at that moment, it causes them to think about where they are in regard to purity. And sometimes hours later they will come to us and share their struggle.”

Celebrate biblical sexuality

Teach your kids about the riches of God’s gift of sexuality. Juli Slattery writes, “Biblical sexual discipleship paints a complete picture of sexuality as not simply something to avoid but a great gift to be treasured, celebrated, and reclaimed.” Parents should model and uphold a biblical view of sex, not a prudish stereotype in which sex is treated as dirty and disordered.

Be careful not to spend all your time just preaching at your kids about the dangers of sexual immorality. Teach them that sex outside marriage is wrong, but don’t stop there. Author and pastor Sam Allberry observes that we can turn God into a cosmic killjoy by implying that he randomly restricts and cuts off ways for humans to be happy. Children grow up thinking that he practices a sort of divine arbitrariness in which he pronounces some things good and some things not good. Sam Allberry writes, 

Every time God gives us a prohibition, he’s protecting something good. So we need to teach the positives behind the negatives, and show that God’s Word isn’t in fact arbitrary but instead points toward what is best and most life-giving for us. Whenever God says no to something, he is saying a much bigger yes to something else. Unless we thrill people with the biblical vision for marriage and human sexuality—especially how they point beyond themselves to God’s love shown to us in Christ—we won’t be providing the full spiritual resources needed to fight deep and besetting sinful desires.

We must teach our kids about a holy and sovereign God who loves us through Christ. Sex is a part of God’s kindness to us. We shouldn’t reduce sexuality to a list of don’ts but instead hold it out as a beautiful part of what God intends for those who love him.

Editor’s Note: Selected excerpts taken from Rescue Plan: Charting a Course to Restore Prisoners of Pornography, ISBN 9781629953830, by Jonathan Holmes and Deepak Reju, pages 195-198.

Used with permission from P & R publishing Co., P O Box 817, Phillipsburg, N.J. 08865  www.prpbooks.com

By / Oct 14

Sex is like fire. When it resides in the proper boundaries it gives light and heat, but unrestrained it causes great harm. Teenagers are receiving messages about sexuality every day — from the latest Netflix series, from social media, from their conversations with friends. Parents and youth workers must not overlook the value of having their own ongoing conversations with students about biblical sexuality.

Youth ministry has a legacy of urging teenagers to make virginity pledges and other similar efforts that can easily drift into manipulation. While the intent is good, since we should be teaching about sexual purity, the way we engage in these conversations matters. By now it should be obvious that we need to talk about sex in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not according to the law. It is not a matter of dos and don’ts but of helping students discover the nature of sex, the goal of sex, and the fulfillment of what sex can offer.

When youth group only talks about sex once a year, usually a few weeks before prom season, it makes sense that many students will be more shaped by the messages the culture and their peers are sending: “Sex is awesome.” “Love is love.” “Be careful but do what you want so long as the other person gives consent.” Others graduate from youth ministry with the impression that sex is inherently sinful. Some Christians even feel guilty about having sex after they get married because of the way sex was discussed during their teenage years. The solution is not to overcorrect by talking about how great and awesome sex is, but simply to be biblical.

God created us as male or female and gave us the gifts of marriage and sex to promote human flourishing. He did not need to make it feel good, but he did. It is a gift that reflects the delight and pleasure we were created to enjoy through intimacy with our Creator. At the same time, the Bible doesn’t pull punches about the dangers of unbounded sexuality. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed as judgment for their rampant evil and sexual sin. King David, a man after God’s own heart, caused great suffering in his family because of his sexual sin against Bathsheba.

Sex is a quest for intimacy

God gave the gift of sex to strengthen intimacy between a husband and a wife. The goal is intimacy — to be fully known without any fear of rejection. This is what so many men and women are trying to attain through their sexual activity, as if sex were a shortcut to it. Whether we are talking with parents or students, it is helpful and biblical to build the conversation around intimacy: God created us for intimacy with him and with each other. Sin has brought suspicion into relationships, but sex is a brief moment of joyful acceptance between two partners. Aside from the physical pleasure, this is what makes it so powerful.

This quest for intimacy also gives fulfillment to men and women who never marry. To many students, the idea of singleness can sound like a sentence to lifelong loneliness, and this fear drives them into toxic dating patterns. However, celibacy is an old-fashioned virtue worth reclaiming, especially considering that neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul ever married. Some churches treat married couples and those with children as priority members, but this should not be, and youth workers have an opportunity to teach students a wider view of human sexuality and relationships.

