Giving teens two ways to handle sex: Fear, promise

May 01, 2001|By Susan Reimer

TEEN PREGNANCY is declining in Maryland and in the nation, and advocates in the field are scrambling to figure out what is working so they can do more of it.

For some reason, teens are having less sex and using contraception more often, and none of the adults is sure why.

It is never easy to understand why our children do anything, let alone why they don't do what we don't want them to do, but experts attribute this positive trend to increased "motivation."

That isn't a very satisfactory explanation. While we know what motivation looks like in the classroom and on the football field, we don't know what motivation looks like when our kids are in a romantic clinch. And we sure don't know how to spread it around.

"There are two kinds of motivation," says Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

"There is motivation to avoid something, and there is a motivation toward something. We have to work on both kinds. It's a carrot and stick approach."

In order to motivate teens to avoid sex, and the unintended pregnancy which might result, we must give them a promising vision for a future without a child: education, employment and financial independence from their parents, Brown says.

And we have to warn them away from sex with lots of information about pregnancy, disease and monsters under the bed.

If these two things, fear and promise, are all that is needed to motivate teens, and if motivation is the key to a declining teen pregnancy rate, why does this country continue to lead the developed world in teen pregnancy and teen births?

Because it is hard for teens to stay motivated, Brown says. It is hard to be motivated every weekend, at every party, on every date.

"To stay abstinent in a highly sexual culture is hard," says Brown, herself the mother of three teen-age girls.

"And, likewise, to use a condom every time is hard.

"That's why the argument over abstinence vs. contraception is such a waste," she says. "We are arguing about what road to take when our teens aren't even in the car."

Any parent who has witnessed his teen clean his room in a burst of energy, only to let it fill with clutter again knows a little something about teens and commitment.

Any parent who has watched her child's grades yo-yo up and down the alphabet knows something about motivation.

Any mother who has watched her daughter spin through the revolving door of best friendships knows about consistency.

Why would we expect our teen-agers to behave differently in matters of sex?

"The continued debate over abstinence vs. contraception misses the more critical issue of motivation," says Brown. "Teens will do neither unless they are highly motivated to avoid pregnancy in the first place."

At a recent news conference to mark its fifth year in the business, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy released survey results that demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of adults (69 percent) and teens (67 percent) believe that teens should be encouraged not to have sex, but those who are sexually active should be instructed in the use of birth control.

In other words, the American people want their teens to hear both messages - abstinence and contraception - not one or the other. Further, the survey showed that neither parents (70 percent) nor teens (74 percent) think this is a confusing message.

"The public has a very common sense approach to this, and they are much more middle-of-the-road than their representatives in Washington or leaders of advocacy groups," said Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and president of the campaign.

But neither approach will prevent teen pregnancy if the teens are not on board.

"Teens are quite strong on ends, but weak on means," said Bill Galston, a domestic policy adviser to former President Clinton and a faculty member at the University of Maryland.

"Adults have to connect the dots for them," he says. "We have to say, `If you want this, you are going to have to do this and avoid this.' "

The bottom line is this: there are only two ways to prevent pregnancy: don't have sex, or use contraceptives carefully.

But while the adults are arguing about which is the right message, some kids are still following the path that requires the least amount of motivation: sex without protection.

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