If you had $3,000, free money given to you with no strings attached, to bid on value you want to have most, how would you spend the money?

If the first thing that popped into your mind as you read that sentence was, "Wow, this is an interesting component of sex ed in high school these days," then you've already read the Star Tribune story1.

As I discussed in a recent article, Hennepin County in Minnesota received a $17 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reduce teenage pregnancy by providing kids both sex education and life skills training. The money will allow eight schools to provide eighth- and ninth-graders with life skills education through a curriculum called the Teen Outreach Program (TOP).

This follow-up story on TOP goes deeper into one of the life skills components of the curriculum - making good decisions, good choices, in the face of temptation. Freshman at a local high school in the Twin Cities suburbs competed in an auction, using $3,000 (of fake currency) to "bid" on a list of 20 life values. Values included doing something for special for their families, excelling at a sport, staying a virgin until marriage, having a lot of free time, having a successful career, graduating from high school and college, not becoming a parent as a teenager, staying out of trouble with the law, being popular, being attractive, never contracting STIs or AIDS, finding the right person to love, and more.

If this doesn't sound like your typical sex-ed class, you're right. A county analyst monitoring the program explained in the article how sex ed and life skills in the curriculum fit together: "In order to wait until they are adults to become parents, they need to have the knowledge of how to avoid pregnancy. And then they need the motivation to wait."

The "auction" was set up to show kids that they do have priorities - getting a job, graduation, etc - and that they are old enough to make choices that protect those priorities. The life skills section is designed to make teens aware of their futures and help improve judgment so kids have hope that they can attain those future dreams.

This idea fits well into a basic health behavior model called the theory of planned behavior.2 Essentially, behavioral performance is determined jointly by motivation (intention) and ability (behavioral control). A person will expend more effort to perform a behavior when his/her perception of behavioral control is high. If Freshman #1 has a dream - graduating from college - but sees barriers everywhere - money, grades, friends, etc - that dream will be awfully hard to realize. But if Freshman #1 has a dream of graduating from college and believes he/she has the ability to control that outcome, it's more likely that dream can occur, and it's more likely Freshman #1 will work to make that happen.

Does this translate to better sexual choices? So far, it seems to - nationally, TOP students are  at an estimated 53 percent less risk of teen pregnancy; locally, the other pioneer school in the Twin Cities showed that condom use went up for sexually active teens who completed a TOP program, whereas condom use went down for a comparison group.

Better choices, better lives for teens? That's something I definitely value.

1 The article is one of the few "premium" articles on the site, so you have to have a subscription to access it. If you really want to read the story, here's the link to the login site.
2 From Glanz, Rimer and Lewis, Health Behavior and Health Education, 3rd ed. 2002.