Sex is about intimacy, and perfect intimacy is found only in Jesus Christ who loved us and saved us while we were still enemies. God chose to redeem sinners and adopt them as sons and daughters. If he gave his life for us while we were still his enemies, then truly nothing can separate us from the love of God. In the midst of today’s sexual revolution, it is important to remember that sex is about enjoying intimacy with a spouse and yet, as good as sex may feel, it cannot deliver the type of intimacy our hearts most desire.

Best practices for discussing sex and dating

  • Always talk with parents first. Whether you are teaching in youth group or initiating a conversation with a student at the coffee shop, always talk with parents first. Many youth workers have assumed parents would be comfortable with another adult having these conversations with their kids, only to find out they were wrong. Plus, if the talk goes sideways, you’ll be thankful to have parental support while dealing with the fallout.
  • Make it an ongoing conversation. As you preach through biblical texts, make ongoing applications to students’ dating lives and sexual identities. If the only time you talk about sex is when the entire lesson is about sex, you’re missing a chance to shape the whole person.
  • Avoid a lot of joking about who’s dating whom. Laughter is good medicine, but it can also make having serious conversations awkward. Students may become hesitant to ask you about relationships because they fear you might turn it into a joke.
  • Teach about a biblical view of marriage. It can be tempting to avoid talking about marriage because teenagers are likely not getting married anytime soon. Inviting married couples of various ages to share their stories and what they’ve learned about marriage can be especially helpful for students from fractured households, because they may not receive this type of teaching (or example!) anywhere else.
  • Don’t overlook the Bible’s teaching about celibacy. Christian men and women who never marry are just as important and valuable as those who have large families. Especially in today’s culture surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, reclaiming the holiness of celibacy enables students to hear that it is possible to be both celibate and fulfilled in life.
  • Avoid damaging illustrations and examples. Many skits and examples have been used in youth ministry to persuade students about sexual abstinence. The most popular has been handing out a piece of gum for someone to chew, only to later hold up the piece of chewed gum and ask “Who wants this?” This illustration and others like it implicitly tell students who have sinned sexually that they are worthless and undesirable, both to other people and to God. The gospel, however, proclaims the love of God for sinners and his delight in giving grace to those who need it.
  • Resist talking about “sexual purity until marriage.” Married men and women also need to guard their sexual purity. When youth workers talk about sexual purity until marriage, this either conveys that sex with your spouse makes you impure or that you will not need to guard yourself against sexual sin after marriage. Rather than making it seem like sexual purity is a teenage problem, call students to sexual purity as a lifelong pursuit.
  • Consider speaking to the boys and girls separately. There are times when large-group teaching may be best, but consider ways to speak to students in forums that will minimize awkward moments while maximizing the potential for real conversation.
  • Ask students about their friends’ views. This will allow them to talk with greater comfort. It will also help you interact with the other viewpoints they’re hearing and get a glimpse of their own opinions. How you respond to this conversation will help them decide whether or not they can trust you.
  • Keep the grace of Jesus Christ front-and-center. Sex is about intimacy, and perfect intimacy is found through fellowship with God in Christ.

Excerpted from Lead Them to Jesus © 2021 by Mike McGarry. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission. To purchase this and other helpful resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com.

By / Apr 22

Some people argue that because babies are occasionally born inter-sex, “male” and “female” are not clear categories, but that everyone is on a spectrum with completely male at one end and completely female at the other. They also say that our bodies don’t have to define whether we are a man or a woman, but that if someone’s feelings don’t match their body, they should be able to decide whether they want to be recognized as male or female—or perhaps as “non-binary” or “gender non-conforming,” meaning they don’t want to be recognized as either a man or a woman. 

Someone who was born with a male body but later identifies as a woman would be described today as a trans or transgender woman, and someone who was born with a female body but identifies as a man would be described as a trans or transgender man. Transgender people often take new names. For example, someone called John might switch to Jane and ask people to talk about “she” or “her” instead of “he” or “him.” Someone who identifies as non-binary or gender non-conforming might ask to be talked about as “they.” So what does Christianity say about all of this? 

To begin with, it’s important for us to listen to other people and understand their feelings and experiences. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to wear dresses and play with dolls. I wanted to sword fight with my brother in the woods. My mum made me do ballet. I hated it. Someone once gave me a pink “My Little Pony” for my birthday. I flushed it down the toilet. (Don’t try this: it’s really bad for the toilet!) I don’t recall wanting to be a boy. That was never an option in my mind. But at my all-girls school, I acted every male role I could. As a teenager, I never wanted to paint my nails, wear makeup, shop for clothes, or talk about boys. Girly things weren’t my thing. 

