A BBC story reports that the US has the worst rate of death from child abuse or neglect of any industrialized nation, with 1,770 kids killed in 2009. (A recent Congressional hearing estimates that the real numbers are even higher.)

So how do these other nations differ from us? By and large, they have lower poverty rates, lower crime and imprisonment rates, universal health care, better family-leave and child-care policies, better pre-school options, and much better networks of help for families with children.

Another thing we learn when we compare ourselves to the countries that are doing much better is that they have markedly lower rates of teen pregnancy. Very young people with unplanned children, unstable relationships, a curtailed education and therefore low earning potential, and lots of contempt from their community* are at an elevated risk of killing their kids. This paper compares measures of US teens’ sexual health (rates of pregnancy, abortion, STDs, HIV) with the teens of Germany, France and the Netherlands–you must click, just to see how much higher our teen pregnancy rate is than these countries’–and concludes that we would do well to adopt their approach of “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” regarding teenage sexuality.

That sounds a lot like the sexuality education program we offer at church, Our Whole Lives. OWL was developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ, but you don’t have to be UU or UCC, or religious in any way, to enroll your kid, and–speaking for my own congregation–we won’t pressure you to join our church or ask you to donate money. It’s part of our ministry to the community. (It’s also not only for teens; there are developmentally-appropriate versions for K-2, 4-6, and adults of various ages, too.)

I know we save lives through this program when we teach young people that it’s okay to be gay, that it’s not okay for your partner to mistreat you or for you to mistreat your partner, and that sex is supposed to be safe (as well as fun, loving, and pleasurable), but I hadn’t thought about the impact on the next generation. I have no doubt that if every teenager in the US received a comparable education, we’d see a huge drop in those child death numbers within ten years.

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*A babysitter of ours, then 17, said that she got lots of dirty looks when she and Munchkin were out alone, such as on their happy trips to the playground. Apparently we had all too many neighbors who (a) had never heard of babysitters, (b) disapproved of teen moms, even one who was taking excellent care of the child, and (c) thought they ought to express that disapproval. Did they imagine that that was somehow helpful?

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