What’s Abstinence Got to do With Degrading Single-Parent Families?

Brigitte Amiri, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, and Tricia Herzfeld, ACLU of Tennessee

“Mom, am I more likely to go to jail because you and Dad aren’t married?” Imagine your sixth grader coming home and asking you that question after being taught family life in school. That’s what happened to Caroleigh Heaton in Maryville, Tennessee. Ms. Heaton contacted us, and we obtained the abstinence-only-until-marriage program used throughout the Maryville school district. We found that in addition to withholding vital information that kids need to make healthy decisions about sex, the program also advanced questionable “facts” that implied that children from single-parent homes — especially homes without a father — were doomed to a lower rate of success than their classmates from two-parent homes. The program emphasized that kids from fatherless homes were significantly more likely to exhibit behavioral disorders, drop-out of school or go to prison.

In addition to marginalizing kids raised by single parents, these programs also inherently discriminate against children of gay and lesbian parents or those who themselves are LGBTQ. So last month we sent a letter to the school district asking them to change their family life education course to ensure that it is inclusive and teaches that, regardless of a child’s home life, she can achieve her goals. We also asked them to rid the program of outmoded gender stereotypes and medical inaccuracies. For example, the program teaches students that “girls spend much more time trying to look good and caring about what they wear.” And the program also provides inaccurate information about the efficacy of condoms in protecting against sexually transmitted infections.

It’s not just individual abstinence-only programs that promote this view: our federal government does too. The federal definition of an “abstinence program” is one that includes teaching students that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society. Our federal government unfortunately continues to spend millions of dollars on abstinence-only programs that are required to follow this definition, or at the very least not contradict it.

No child should be taught that it is preordained that she will not achieve her goals, will be destined to live a life of poverty, and will end up in jail simply because she does not come from a home with a married mother and father. Schools also should not use shame or fear to teach students to wait to have sex until they are married. Instead, all students should be given the tools they need to make healthy decisions and to reach their highest potential.

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  • faultroy

    Too bad the ACLU didn’t give specific citations on the alleged reading material.  And, the two posters should have perhaps contacted the federal government  and their respective agencies to establish the truth of the comments the ACLU is complaining about.  So let’s talk about Facts…the statistical  facts are that a child born out of wedlock stands a much more difficult time of becoming a successful adult–as a matter of fact, all studies support this conclusion.  Furthermore, all studies point out that the healthiest environment for a child is a loving two parent home with a mother and father.  Why?  It has nothing to do with discrimination, but everything to do with dual incomes.  Unless both writers have the IQs of a chipmunk, it doesn’t take  much brain power to understand that in the USA today, a two income family has the greatest chance of having a successful life along with standard amenities.  Again, statistically, the fastest way for a woman to sink to the poverty line is to divorce–because unless her husband or she has a great job, she is effectly reducing her income by 50%.  And the coment that those children from fatherless homes have a statistically greater chance of developing behavioral problems is also a statistical fact.  Not mentioned again is the fact that children of one parent homes have a greater chance of sexual abuse and a greater likelihood of teen pregnancy.  What really annoys me about these two is both the deception and the duplicity they use in promoting their own agenda.  They use generalities to imply that their reality is correct and that the Federal government and the statistical realities of life are incorrect.  It is fine to advocate for a different viewpoint–that is their right as Americans. But to distort, misrepresent and manipulate is unbecoming of any group regardless of what their political affliation is.  Doing so robs any individual reading it of the right to choose.  It gives far right and far left “wing nuts” the tools they need in order to make their cases.  After all, if the “American Civil Liberties Union” can mislead and obfuscate than why can’t I? The first rule of any advocacy organization is to be truthful and fair.  To represent the matter in a balanced light to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.  These two “advocates” have done everything but that. If the ACLU is so concerned about the welfare of children in Sex Ed, perhaps they should do what they do best–file a lawsuit and let the courts make the decision.  And while you are at it, perhaps you may want to wikipedia the ACLU–you might be surprised–I know I was.

  • caroleigh

    faultroy: For citations, read the actual letter sent to Maryville Schools linked in the blog post. A few examples of problems with Maryville’s AO instruction are included (and cited) in the letter, and a quick Google search of curriculum resources will reveal many others. The contracted employee paid to teach these classes has developed her own, expanded lesson plans, which she did not disclose when asked to do so, but nothing is mentioned in the ACLU’s letter that is not supported by documentation and curriculum materials provided by the school system to the ACLU.  However, my daughter and her classmates have been the direct recipients of these lessons – they have brought home handouts and other materials and are reliable reporters of what they’ve heard in Family Life class. So, yes, let’s talk about facts.

    When my daughter (in the 6th grade) told me she had heard in Family Life that she was far more likely than other kids in her class to go to jail, become a teenage parent, or end up a drug addict because her dad and I weren’t married, I began to look into what was being taught in these lessons. I was shocked and appalled by what I found.