Some teens feel like I did, except much, much more. They feel like the body they were born with doesn’t match how they feel on the inside. Some people choose to dress in ways typical of the opposite sex. They might also take medicines or have surgeries to make their bodies look like the opposite sex. If you have never felt this way, it can be hard to understand why someone would do this. Sadly, people who feel this way have often been laughed at or bullied. It is never right for Christians to mock and bully people. Jesus calls us to love others—especially if they are different from us. But Christians also believe that God made us male and female on purpose. So how should Christians think about someone wanting to change their gender identity? 

First, we know that Jesus cares a lot about our feelings. He knows us from the inside out. He knows what we love and what makes us scared or sad. He knows when we feel like we don’t fit in and when we wish we could be different. He loves us so much that he died for us! So if you are a boy, but you desperately wish you were a girl, or if you are a girl who longs to be a boy, Jesus sees you and knows you and loves you with an everlasting love. 

Second, the Bible tells us that God created everything through Jesus (John 1:3). Jesus made you. If you were born a boy, he meant for you to be a boy. If you were born a girl, he meant for you to be a girl. This doesn’t mean that it will always be easy, or that you have to do everything other people expect from girls or boys. As we saw earlier, Jesus cried, and cooked, and loved babies, and when people beat him up, he didn’t fight back. If you’re a follower of Jesus, it’s okay to be different. Unlike lots of women, I hate fashion and shopping for clothes. But my husband, Bryan, likes both those things—and that’s okay! But the Bible also teaches us that we shouldn’t always trust our feelings. We find our true selves not by following our feelings, but by following Jesus, so when our desires don’t line up with following Jesus, we need to trust him. 

Following Jesus always means trusting him with our desires, even if it’s really hard. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24–25). But Jesus doesn’t ask us to do this alone. He gives us his Spirit, and he gives us his body (other Christians) for help. So if you are struggling with being a boy or a girl, look for a Christian friend to talk to about your feelings. If you feel comfortable with your body, try to be the kind of person who could support a friend who was struggling in this way. 

How should Christians relate to transgender people? 

If you’re a Christian and some of your classmates identify as transgender or non-binary, your job is not to avoid them or make fun of them. Your job is to tell them about Jesus and show them his love—just as you would to others. Loving people doesn’t mean agreeing with all their decisions. My non-Christian friends make all sorts of decisions I disagree with. They’re not working from the same roadmap. But I can still love them and listen to them. In fact, listening to someone’s story is often the best starting point for showing love. Everyone wants to be known and understood. At times, though, loving someone means telling them when you don’t think they’re making the right decision. 

In one of my favorite moments in the Harry Potter series, Neville helps Gryffindor win the House Cup, because he stood up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione when he thought they were doing the wrong thing. Dumbledore gives Neville five points for this act of courage saying, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”1J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), 221.  Questioning whether it’s the right decision for someone to live as the opposite sex, perhaps even taking medications or having surgeries to change their bodies in ways they can never reverse, can be seen as being hateful in our culture today. But telling a friend that you love them as they are, and that you think the body they were born with is good isn’t hateful. All of us make decisions in light of what our friends and family think and sometimes we need encouragement from our friends to accept ourselves. 

It can be easy to think that making a change to our bodies is the key to happiness—whether it’s getting thinner, or stronger, or taller, or having larger breasts, or changing whether we are seen as a boy or as a girl. But just as it’s not hateful to tell a friend you love her just the weight she is, it’s not hateful to tell a friend you love her as a girl, or that you love him as a boy, even if our friends don’t fit the stereotypes about boys and girls that say, “Girls should be like this, and boys should be like that.” What’s more, when you think about it, if we no longer let our bodies tell us if we are male or female, those stereotypes are all we have left. Let me explain. 

What do “man” and “woman” mean? 

Earlier this year, the actor (Daniel Radcliffe) who played Harry Potter in the films of J. K. Rowling’s books made a public statement: “Transgender women are women.” When he said this, he meant that people who were born with a male body but feel like they belong in the world as a woman should be recognized as women just as much as people who were born with a female body. Daniel Radcliffe said this in response to J. K. Rowling herself saying that—while she personally thinks it’s okay for people to live in the world as the opposite sex—the bodies we are born with and grew up with still matter, and that someone who was born male should not be treated as female in every situation. Some people were very angry with J. K. Rowling for saying this, and Daniel Radcliffe wanted to make clear that he didn’t agree. But Daniel Radcliffe’s statement highlights an important question: What does “man” or “woman” mean? 

