Parents must realize: It's important to speak up

Family Matters

October 19, 2003|By Susan Reimer

W HEN THE NATIONAL Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy held a fancy press conference on Capitol Hill to announce that teens say their parents have the biggest influence on their sexual decisions, I was reminded of an old Saturday Night Live skit.

Do you remember when Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin would anchor Weekend Update and announce that General Franco of Spain was still dead?

What was the news here?

Teen pregnancy is no laughing matter, but the National Campaign, as well as other researchers, have been reporting for a while that parents have more influence on their children than peers have.

Even Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign, who corralled Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Hillary Clinton into a Senate chamber to help her announce the latest research, was puzzled.

"It's amazing that this is news at all," she said. "I say, 'Families matter,' and all the reporters write it down."

When asked who influences their decisions about sex the most, only about a third of the teens reply, "Friends."

But half the adults believed that to be the case.

It is clear parents continue to overestimate the influence of peers, and underestimate their own influence.

But if the influence of parents is not news, neither is this: Parents are still reluctant to talk about sex with their kids.

The kids notice, and they wish it weren't the case.

Sixty-nine percent of the teens surveyed agreed that it would be much easier for them to postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations with their parents.

Maybe we adults are just plain squeamish about the topic.

Maybe a 1960s hangover leaves us uncomfortable imposing values and behaviors on the next generation.

Maybe we are afraid we will be seen as harsh or judgmental.

Or maybe parents are still not facing up to the level of sexual activity among teens, and especially young teens.

Whatever the hesitation, parents cannot say that there is no point talking to the kids because they aren't listening anyway.

"We are not as clear as our parents and grandparents were about exactly what the job of parenting is," says Brown.

"Child-rearing traditions are handed down in families. People parent the way their parents did.

"But for the first time in history, our parents' experience is irrelevant.

"I mean, I grew up with a dial phone, for heaven's sake," says Brown.

Today's parents are still confused about whether to be a flexible friend or an authority figure, but Brown believes we are coming out of that fog.

We are beginning to believe we are in charge. We can nurture and support, but we must still guide and discipline.

But we are also realizing how tough and unpleasant the job can be.

The "life-long conversation about sexuality and values" that educators like Brown talk about can quickly become a years-long battle of wills.

For many of us, those quiet conversations from the heart about the nature of love and the role of sex in love never happen.

Instead, we have regular door-slamming arguments over anything that looks like a curfew or a limit or a rule or an expectation.

How do you convey values when your child has the music turned way up and is weeping into her cell phone to her girlfriends, telling everyone who will listen what a lunatic you are?

After a week in the hamster wheel of the work world, is it any wonder parents don't relish a Friday night fight over curfew?

But Brown says "just talking" is not enough. Parents have to be the grown-ups.

And in a number of families, that means absorbing the anger of a child who has just had his wings clipped.

"It's more complicated and messy than just talking," Brown says.

Parents have to have an opinion and they must be specific and frank: This is what I believe. This is why. And this is what I expect from you.

"We cannot just chat our children into adulthood," Brown says.

We have to do morethan give "The Talk."

We have to supervise our children. We should not leave them alone regularly or for long periods. We need to know where they are, who they are with and what they are doing. We have to set standards and state our expectations clearly.

And when our children fail or fall from grace, we restate those standards and those expectations and those limits and those consequences -- we cannot throw our hands up and quit.

"Parents must be more than talkers," Brown likes to say. "Parents must be parental."

That's not news either. But it is a headline we can no longer avoid reading.

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