When you were a teenager did you seek out advice and information about sex from your parents? Were your parents a primary source of guidance and comfort for you with issues regarding your sexual practices and behavior? Did you talk to them about masturbation? Did you discuss how far you were “going” on dates? Were they involved in your decision to “go all the way”?
For most parents the answers to those questions are no, or not much. And yet we hope and pray that we can have influence over our children’s decisions, wanting to guide them and help them to make responsible and safe decisions.
When our children were younger we had a great deal more control over them, choosing their clothing, their food, their activities and, in many ways, their friends. There is a natural shift as a child progresses developmentally into becoming more autonomous. As teenagers they are rapidly outgrowing much of our control. Increasingly our input in their lives is more from advice, reasoning, conversation and by example. In other words, we have moved from being controllers to influencers. It’s a step that many of our own parents had trouble making, so we are inventing this role for ourselves with little experience of what a teen-influencing-parent looks like.
We are our children’s primary model of what it means to be adult. For their entire lives our children have studied us, observed us, learned from us (criticized us, judged us, corrected us) . If we have any hope of influencing our children about love, intimacy and sex, we must model the attitudes and behaviors we hope our children will adopt.
When you are at home do you treat your spouse with dignity and respect? Do your children hear you say “I love you” to each other and to them? Do your children see you cuddle, flirt, and be sexy with each other? Watching your healthy relationship is the single best source of influence you have.
Sadly, when teens don’t like what they see modeled at home they turn to their peers and the media for answers to their questions. Just think about how much you learned about sex from your peers, from behaving in ways you thought would impress your friends, from adapting to the “rules” laid down by the “in” crowd. It’s the blind leading the blind.
An equally pervasive and often misleading model is the media that teens absorb throughout their childhood and young adulthood. On TV and in movies youth is sexualized and exploited. Adult actors portraying teens perform material that implies that it’s “normal” for high school kids to be having sex. And lots of it. Every kid who knows how to find a web browser has been exposed to pornography. It is virtually impossible to avoid on the net. If you are not demonstrating and living and talking about your values at home then your child is turning to Facebook and movies to fill in the blanks.
When teenagers ask me “Am I ready for sex?” I always start by asking them what they mean by “sex”. I believe that parents, concerned that their children will experience an unplanned pregnancy or have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) passed to them, jump directly to penis-vagina intercourse, without first determining what’s really being asked. I think sex is so much more than making babies. I think sex is kissing, holding hands, touching each other, tickling, wrestling, hugging, holding and so much more.
When I look at the word SEX I see an acronym:
I think sex is not just reproductive biology, sex can be a gateway to intimacy, to personal growth, to love. When I talk to teenagers about sex I ask them to tell me what they want from sex – Pleasure? Connection? Intimacy? We talk a little about biology if the teen has questions, but we talk a lot about feelings and consequences.
It seems to me that if I’m going to share my deepest physical intimacy with another human being then there are attitudes that I want to be certain we share. I teach teens Chip’s 5 C’s:
1) Consent – Are we doing this because I’ve told you I’ll break up with you if you don’t? Are we doing this because you are afraid I’ll hurt you or spread gossip about you if we don’t? Are we doing this because “everyone else already has”? Are we both giving our consent freely?
2) Care / Concern – Have both partners demonstrated ongoing care and concern for each other’s welfare? Sexuality can often include the uncovering of powerful feelings. Do both partners feel confident that if big emotions show up your partner won’t run away?
3) Communication – Great communication makes great great sex. Sex does not create great communication. Before we get physically intimate there needs to already be emotional intimacy in the relationship. That’s why they’re called “lovers”.
4) Commitment – They are times in many of our lives when we have chosen to participate in casual sex. This is a perfectly valid choice to make, as an adult. As a teen, in your first experiences with sexuality, in most cases casual sex will be emotionally damaging, reducing physical intimacy into something more akin to scratching an itch. I encourage young lovers to talk about and share an imagined future.
5) Contraception/protection – Unwanted, unplanned pregnancies end a teens childhood and force decisions that can completely alter a teen’s life. If you think your teen may be sexually active I encourage you, at minimum, to purchase a box of latex condoms and some water-based lubricant and leave it where your teen will find it.
I want to be a positive and loving influence in my teenagers’ lives. One thing I can do to help achieve that goal is to develop a knowledge base that is up-to-date, relevant, and easily taught to my kids. One terrific resource is Planned Parenthood <www.plannedparenthood.org>. On the Planned Parenthood website you’ll find information about STI’s, pregnancy and birth control, news articles, and so much more. Get educated. Study the literature. Bring up topics to your kids.
Sex is OK. It’s been going on as long as time itself. Teenagers are curious and interested and also cautious and afraid. Listen to your kids. Let them be childlike when they choose to be and adult when they choose that. Treat everyone, kids and adults, with dignity, respect, trust, kindness, compassion, honesty and love.