The television hanging above my head in the waiting room airs an episode of the syndicated talk show “The Doctors.” The topic? Sex.
But not just sex. Graphic sex. The guest talks candidly to the show’s regular cadre of physicians about exactly how she contracted HIV, and she’s not using any euphemisms.
Call me repressed, but I just don’t want to share this moment with a roomful of strangers. As my teenagers would say, “AWK-ward.”
On the other hand, I’ve never felt awkward talking to my teens about sex. It’s a subject we’ve discussed openly in our home since our children were young. At every age and stage of development, we’ve addressed their curiosity and need for information about human sexuality just as we talk about other issues of health and morality.
It turns out for all our culture’s “sexual liberation,” today’s parents are still too reticent to discuss sexuality with their children. This month’s edition of the journal Pediatrics includes a study that shows when it comes to communicating with children about sex, America’s parenting can be summed up thusly: too little, too late.
“Many adolescents report little or no communication about sexuality with their parents,” the study found. Worse, “Many parents and adolescents do not talk about important sexual topics before adolescents’ sexual debut.”
Past studies have suggested that many parents underestimate their adolescents’ sexual activity, assuming their children are not engaging in sexual behaviors. One such study found 58 percent of teens reported they were sexually active, while only one-third of their mothers believed they were. Perhaps this is why so many parents miss the chance to influence their teens’ choices to become sexually active.
Yet one thing is abundantly clear: Parents who make their moral beliefs about sex known to their children and clearly express their disapproval of adolescent sex have a positive influence on their children’s attitudes and behavior. These conversations also serve to strengthen relationships between parents and adolescents, and closer relationships also are a key to avoiding premature sexual activity.
The new study doesn’t tell us why parents are so squeamish about talking to their children about sex. My guess is that the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s left us with some truly confusing societal norms about human sexuality. On the one hand, we’ve spawned “the hook-up culture,” yet we’re still offended by promiscuity and infidelity. Where sex is concerned, our moral compass seems to spin without ever stopping on true north.
Of course, if parents are too embarrassed to talk to their children about sex — and to put sexual behaviors in the proper moral context — never fear. The media feeds our kids messages about sex thousands of times a day, according to one estimate. Who needs to endure an uncomfortable discussion with an eye-rolling 13-year-old when you can simply turn on the TV and watch commercials for birth control pills and sexual dysfunction remedies punctuating sitcoms about sexual threesomes? Everything you ever wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask is answered every night during the family hour.
Alternatively, as an answer to the dearth of information provided to adolescents by their parents, some would expand programs and policies that circumvent parental involvement. But distributing birth control and abortion counseling without parental consent ultimately does teens a huge disservice by impeding parents from fulfilling their responsibilities to their children.
It’s time for parents to question all our assumptions about what our children know and don’t know about sex, and to quit relying on the media and school-based health classes to educate them.
Teaching kids about sexual health and morality is a parent’s job. There’s nothing awkward about it.
• Visit Marybeth Hicks at www.marybethhicks.com.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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