Parents must know they matter to teens

May 12, 1998|By Susan Reimer

AFTER BRINGING home an abysmal grade on a social studies test, my daughter answered my protests by saying, "Muh-ther. Social studies doesn't, like, matter."

I said out loud that I thought her social studies teacher would be disappointed to hear that, but I thought to myself, "Poor guy. I know exactly how he feels."

So many parents of teens and pre-teens don't think they matter, either. Even in our own self-conscious youth, we never felt so out of it, so uncool, so unpopular as we do now.

All our suggestions are stupid, as are the clothes we wear in public and the things we say in front of their friends. It is tough to be a 24-hour-a-day, eye-rolling embarrassment to the children we love.

But if you believe the people at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, we are wrong. We do matter to our children. And they want to hear what we think and what we believe. Especially on the subject of sex.

"Parents matter much more than they think they do," said Isabel Sawhill, president of the 2-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan leadership group. "We have to get that word out."

Sawhill, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cited an MTV poll which reported that teens mentioned their parents as heroes more often than anyone from the world of sports, music or entertainment.

But, like the project that is due tomorrow or the bad grade or the fight in the hall or just about any other information from their school day, kids don't mention this at home.

"Parents matter," said William Galston, a University of Maryland professor and former member of the Clinton administration who is on the campaign's board of directors.

"Kids desperately want them to matter. And parents must believe that they are not powerless. The youth culture is not hermetically sealed from parental influence," Galston said during recent press briefing.

The campaign, funded almost entirely by private donations, has sorted through mountains of research on adolescent behavior and pregnancy prevention programs. It uses what it has synthesized to help communities develop the multilayered approaches that will be needed to reach its goal -- to reduce teen pregnancy by a third by the year 2005.

But this will not happen without the help of parents -- many of whom are busy feeling defeated and dealt out.

"Parents can't determine whether their teens have sex or use condoms, but their influence is far greater than they believe," said Brent Miller, professor and head of the department of family and human development at Utah State University. He reviewed two decades of research on family influences for the campaign.

Miller said the research shows that the attitudes and values of parents are important and "strong opinions seem to make a real difference" in reducing a teen's risk for pregnancy. He also said that when parents have rules and monitor their teen's whereabouts and know his friends, their teen is less likely to become pregnant or cause a pregnancy.

"There are a few studies that show overly strict parents do not experience the same outcome," he said, qualifying the finding. "It appears that the lighter touch might be better."

Taken together -- a close relationship with the child, a strong statement of values and consistent but not heavy-handed supervision -- these factors have an important interactive connection in not only preventing teen pregnancies, but in reducing or preventing all sorts of risky behaviors, such as drinking, smoking and drugs.

"The tremendous power of the parent-child connection comes through in every single one of the risk behaviors," said Robert Blum, a professor at the department of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and a member of the campaign's research task force.

He was one of the lead researchers on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and drew on that data for a picture of how teens and their parents communicate.

"But these things must work together," he said. "If there is a lousy relationship, setting a curfew won't do it.

"On the other hand, closeness is no guarantee. But it is a precondition. You start with a solid relationship and then you pile on information, values and supervision."

Blum is correct. There are no guarantees. Even if parents have this kind of a relationship with their teens, even if the exchange of information and values is open and lively, even if parents know where their kids are and who they are hanging out with -- still, life happens, sex happens, pregnancy happens.

But parents have to start by believing they matter to their children -- notwithstanding the grinding gears of daily life.

"We are not irrelevant," said Blum, himself the father of three teen-agers. "We may have to be creative to make the connections with our kids.

"But first we have to believe that we matter."

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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