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Teen star’s pregnancy a signal for frank talk

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

I didn't realize last summer when I told my youngest daughter about the facts of life just how crucial this information would be if she's going to understand the headlines.

It turns out my timing was good. After all, it's much easier to discuss with Amy the news about the potential cancellation of one of her favorite Nickelodeon TV shows, "Zoey 101," because I've already explained where babies come from.

Perhaps you spent the holiday season focusing on other things — such as your own life — and therefore you missed the news that Jamie Lynn Spears, sister of tabloid icon Britney and star of a popular Nickelodeon program aimed at tween viewers, is pregnant.

Miss Spears is 16. Her boyfriend (now described in the press as her "former boyfriend") is either 18 or 19, depending on the story you read. In any case, he's a legal adult while Miss Spears is not old enough to give her consent in many states, apparently including the one in which she became pregnant.

Now, in addition to owning up to her unplanned and ill-timed pregnancy, this teen celebrity also might be the victim of statutory rape, a concept I most certainly did not include last summer when I educated Amy about sex.

The folks at Nickelodeon are mum on their plans regarding the hit series, probably because they're waiting to see whether this news impacts the show's ratings. Theoretically, if there's not much negative effect on viewership, they'll keep the show and work around the young star's pregnancy. Let's just say that would affect the ratings at my house.

Suffice to say, Miss Spears' news precipitated a conversation with my daughter that I would have liked to avoid. Typically, I would prefer not to exploit my child's innocence with a discussion about how and why a famous teenager will be a famous unwed teenage mom.

I learned long ago, however, that innocence and ignorance are not one and the same, and to preserve the former, I must convey the proper context about issues such as this.

This is how it went:

Me: "Did you hear some news about Jamie Lynn Spears?"

Amy: "Let's talk about something else."

Me: "So, is that a yes?"

Amy: "Wow, look at the time. I should probably get to bed since I'm a growing girl and all."

Me: "Amy, we really should discuss this so I can answer any questions you might have."

Amy: "This is my only question: Why are you torturing me?"

It got better, really. I sensitively conveyed the news as I had heard it, being sure to acknowledge the courage that it takes to be responsible and life-giving when our culture makes it so easy to do otherwise. I talked about the proper place for intimacy between adults — within the commitment of marriage — and the possible life-changing outcomes when teens get too serious and too physical before it's appropriate.

It was a great talk, actually, even if it was one neither of us wanted to have. When it was over, Amy said she probably wouldn't be watching much of "Zoey 101" anymore. She didn't think she could look at the teen star in the same way.

Nickelodeon will have some damage control to do if Amy's response is typical, and already it seems to be heading in that direction.

Capitalizing on its already successful "Nick News" feature with veteran newswoman Linda Ellerbee, Nickelodeon may work up a TV special for children on love and sex, addressing such questions as "How do you know you're in love?" and "When is the right time to have a sexual relationship?" Miss Ellerbee says it's especially important to listen to children as we work through these issues.

Listening to children is a great idea, but let's face it: I could barely get my 10-year-old to stay in the room for a conversation about teen pregnancy. It made her uncomfortable, and thank goodness for that.

With all due respect to Miss Ellerbee, maybe we have spent too much time already listening to children and validating their feelings about sexuality.

Instead, I think it's time to be sure we've put a moral compass in their hands and shown our children how to find true north.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of "The Perfect World Inside My Minivan One Mom's Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia," a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@ comcast.net.