Stepping away from the politics and polemic surrounding marriage for a moment, how do you actually form children and young people – in an age-appropriate way – to understand the true meaning of love, friendship, sexuality and relationships?
I happened to see this article by Martin O’Brien that appeared in the Universe this month.
First of all, he recognises the challenges:
Educating children and young people with a sound understanding of Church teaching on relationships, sexual morality, love, marriage and family life remains one of the most challenging issues for any Catholic school. Problems arise: How we do we speak to children in their own language and culture but avoid reinforcing it? Beyond the rules and regulations, what exactly is the Church teaching? How am I supposed to teach it if my own life and values don’t live up to the ideal?
It was within this environment six years ago that Ten Ten Theatre – an award-winning Catholic theatre company – began devising, writing and producing a programme of Catholic Sex and Relationship Education which has now been established in hundreds of primary schools, secondary schools and parishes throughout the UK.
We take our inspiration from Blessed John Paul II’s teaching known as The Theology of the Body. It has been our task over the last few years to identify some of the core values of the teaching and write accessible, contemporary stories to explore these ideas. Karol Wojtyla himself was a keen actor and dramatist who believed passionately in the power of story and character to examine the human person. At Ten Ten we aim to do the same, encouraging our children and young people to reflect on their own lives and experiences in order to understand more deeply their Call to Love.
Then he gives some examples from their work with teenagers:
The play “Chased” for the 13-14 age group follows the story of Scott and Carly who are so confused by the world they inhabit – pressure from friends, influence of the media, physical development – that they almost lose sight of their core dignity. And yet through the story they begin to understand the deepest longings of the heart: to be honourable, to be cherished, to be loved and to love as Christ loves.
By taking the characters on this journey, and following it up with discussion, sharing, reflection and prayer, the young people understand what it means to be “in” the world but not “of” the world.
This begs the question, which O’Brien asks: What about primary school children? How can we promote these values without corrupting children with sexual imagery and inappropriate information?
One example is “The Gift”, a lovely play for 7-9 year-olds. It tells the story of twins Harry and Kate who learn about the preciousness of gifts: Kate’s treasured musical box, given to her by her Auntie who passed away, is accidentally smashed to pieces by Harry. Harry doesn’t understand why Kate is so upset. “After all,” he says, “you can get another one from the pound shop… for a pound!” Through the story, both Harry and Kate (and the children watching) learn about the true value of gifts, what it means to make a gift of yourself and the importance of forgiveness.
These are precisely the same values we promote through the play “Chased” but at an age-appropriate level. In the follow-up workshop to “The Gift”, the actors ask the children to think more deeply about the best gift they have ever been given, who gave it to them and why is it so special. Sometimes the responses are material: Playstations and puppies are always very popular. Other responses tell of something deeper: my life or my baby brother.
However, a few weeks ago at a school in Merseyside, one particular response really touched us.“What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?” we asked. “My mum,” said the boy. “And why is she so special?” “Because she adopted me and without her I wouldn’t have been brought up happy,” said the boy. The boy’s mother, in fact, also taught at the school. Later that day, when she was told what her adopted son had said, she crumbled into tears.
I can understand why. This woman has likely given her entire life as a gift to the boy, making a decision to love him, protect him and care for him with all of her heart. Surely this is one of the greatest gifts that a person could choose to give. And yet it is a gift that people throughout the world make moment after moment, day after day. Now, as a result of the visit of Ten Ten, this particular mother knew that her seven-year-old adopted son valued and appreciated the great sacrifice she has made.