    Our school’s AO curriculum stigmatizes all families other than hetero-marrieds, is discriminatory, promotes gender stereotypes, endorses religious and ideological biases, and, worst of all, is full of medical inaccuracies. It teaches students that condom use will not protect them from pregnancy or disease and that pre-marital sex, abortion, and placing a child for adoption are all harmful to a woman’s mental health.

    Teens who have had abstinence-only education are statistically no less likely to be sexually active and do not have intercourse any later than other teens, but they are significantly less likely to use condoms. Abstinence-only instruction is unacceptably irresponsible and dangerous.

    And about that single-parent=go-to-jail thing: Yes, kids from single parent homes may be statistically more likely to struggle academically and suffer negative outcomes (teen pregnancy, substance abuse, etc.). BUT, as any researcher without an ideological ax to grind will tell you, the determinant factor is not married vs. unmarried parents. Rather, the variable that best predicts those outcomes is the economic stability of the parent – education, employment opportunities, and external support. When those things are equal, children from single-parent families fare no worse than their peers from married-parent homes; without economic stability, kids from married-parent families are at equal increased risk. Single parents (and we’re / they’re really talking about single mothers) do, as a group, experience more economic hardship than married parents. However, MANY single parents maintain stable homes for their children, and, for those kids, the disparities disappear. Marriage is not the deciding factor, as abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculums contend. MANY THANKS to the ACLU for following up and trying to hold schools accountable for what they are teaching our children. We’ll see what happens…

  • squirrely-girl

    …the statistical  facts are that a child born out of wedlock stands a much more difficult time of becoming a successful adult…

    Please put on your critical thinking hat for a few minutes, look beyond your own personal and moral convictions and ask why this might be? For one, children in single parent households suffer from a lack of financial stability. Children with married parents don’t just benefit from the extra care and consideration but from having two incomes as well. It’s not difficult to see that many children growing up in our current economic environment with a parents or parents out of work are going to have a more difficult time becoming successful adults… and not because they lack a moral compass.

    Furthermore, all studies point out that the healthiest environment for a child is a loving two parent home with a mother and father. 

    You’re going to need to provide some citations for this assertion because the APA position makes NO REFERENCE to a “mother and father” but rather a two parent household in general. And just in case you missed the memo, two gay men or two gay women can have two incomes as well. Crazy how all of the research suggests that children of gay and lesbian parents do just as well as other kids (oh, expect the part where they display more empathy than their peers). 


    Ultimately you appear to be conflating anything and everything other than a heteronormative living arrangement as automatically negative and truthfully there are far more gradations and considerations that a critical thinker would be addressing.


    And while you are at it, perhaps you may want to wikipedia the ACLU–you might be surprised–I know I was.

    While you’re at it, maybe you should use sources other than the publicly edited Wikipedia for your information. You might be surprised.

  • therealistmom

    I mean, who knew that because my ex decided to have a mid-life crisis and run away from my major depressive disorder that my children are going to end up in jail! Obviously my 17 year old who is taking college courses through the Running Start program, taking Advanced Placement courses, and spends her time drawing manga, working on art commissions, or gaming is headed for a life of crime. And teen pregnancy, with her not dating.


    My 14 year old with Down syndrome surely is headed straight down the path of juvenile delinquincy, what with the Special Olympics and all. She’s a terror!


    Of course, my 11 year old son- well, who knows about him. He’s in the Honors Program at the middle school, but has issues with impulse control because of his ADHD. so he gets extra scrutiny and help… so yeah, he’s certainly ready for big time crime waves.

  • crowepps

    It’s interesting that you insist prior posters should have done more research before commenting, when it’s obvious that you didn’t do that yourself.  The letter from the ACLU available at the link contains a number of specific quotes from the specific program used such as: “85% of all youth sitting in prisons grew up in fatherless homes”. 

    So let’s talk about Facts…the statistical  facts are that a child born out of wedlock stands a much more difficult time of becoming a successful adult

    No, actually, the statistical facts show that a child who grows up in POVERTY stands a much more difficult time of becoming a successful adult and the fewer adults in the house, the more likely it is the home is poor.  If we’re going to go by statistics, the optimally healthy home is one with two lesbian parents.


    The point that you seem to be missing entirely, however, is that when they talk about the horrors of “fatherless homes” in an effort to get girls to lock their knees together, they are also SPECIFICALLY TEACHING all the children that if THEIR mother is one of those ‘inferior’ types who is single, divorced, OR WIDOWED, then no matter what that child’s relationship is with the rest of their extended family OR their out-of-home father, they are DOOMED and might as well just drop out of school and go stick up a quick-stop, because they are irretrievably damaged by having been raised without a penis in the house at all times.


    Apparently it never occurred to the authors of this program that parents wouldn’t be thrilled to have the kids come home and ask Mom why she’s a slut.  Although considering that another right-wing goal is to eliminate the public school system altogether and replace it with a system of for-profit religious schools, maybe that’s deliberately part of the design.