Up until recently in our culture, for me to say, “I am a woman” would mean—first and foremost— that I was born with a female body. There are significant differences between male bodies and female bodies. Even beyond what we can see with our eyes, scientists could tell whether you were a boy or a girl by examining a single cell from anywhere in your body.2See David C. Page, “Every Cell Has a Sex: X and Y and the Future of Health Care,” Yale School of Medicine, August 30, 2016, https:// medicine.yale.edu/news-article/13321/#:~:text=Humans%20have %20a%20total%20of,X%20and%20one%20Y%20chromosome.  But if Daniel Radcliffe’s claim that “Transwomen are women” is true, and being born with a female body isn’t at the heart of what it means to be a woman, then what does it mean to be a woman? Does it mean wearing dresses and makeup, or wearing your hair long rather than short? Some women in our culture do those things, but no one would say that was the definition of being a woman. Does it mean other people thinking you were born with a female body? If so, then the identity of a transgender person would depend on people not knowing the truth about his or her past. 

In conversations about transgender questions, people often talk as if there is something deep inside of us—not connected with our bodies—that defines whether we are male or female more than our bodies do. But while some people struggle with their gender identity throughout their life, others who feel uncomfortable with their bodies as teenagers find that those feelings change as they get older.3There is much controversy over the exact numbers, but it seems that some significant proportion of those who experience gender dysphoria in childhood find that it resolves in adulthood. For example, a study published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, followed up with 127 adolescent patients at a gender identity clinic in Amsterdam and found that two-thirds ultimately identified as the gender they were assigned at birth.  If there was something other than our bodies that more truly defined us as male or female, we would expect that sense of identity always to stay the same throughout someone’s life. Many people today think that Christians are foolish for believing things that cannot be measured with the tools of science. But the idea that there is a thing deep within us that tells us if we are male or female against the evidence of our physical bodies does not line up with science at all. And we are still left with the question: What does it mean to be a man or a woman, if it doesn’t relate to our biological sex? 

As a Christian, I am not surprised that our society is struggling to define what it means to be a man or a woman. Without belief in a Creator God who made humans in his image, we are left without a real definition of what it means to be a human being, so no wonder we don’t know what it means to be a male or female human. Without belief in a Creator God who gives us moral laws, we are like cartoon characters who have run off a cliff and keep running in midair for a few seconds before we crash to the ground. 

As a Christian, I do believe that there is a voice deep inside me that tells me who I am. That voice is God’s Spirit, who unites every believer to Jesus like a body to its head, or a wife to her husband. The Spirit speaks through God’s Word (the Bible) and guides his people. But from a Christian perspective, this voice inside isn’t disconnected from our bodies, because the same God who lives within us by his Spirit also created our bodies. Jesus tells us that God created humans “from the beginning male and female” (Matt. 19:4). If we’re trusting in Jesus, he knows us from the inside out, and he makes us belong even when we feel like we don’t fit. Growing up, I often felt inadequate as a woman. I still sometimes feel that way today. But when I do, I trust Jesus that he made me a woman on purpose and that he loves me just as I am. 


Content taken from 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.

  • 1
    J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), 221. 
  • 2
    See David C. Page, “Every Cell Has a Sex: X and Y and the Future of Health Care,” Yale School of Medicine, August 30, 2016, https:// medicine.yale.edu/news-article/13321/#:~:text=Humans%20have %20a%20total%20of,X%20and%20one%20Y%20chromosome. 
  • 3
    There is much controversy over the exact numbers, but it seems that some significant proportion of those who experience gender dysphoria in childhood find that it resolves in adulthood. For example, a study published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, followed up with 127 adolescent patients at a gender identity clinic in Amsterdam and found that two-thirds ultimately identified as the gender they were assigned at birth. 
By / Dec 17

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17

As a younger mom, I was a master at creating Christmas traditions for our little family of five.  Some of these were carried over from my own growing up years (or my husband’s), and a few were new traditions designed just for us. The obvious ones included decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies, and opening little windows on an Advent calendar each day.  Others were unique to where we grew up, such as eating tamales on Christmas Eve (Texan folks will get this).  Still, other traditions were, let’s just say, “pinterest fails” such as creating a special activity to do every night of December. I exhausted myself by Dec. 2 and called that one off. Caroling the neighborhood with hot cocoa didn’t last long either—though we still enjoy the cocoa by the fire on cold evenings. Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior.

Meaningful Christmas traditions

As my children have grown into teens, I have found that our Christmas traditions have become even more meaningful and important. 

Jesse tree: What used to be an Advent calendar meant to open daily with a piece of chocolate turned into creating a Jesse tree to add an ornament to each day and unveil the entire Christmas story starting with creation. 

