Mom, not dad, hangs in there with the kids every day

September 15, 2002|By Susan Reimer

Closeness to Mom Can Delay First Sex Among Younger Teens," the headline read.

"Teen-agers are less likely to start having sex when their mothers are involved in their lives, have a close relationship with them and successfully communicate their values on sex to them," according to the latest findings from the largest-ever survey of American teens.

One word jumped out at me, and it wasn't "sex."

It was "Mom."

Mom? Don't they mean "parents?" Doesn't "closeness to parents" delay sex and a laundry list of other risky behaviors? Aren't we a team, even if it is only a tag team? Aren't we in this together? Apparently not.

"This does not mean dads are irrelevant," University of Minnesota researcher Dr. Robert Blum, author of the study, is quick to say. "It just means they weren't available when the surveys were being done."

Blum and his associates have learned a great deal about teen-agers after following 12,000 junior high and high school kids for five years. And, if this latest report is any indication, they have learned a great deal about their mothers, too.

But not about their fathers.

"Fathers are harder to come by," admits Blum, with a shrug. "It is a matter of who is available. Who fills out the forms. Who is there when the researcher arrives for the in-depth interview. In most families, women are responsible for these kinds of things."

It could be that "closeness to fathers" is just as significant in delaying early sexual behavior, especially among girls whose fathers stand very close when the boyfriend comes to call. We just don't know.

But my guess is, if the fathers didn't have time to fill out the survey and they weren't there when the interviewer arrived for the follow-up interview, then that whole "closeness" thing isn't happening, either.

What we do know is this: Mothers who are already struggling to supervise their elusive teen-agers and to keep some communication going in the midst of regular emotional explosions have been told something they already knew.

It is up to us to keep our teen-agers safe, and it can't be done from a distance.

But getting close to a teen-ager is as tricky as getting close to a porcupine.

How can you judge the closeness of your relationship with your teen when they are likely to slam the door in your face, bang down the phone in your ear or storm out of the room shrieking that they hate you? Is fighting a form of closeness? "There are many ways to do this without telling yourself, 'It is time to find my child and grill them,' " says Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the mother of three girls.

"There are small ways to pay attention to them. Know the names of their friends, their teachers. Ask about these people. This is not a small thing. It is another subtle way of signaling that you care about them."

Blum says this "connectedness" that is so important in protecting our kids from their own bad judgment is not necessarily established during big-ticket, scripted adventures.

You don't have to spend two weeks white-water rafting with him or a weekend shopping in New York with her in order to connect.

"What it is about is talking, listening, being available," he says.

Blum once asked a group of teens, who described their relationships with their mothers as "close," what that meant.

"They said things like: 'She's at work, but she always calls to make sure I am home from school' and 'She always leaves me a note telling me where she is and when she will be home' and 'She knows all my friends' and 'She always leaves me a snack in the fridge.'

"It is about asking about the French test," Blum says, "about knowing there was a test and it was in French class."

There are all sorts of caveats in this report. Mom's influence doesn't seem to be as strong with sons, and it wears thin with daughters as they enter their junior year in high school and start to push away.

The report also demonstrates that we don't do a very good job of letting our kids know just how strongly we disapprove of them having sex as young teen-agers. And the really bad news? Half of all mothers are unaware when their children become sexually active.

But the study also reinforces a concept that is gaining credibility in the parenting wars: "What we say and do impacts our kids, sometimes directly and sometimes by shaping their perceptions," says Blum.

"We matter in the lives of our teens. They hear what we say and they watch what we do."

Adds Brown: "We have not totally lost our teens to peers and pop culture. We are rediscovering the power of parents."

Well, the power of mothers, anyway.

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