In the mid-1980s, data revealed a decline of mental and emotional well-being in an increasing number of young girls. In an interview with the Beverly LaHaye Institute, Elayne Bennett said that as a faculty member at the Georgetown University Child Development Center, she was concerned about the cause of that trend.
“I began to analyze many cases, and I discovered that a common thread united them all-pre-marital sexual activity. More girls were succumbing to pre-marital sex and experiencing a host of negative consequences including depression, eating disorders and pregnancy.”
Bennett, a former teacher, became convinced that adolescent and teenage girls were not receiving the guidance and direction they needed to make healthy decisions.
Thus, she developed Best Friends, an in-school character development program designed to help girls in grades 5-12 remain sexually abstinent until marriage and avoid drugs and alcohol-risk behaviors correlated with sexual activity. The program, started in 1987, now operates in 100 schools nationwide.
“Programs like Best Friends are making a difference,” said Dr. Janice Crouse, senior fellow of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute. “Analysis from the Beverly LaHaye Institute indicates that abstinence programs are the reason that teen pregnancy and abortions are down.”
In addition to valuable teaching, abstinence programs like Best Friends provide fun and companionship a supportive network of friends who reinforce the abstinence message of self-respect through self-control. Discussion topics like “Friendship,” “Love and Dating,” “Decision Making,” and “AIDS and STDs” underscore an abstinence message and equip girls with the information and skills that they need to resist peer pressure.
The most successful abstinence programs, like Best Friends, provide a comprehensive approach to abstinence education. Because research associates low self-concept with early sexual activity and drug use, abstinence messages must be combined with efforts to raise aspirations and promote achievement.
Crouse said, “One of the things we’ve learned about at-risk girls is that they need mentors to provide practical guidance and help instill confidence and self-worth. They need a long-term caring relationship with an adult who will reinforce the abstinence messages.”
Bennett added, “Girls need a role model and a sense of connectedness. Many girls cite mentorship as their favorite aspect of the Best Friends program.”
Additionally, girls need opportunities to develop constructive habits and cultivate new interests. Best Friends girls participate weekly in a variety of physical fitness classes, perform community service projects and attend cultural enrichment activities. High school participants in Best Friends, called Diamond Girls, are required to perform in either a jazz choir or dance troupe. Altogether, each girl benefits from at least 110 hours of instruction and activities every year.
Not surprisingly the program’s message has resonated with girls, and research released in April 2005 by Adolescent and Family Health shows that girls in Best Friends are 6 1/2 times less likely to have sex, about two times less likely to drink alcohol, and eight times less likely to use drugs when compared to their peers.
Results for Diamond Girls are even more compelling: Most notably, they are almost 120 times less likely to engage in sexual activity and 26 times less likely to use drugs.
“Best Friends is long-term and intense,” said Roberta Freer, Best Friends development director. “All of the components of Best Friends are so important, and it is the multi-faceted nature of the program that makes it so successful. We treat the whole child.”
Best Friends’ success has garnered attention and accolades for its successful abstinence initiatives. It was named one of the country’s most effective programs by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in a 1997 White House Ceremony and has received several other prestigious awards for its emphasis on character education. Recently, the program applied for and received a highly competitive federal grant.
The success of the program is spilling over to homes and classrooms. “The vast majority of parents, mentors, principals and teachers have noticed a positive difference in girls who are members of Best Friends,” Bennett said. “Academic achievement has risen, and often the girls of Best Friends become leaders and set a positive example for other girls in their classes.”
Crouse concluded, “The effectiveness of programs like Best Friends drives another nail in the coffin of comprehensive sex education. The ‘let’s-show-kids-how-to-have-safe-sex’ approach has undermined the physical and emotional health of America’s young people. When girls receive proper guidance, affirmation and encouragement, they will exhibit the self-respect and self-confidence to reject unhealthy behavior and set higher standards for themselves.”
As Bennett says, “We must offer our children our best. If we do, they will surely respond with their best.”
Jessica Anderson, a senior at the University of Northern Iowa, wrote this as an intern in CWA’s Ronald Reagan Memorial Internship Program. She is majoring in public administration, political science and music.