Reading Scripture: My husband and I felt it was important that as our kids were getting older, they could begin to understand the full redemptive narrative of Christ, not just the celebration of his birth. So, we let our teens take turns reading the scriptures that point to Jesus throughout the entire Bible—Old Testament and New. We have marveled at the depth we as a family have experienced by adding this tradition to our Christmas season each year.  

Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior. 

Giving more: We have also “flipped the script” on the tradition of gift-giving with our teens. Not too long ago, our kids were lavished with many gifts, from us, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so forth. Now that they are older, we encourage them to be gift-givers, not only receivers. My daughter has a job, so she likes to shop and buy her brothers small things that she knows they want. My boys have no cash, so I encourage them to offer gifts of service, such as offering to do a chore for a sibling, or help their dad with yard work (with a great attitude!). 

Knowing that grandparents enjoy handmade gifts, sometimes they even get around to creating an ornament or simple stocking stuffers to hand out on Christmas morning. More than anything, this tradition has helped them understand that biblical truth, “It is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). In the age of mass consumerism, I am happy for them to receive less and give more out the abundance of love they have for others. This ultimately points to how we worship Jesus, out of the overflow of love for him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

It’s important to note that we haven’t thrown out all the childhood traditions. That would make my “big kids” quite sad. We still bake and decorate sugar cookies with my grandmother’s famous recipe. We still watch The Grinch and Polar Express with hot cocoa, and, yes, we still get a chocolate Advent calendar to count down the days. I may or may not have my very own dark chocolate version each year. However, as the years I have with them under my roof start to grow fewer and fewer, I don’t want to miss the chance to deepen their affections for Jesus. Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior. 

By / Dec 3

This week marked both a step forward and a step backward for the transgender movement. On Wednesday, actress Ellen Page, who starred in the films “Juno” and “Inception,” among others, announced that she is transgender. In her announcement, she declared to the world that her name is now Elliot Page and that she wished to be addressed with the pronouns he/they, instead of the feminine pronouns she/her. Immediately, the internet was abuzz with the news of the announcement, mostly celebrating Page’s courage, offering well wishes, and applauding another individual “embracing” her true identity.

But on the other side of the Atlantic, the High Court in the United Kingdom dealt a serious blow to the transgender movement. 

Moral sanity

In a landmark ruling, judges in the U.K. denied that children under the age of 16 are able to give informed consent to receive puberty blockers, which “suppress the body’s release of sex hormones, including testosterone and estrogen, during puberty.” As Alison Holt told the BBC, “The judges have effectively split the issue into stages. They concluded a child under 13 is ‘highly unlikely’ to be able to give informed consent and at 14 and 15 it is still ‘doubtful’ they can fully understand the implications of the medication. Even for 16 and 17-year olds the ruling says it may be appropriate to involve the courts in the decision.” In issuing the ruling, the court noted that puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones used as treatment for individuals experiencing gender dysphoria or wishing to “transition” genders are in fact experimental treatments, the long-term effects of which are still very much unknown. 

The news from the U.K. represents a victory for moral sanity. The court was right to recognize the experimental nature of these so-called treatments. And though it is shameful that this needs to be said, we should not experiment on the bodies of children. Moreover, we certainly should not do so when the treatments in question are invasive, dangerous, and could bring with them lifelong consequences. This leads to the larger point: Children experiencing confusion about their gender and sexuality are not in need of drugs or hormones. Instead, they are in need of nurture, guidance, and support. Oftentimes, what they are most in need of is truth. And this is the problem with the transgender movement.

The solution to gender problems is not puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, or surgeries. Instead, it is the pattern of God’s design for men and women that is set forth in the Scriptures and applied with the grace of the gospel.

The transgender movement is predicated upon a disturbing ideology that denies basic facts about human beings. But denying fundamental realities like the relationship between a person’s gender and his or her biological sex does nothing to alter these realities. Instead, it simply fosters an inchoate form of dissonance, typically in those who are already vulnerable or struggling. It tells those experiencing gender dysphoria that their bodies are incidental to their identities. It creates a disconnect between how individuals think and feel and who they actually are. But contrary to transgenderism’s harmful and destructive ideology, the theology of Scripture (not to mention biological science) offers a much better framework for understanding ourselves and our sexuality.

Bodies matter

The Bible not only tells us that God makes each person as either male or female (Gen. 1:26-27); the Scriptures also teach us what a person is. Human beings are complex creatures, to be sure, but fundamentally every person exists as an integrated whole. We are not simply our emotions, our minds, our bodies, or spirits. We are all of those things. And we are all of them at the same time. None of the things that make a person a person are fungible. Each of these aspects, together, make us who we are. 

