Friday, May 25, 2012

shortcut parenting

Why have we given up on our teenagers?

Over and again, any time an abstinence-only sex education program is proposed for public schools, the response is “but they’re going to have sex anyway, so we might as well teach them how to use condoms. Fewer teens will get STDs and fewer teen girls will get pregnant.”

It’s a ridiculous argument. First of all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that more than 60% of high schoolstudents are not sexually active. Sex is prevalent, yes, but it’s simply not true to say that “everyone’s doing it.” Not everyone is. And I’m willing to bet a lot of money that the vast majority of high school students who are not sexually active have not been pregnant or responsible for a pregnancy and do not have any STDs.

And kids really do learn from their parents. When kids are young, most parents say things like “no, you can’t have that toy; your sister is playing with it right now” and “you have to wait till after dinner to have a cookie.” (Why not let them? Anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes with children will tell you they’re going to fight anyway.) When the kids get older, many parents make sure their kids do their homework before they watch TV. They make sure their kids do their assigned chores and that they don’t watch certain movies. Kids learn these things.

Not every parent does this, sure, but many parents do – including many parents who say their teenagers “are going to have sex anyway.” The Guttmacher Institute reports that the most common reason teens have for not having sex is that it’s “against religion or morals.” Those morals – not stealing, not lying, doing homework – are almost always instilled by parents. There’s no reason parents should just stop being parents when it comes to teaching their kids about sex. The only thing preventing parents from talking to their kids about sex is the parents.

Know what you believe about what sexual activity is appropriate, and tell your kids exactly what you expect and why. Chances are you’ll do a better job teaching your kids what you want them to learn than will a school funded by taxpayers who disagree on sex education. If you want your kids to know how to use contraceptives, teach them. If you want your kids to save sex for marriage, tell them and teach them why. Help your kid understand the reasons for your expectations. Talk through ways of avoiding risky situations and relationships. Teens who understand that their parents care are likely to listen.

Many of my friends waited till they married or, if they are not married, are currently waiting. Almost all of those (myself included) have very involved parents – not obnoxious, not overbearing, but also not trying to be our best friends or peers. They used their parental authority when we were two and three to teach us not to take toys from our siblings, and while we grew, they helped us grow; they explained, in an age-appropriate way, why they taught us what they did. Their parental authority continued as long as we lived in the house, but it evolved as we grew.

Of course, even the best parents aren’t guaranteed that their children will act as they’ve been taught. But parents, if they are involved and help their teenagers understand their expectations – and if they actually expect those expectations – have much more influence than they might think.

And teenagers are capable of much more than parents might think. Figure 1: that 60%.

Don’t give up.

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