- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008

I have been totally intrigued with all of the hoopla surrounding Bristol Palin’s pregnancy. Many naysayers of abstinence education view this as the perfect opportunity to say that in spite of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s advocacy of abstinence education, her daughter’s pregnancy is proof that abstinence education doesn’t work. I wonder how they came to this conclusion.

As someone who has worked with adolescents for many years, I have learned a couple of things. First, in my conversations with teens, it has become clear that some teens will remain abstinent before marriage no matter what. At the other end of the spectrum, there are teens who will be sexually active no matter what anybody says. However, there is a pretty large group of teens who are hanging out on the fence, very interested in making wise choices.

Second, in spite of the fact that parents give their children healthy instructions, it doesn’t mean they always will follow them. Is this a good reason for you to stop instructing and teaching them? Common sense would say no.

Consider the “Click It or Ticket” campaign, which is designed to promote seat-belt use since research shows seat belts save lives. Many teens are critically injured in car accidents because they choose not to wear their seat belts, but does that lead parents to back off of encouraging their teens to wear a seat belt? Not likely. While some people don’t heed the advice, many others are wearing seat belts and clearly lives are being saved.

What about driving while intoxicated? From Mothers Against Drunk Driving to Red Ribbon Week and other alcohol-awareness efforts, there has been a strong campaign to discourage young people from driving drunk, yet there are still young people who get behind the wheel after drinking. Does this mean the campaigns are a waste of time and money? Doubtful.

The latest research shows fewer school-age teens are having sex, and that the age of first sexual experience has risen over the past decade. Another noteworthy consideration from the analysis of the current data is that the age group most at risk for nonmarital pregnancy is not school-age teens, but 19- to 24-year-olds.

Clearly, teens are on a journey of becoming independent. While they often tell us they know what’s best, most parents recognize that their young person doesn’t have near the life experience adults have, and their youthful decisions often are impulsive.

“The fact that they don’t always listen to us cannot deter or discourage us from encouraging teens to strive for the ideal of whole person adolescent health when it comes to abstinence, safety behind the wheel, alcohol or drug use, or even saying please and thank you,” says Joneen Mackenzie, a registered nurse and president and executive director of WAIT Training, a national youth development and life skills program.

“Most parents recognize that encouraging their teen to aspire to these goals is truly in their best interest. The constant drumbeat from the media that abstinence until and in preparation for marriage is not realistic is not well advised,” she says.

In a conversation with my friend, Marline Pearson, author of “Increasing Your Relationship Smarts,” part of the Love U2 comprehensive relationship curriculum, we were lamenting the fact that our young people get little guidance on navigating the world of teen relationships and the sexual culture. They are on a journey to learn about love, relationships, themselves and their emerging sexuality. As they jump into relationships, they are in the throes of powerful feelings of attraction, rejection and myriad other emotions. Most teens want affection, respect, love and connection. While we tell them what to say “no” to, we do too little to help teens build the healthy relationships to which they can say “yes.”

Quite frankly, I would like to see more parents become bold enough to hold their teens to the highest standard while loving them unconditionally, no matter what the outcome. From what young people tell me, they crave having adults in their lives who will shoot straight about the issues.

Teens have few road maps that will lead them into healthy relationships and away from destructive ones. Teaching your teen about committed and healthy love relationships is one of the greatest gifts you can give them, and it will last a lifetime.

• Julie Baumgardner is executive director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at [email protected]

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