For example, Christians are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). This combination of the physical (heart, mind, and strength) with the spiritual (soul) represents loving God with our whole selves. This is why theologians will sometimes define a person as an “embodied soul.” Defining person this way clarifies that all of the things that make us who we are form an integrated unity. And the concept of unity is important when it comes to gender and sexuality because our bodies are not any more incidental to our identities than our emotions and feelings. 

Our biological sex, that is, whether we are male or female, was determined by God long before we were born. Our gender, or, the way we express our maleness or femaleness, is not something we choose either. Gender is tied to the biological reality of sex. And our sex, gender, and bodies are permanent features of our identities that we must not seek to change. Instead, as we embrace these elements of our identities, we are truly “finding ourselves.”

Broken but beautiful

Because our world is broken by sin, we often experience incongruence and discomfort within ourselves. This can manifest in all sorts of ways, but one of the most common ways it surfaces is with our sexual identities. Children experiencing gender dysphoria need to hear that it is natural to experience confusion or discomfort when it comes to their bodies and sexuality. Everyone does to some degree. And the presence of those feelings is no sign that a person was born as the wrong sex or should seek to transition to another gender.

This week’s High Court ruling from the U.K. recognizes the dangers of allowing children to pursue radical actions to relieve issues related to gender that can be detrimental to their long-term health. It is tragic that people who experience gender dysphoria or claim to be transgender also experience a host of other difficulties including bullying, rejection, and even self-hatred that can lead to depression and suicide. No wonder many cheered Page’s announcement this week. She was seen as a champion for those who are suffering in silence with the very same issues. But the solution to gender problems is not found in affirming something as deceptive and pernicious as transgender ideology. Instead, the answer is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel says that God made you and loves you. Male or female, he made you as you are and as you were always intended to be. You are broken but beautiful. You are flawed but infinitely loved. Whether you experience occasional discomfort or unbearable incongruity, God gave you your body and sex and gender. And none of it was done by accident. The solution to gender problems is not puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, or surgeries. Instead, it is the pattern of God’s design for men and women that is set forth in the Scriptures and applied with the grace of the gospel.

By / Dec 1

Editor’s note: In critiquing the film, this article includes some graphic descriptions of the film’s disturbing scenes.

As a filmmaker, I know that filmmaking teams spend a lot of time planning out shots in their storyboards, framing shots on set, selecting and contrasting shots in the editing room, and creating “key art” that promotes the theme and tone of their films. This work is not done on a whim. Most films represent years of effort spanning prep to promotion. The imagery is intentional and highly curated, selected to elicit a strong emotional reaction in viewers. 

The film industry also spends a lot of time discussing the ethics of filmmaking and representation—especially in the documentary world. Those conversations are necessary and valuable to bringing diverse voices and experiences to storytelling.

Reacting to the film’s key art

So it’s with that knowledge and experience that I was dismayed when Netflix launched a promotional campaign for a Sundance-award-winning film called “Cuties.” The film’s logline is: “Eleven-year-old Amy starts to rebel against her conservative family’s traditions when she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited dance crew.” I think “free-spirited” is not even close to an accurate description of this group, but it was the image for the film’s marketing campaign that drew the initial ire. 

Netflix is very intentional about the imagery for its films, changing it frequently and testing to see what attracts viewers to a particular film. But the first promo campaign for “Cuties” drew outraged responses, which Netflix later changed after issuing an apology. This campaign showed images from one of the final scenes of the film—the hyper-sexualized dance contest that the “cuties” were competing in. It is a scene that is supposed to show the negative aspects of sexualizing young girls. But the film’s key art told a different story. 

As the Hollywood Reporter defines it, key art is “the singular, iconographic image that is the foundation upon which a movie’s marketing campaign is built.” Meaning that this image sums up the tone, theme, and message of a movie. That’s why this image provoked so many people even before the film’s Sep. 9 release on Netflix. They understood that the film was being sold on the sexualized imagery of girls.

A campaign to #CancelNetflix immediately followed. The film’s French-Senegalese director, Maïmouna Doucouré, was stunned. She had not received a similar reaction at the Sundance film festival earlier this year (where, it should be noted, her film’s key art was decidedly less sexualized). Instead, her film received the Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic competition, a top prize for any director, much less a feature film directorial debut. Writing for The Washington Post, Doucouré said her film was intended to provoke adults to make changes to benefit generations of children to come and that, with this film, she was doing her part as a filmmaker. 