  • prochoicekatie

    A family of two gay men has highest income potential – two male incomes. Women are still compensated less for every income dollar.

    Also, if we’ve already determined that it is income and NOT marriage that creates these statistical differences, why don’t we spend less time telling kids not to be single parents and more time just telling them not to be poor? This sounds blunt, but I’d rather have my school teach me that economic stability will be the predictor of many successes in my life, and not that getting married will do so. If I know that I can do well by acheiving a good job and steady income, I will set those goals. If my school tells me that getting married will do these things, I will not place as much emphasis on my career, and when my marriage fails (because 50%  of them do) I will be less equiped to find a job and provide for my family.

  • colleen

    Nice to see you back here. I’ve missed reading your posts.

  • ahunt

    RM, good to see you. Was concerned, but now… no way to connect. Glad to hear about yer kids…

  • squirrely-girl



    Because that would just be “mean.” As a society we don’t like admitting there are very real disparities in economic and financial stability nor do we like acknowledging the very real issues of gender gaps in pay or the racist underpinnings of poverty and our education system. Saying “don’t be poor” would mean we first have to acknowledge that poor people exist and that society is complicit in continuing the gender and racial divides in this poverty. But because we live in the “land of the free” where “anybody” can grow up to be anything they want… well blaming “actions” is much more “humane” and in line with the discriminatory beliefs in a “protestant work ethic” or a “just world belief.”


    Saying “don’t be poor” would mean some rich, old, white men would have to do something about the system that fosters that poverty in the first place. :/

  • therealistmom

    It’s nice to know I was at least a bit memorable. :) I’ve really missed the commentary here, just was a bit burned out. I have seen Princess Rot at Pandagon and I get this blog’s updates on Facebook- decided to get myself back in the game so to speak.

  • sometimesamused

    My daughter just went through one of those classes and they DO push the “traditional” family of the 1950s–Mom, Dad, Sis, Junior and Rover with Dad going off to work while Mom takes care of the house. The program DOES teach that condoms are no good and that birth control in general causes cancer. My daughter had asked about the Pill until that class, but then said “no, thanks” because she didn’t want to get breast cancer before she was 20 (as was cited in the class materials). She also didn’t like hearing that girls were “stupid” because they care about their appearance more than boys of her age seem to.


    Yes, some of those courses really do allow that to be taught, along with the subtext  a single mom really is a slut.  At my daughter’s school, the health teacher is given free rein to offer her personal religious opinion as “fact” because the version of the APA being taught encourages it and the woman often told the class that single mothers were “low class, with no control” and that Jesus didn’t like them.


    When I had to sit through sex ed way back in the day, we WERE taught about how hard it would be to get a decent job while trying to raise a baby, especially since it was still assumed a pregnant girl would automatically drop out of school (although that was never the case at my HS).


    Stability (including financial) was emphasized more than marital status. Education was discussed as a factor, too. But I never heard any of my teachers say that being a single parent would stunt the child or make them turn criminal. Nor did I ever hear that Jesus would be sad if I had sex. We were taught about condoms, the Pill, and other forms of birth control because it was no secret that teenagers have sex. The idea was to prevent an unintended pregnancy as opposed to pretending one would never happen.


    Economic standing does play a role in how a child grows up, no matter what one’s marital status and that should be the indicator. My ex walked out when he found out I was pregnant. However, despite his abandonment, I did just fine. I have a good job (23 year years with the same company) with insurance and have never been on assistance. Yet, by the standards set forth by the APA, my child is doomed to all sorts of horrors because her father left us.


    I admit that she does have a mental disorder, but that was something she INHERITED from dear old Dad. Staying together would not have made a difference. In fact, it was his fear of having to deal with the prospect of an inherited condition that caused his departure. To equate a disorder with a single parent only makes it harder for those kids who have disorders to cope because they are hearing it is their single mother’s fault for them having said disorders (forgetting there are two contributors to the gene pool).

  • aligatorhardt

    The subject of sex education is no place for religious dogma. Public school studies need to be based on known parameters of proven science. As a teenage parent myself, That situation would never have happened if facts about contraception and pregnancy were known. While I do not resent the child, the financial strain of being a parent too soon is undeniable. Education is most important,and denial of the reality of sexual expression is no way to achieve societal improvement. Religion provides a distorted and biased view of sex and pregnancy. The phony ideals of 50’s TV shows are fantasy, or wishful thinking. The need for both parents to work is a reality for most people. Stereotypes about family earnings are worthless. One parent with a high level job can earn much more than two parents in a working class family. Thank goodness for organizations like the ACLU. We cannot have a successful society if we use fantasy to make our decisions. This issue of sex education is central to the questions of local curiculum decisions vs centralized control. Some level of centralized control is needed to keep fanatics from controling our children’s education.