Some people have found certain scenes in my film uncomfortable to watch. But if one really listens to 11-year-old girls, their lives are uncomfortable.

We, as adults, have not given children the tools to grow up healthy in our society. I wanted to open people’s eyes to what’s truly happening in schools and on social media, forcing them to confront images of young girls made up, dressed up and dancing suggestively to imitate their favorite pop icon. I wanted adults to spend 96 minutes seeing the world through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, as she lives 24 hours a day. These scenes can be hard to watch but are no less true as a result.

Doucouré is even clearer about her intent in a Netflix interview on YouTube about why she made this movie that depicts both Islamic and Western views of women: “We are able to see the oppression of women in other cultures. But my question is, isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in our Western culture not another kind of oppression?”

Criticism of the film 

That’s an astute question and one that I agree with. So the question then comes down to how well does she pull off this intent in her film? Is the criticism of her film valid or not? In an October 14th article in Variety, co-CEO Ted Sarandos says no.

Sarandos says the film is “misunderstood” and raised First Amendment concerns about governmental efforts to pressure the company. He made it clear Netflix has no plans to alter the film that is an autobiographical story for director Maïmouna Doucouré.

“The film speaks for itself. It’s a very personal coming of age film, it’s the director’s story and the film has obviously played very well at Sundance without any of this controversy and played in theaters throughout Europe without any of this controversy,” Sarandos says. “It’s a little surprising that in 2020 America we’re having a discussion about censoring storytelling.”

It’s possible to claim that “Cuties” is misunderstood if its critics only responded to the marketing campaign and didn’t watch the film—though the initial marketing campaign was clear and was quickly revised. But it’s also possible that Sarandos and Doucouré misunderstood the critical response. I don’t think it’s about censoring storytelling. I think it’s about responding to the imagery chosen by a director who claims in the Washington Post that she “wanted to make a film in the hope of starting a conversation about the sexualization of children.”

So let’s talk about those scenes. The film starts when 11-year-old Amy (played by Fathia Youssouf, 14, who is luminous in her debut acting role) moves with her family to a new apartment in a worn-out housing project filled with other African Muslim families in Paris. Her father is on a long trip back to Senegal. In a heart-breaking scene (worthy of the directing award), Amy learns that her father has gone there to take a second wife and that her mother feels rejected and powerless to change it. But in a Muslim prayer group, she hears a leader tell the assembled women that though they are precious to Allah, many more women than men will end up in hell: “Where does evil dwell? In the bodies of uncovered women. Therefore, we must strive to preserve our decency, we must obey our husbands, and fear God when we educate our children.”  

In contrast to her family’s culture, Amy sees a group of classic mean girls at school who are popular and accepted, and she yearns to be like them. These are the “Cuties”—a group desperate to win a local dance competition. Though they are mean to her, Amy eventually befriends one of them in her building. As they slowly accept her, they include her in their sexting, porn discussions, and cat-calling encounters with older boys. Craving acceptance, this rowdy clique tries to gain the attention of older boys who, mercifully, turn them down as being too young. 

When Amy steals a phone from a visiting cousin, she now has the tool to see what’s happening online. These social media posts quickly shape her ideas of acceptance and femininity. Watching dance videos on this phone, she practices her moves in secret and eventually convinces the group to accept her because she can dance as they do. However, shaped by what she has seen online, Amy pushes them to dance in even more suggestive ways—and this is where the film begins to undermine its intended message.

Prior to this scene, Doucouré mostly handles the issue of porn and sexting by watching the girls’ reactions to the material, rather than showing the audience what the girls are looking at. It’s still cringe-worthy to hear them talk in a mixture of naivete and smut, but it establishes the sexualized online world of these girls. But now, as Amy joins the dance troupe, the director’s camera turns on the girls with the classic “male gaze” montage of body parts for a two-minute scene that is uncomfortable to watch as the girls fondle each other’s rears and dance in very suggestive ways. Instead of offering a critique about hyper-sexualizing pre-adolescent girls, this scene showcases it. There is no awkwardness of prepubescent girls trying out unfamiliar moves and showing their discomfort in doing so. It’s disturbing to see these young girls look so practiced at something that is supposed to be new for them and that’s a directorial choice.

The same thing happens in a later scene, when the girls set up one of their own phones to record their dance on some steps. In their world, the phone would have been on a wide shot the entire time of this dance. But instead of giving the audience the phone’s point-of-view, the director decided to go for the tight shots once again, creating another unnecessary 90-second montage of sexualized dance moves, with close-ups on the girls’ twerking rears and crotches. It’s not believable that this is how the home-made video was filmed by the girls, so the shot choices here pull the viewer’s head out of the film to wonder why a director making a commentary on sexualizing children is unnecessarily sexualizing children in this scene. 

But as a plot point, this dancing video ends up going viral for Amy, and we see her captivated by all the likes the next day at breakfast. That triumph is ruined when Amy later gets in a brawl with a competing dance squad and ends up exposed in her ratty underwear. Someone makes a video of it, and of course, that goes viral, too. That now jeopardizes the reputation of the Cuties in the upcoming competition. They are seen as little kids wearing little kids’ underwear. As Amy learns this bad news, she is confronted by her cousin who sees that she has stolen his phone. Desperate not to lose her lifeline to popularity, she unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him to get the phone back. When he pushes her away, she bites him, wrestles the phone away, and runs into the bathroom and locks the door. While her cousin pounds on the door, she hastily pulls down her pants, takes a crotch shot of herself, and posts it, before throwing the phone back at her cousin. It’s a shocking move and one that seems out of character for Amy, given her background and her world.

Of course, all of this behavior comes back to her mother, who hysterically confronts her daughter, slapping her and asking her who she has become. The elderly “auntie” intervenes, and the scene abruptly shifts to the two older women sprinkling water on Amy as she stands in her underwear. It is a callback to an earlier scene when the mother tells Amy that water washes away sins. But Amy reacts very oddly, performing a trancelike simulation of sex and orgasm that befuddles the older women—as well as this viewer. This is the most confusing and gratuitous part of the film, especially in a scene that has religious overtones. There are other moments in the film that awkwardly attempt a magical realism, and perhaps this scene is supposed to be in that vein, but it didn’t work. It’s just super disturbing to watch Amy shake, hump, and moan in a sexual pantomime, making me wonder why Doucouré thought this unsettling scene served either the storyline or her activist goals. 

The film culminates in the dance competition that the Cuties have been preparing for, which also takes place on the same day as Amy’s father’s wedding to his second wife. As the girls twerk and pout their way across the stage, the audience does not react positively to their moves. In fact, many look appalled. In the middle of the competition, Amy has a meltdown and leaves the stage. She runs home in her skimpy dance costume to encounter her mother, who is regally outfitted in traditional dress for the wedding. Inexplicably, and in contradiction to the previous scenes, the mother receives her daughter warmly and tells her she doesn’t have to go to her father’s wedding. Then Amy goes outside and ends up jumping rope with other kids. End of film. 

It’s not a logical or satisfying end to the movie because it’s abrupt and all the set-ups for a dramatic third act don’t pay off. These characters don’t act in the ways the audience would expect from prior behavior. For example, Amy is so competitive that she pushes one of the dancers in the river to ensure she has a place on the team at the competition but then she melts down because a few dozen adults stare at her? Her mother doesn’t get angry when her daughter shows up “uncovered” on the day of her humiliation at her husband’s wedding to another woman? These reversals of emotional arcs for these characters are supposed to reveal redemption, but instead it’s just confusing and unrewarding. Her mother is still humiliated by having to deal with a second wife, and the sexualized world of Amy’s peers is unaddressed. At the film’s conclusion, Amy appears to have no healthy option for her future as a young woman. 

Conclusion 

So in the end, the cinematic language of “Cuties” promotes the very thing it is critiquing. Had Doucouré filmed it in a way that didn’t objectify these girls, I think her film would have offered a better commentary and been more widely accepted. In her interviews, Doucouré makes a case for her activism with this film that is not obvious to someone who just watches the film and sees her directing choices. There were too many gratuitous and unnecessarily sexual shots of these young actors to serve that stated goal. Instead, “Cuties” contributes to the problem.

Is the Netflix backlash warranted? It definitely was for the original key art. It’s also a legitimate response to the film because of the problematic scenes described above. But that’s not “censoring storytelling”—no government is enforcing any standard here. That’s simply making a legitimate consumer-driven choice.

But I also think if “Cuties” makes you mad, you should do something more substantial than cancel your Netflix account. A better backlash would be to skip watching “Cuties” and direct that outrage toward truly damaging entities like PornHub that are profiting from actual filmed sexual abuse of minors (and adults) and getting away with it. 

As activist and author Rachael Denhollander tweeted: ‘“Cuties” is bad. The federal government receiving 70 MILLION FILES of child pornography and doing VERY little about it – is worse. Laws that make it impossible to prosecute or sue companies like Pornhub that monetize child rape and simulated rape, is worse. Get involved.”