The following article was written for an American audience on the benefits of being open and honest with your children. Ostensibly it relates this to sexual activity within adolescents but one can take its ideas and use them in all aspects of bringing children up to become emotionally mature and responsible adults.
One out of 10 teen girls in America will have a pregnancy before she is 20. Fifty percent (50%) of all new reported HIV cases occur in young people 15-24. America has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and births of all developed countries. In the United States, the teen pregnancy rate is nine times higher than in the Netherlands. In the United States, the teen abortion rate is eight times higher than in Germany. The US teen gonorrhea rate is 74 times higher than in France.
Parents and policy makers in other countries such as Germany, France, and the Netherlands know that using fear, shame and guilt does not work to reduce risk-taking behaviour and instead believe their children have a right to uncensored, medically accurate, sex education and to access to contraception and condoms. They respect their youth, value them as capable and responsible, and view them as assets in the society, not liabilities. Their youth, when given these rights and respect, behave responsibly. With this openness and honesty, European teens have sex no earlier and in some cases later than American teens and have fewer partners. It's not rocket science, just good common sense for growing up in the 21st century. Abstinence until marriage may be a religious value for some, but virginity until marriage is no longer the norm in any developed country. Yet our federal government is spending over $100 million dollars a year of public tax money for programs that have only one message- no sex until marriage, and teens must be told that if they do have sex before marriage, they will suffer physical and psychological damage. The 90 percent of adults who didn't wait for marriage must be walking around badly wounded and scarred. Forty-nine of the 50 states are taking this money.
What's going on in America that places our young people in such peril? What's so different about our culture that does not seem to be prevalent in these three countries?
One of the most obvious differences is parenting philosophy. Many American parents appear to believe they "own" their children, and if they own them, they can control them all the time. Some of these parents believe if they deny teens accurate, honest sexuality information, if they try to obstruct their access to condoms and contraception, then teens will dismiss all thoughts and feelings about sex until they get married.
Do parents "own" their children or do parents only get a lease? Smart parents know that it's just a lease. The lease begins on the day of conception and lasts for 18 years in most cases, and the lease is non-renewable and irrevocable.
Parents do not get a deed to their children. Young people are not property. From the day they are born, parents' control is sporadic and decreases with every passing day. "The parenting contract" obligates parents to provide food, shelter, and emotional and psychological support. The "lease" stipulates that parents protect children, nurture them and keep them healthy. The "contract" spells out parents' responsibility to make sure their children are educated and prepared for adulthood, self-sufficiency, and mature intimate relationships.
Would it not be wonderful, if there really was a legally binding contract like this, or at very least, an assessment of a person's ability and resources to provide all those services? Unfortunately, this "lease" is not in writing nor is it even discussed before parents assume parenthood and unfortunately, in some cases, children get little of what constitutes good parenting.
The parenting lease must also be adjusted to meet the needs of children as they mature and are capable of making more of their own decisions. This letting go process is perhaps hardest at adolescence when the following 3 developmental tasks are explored and resolved to produce teens who become responsible, loving, trusting and productive adults.
Identity:Who am I? What do I believe? What's important to me? What kind of person am I? How important are peers, family, and other influences on my choices. What are my skills, talents, and dreams. Are my values different than my family and/or friends?
Intimacy: Who do I care about? What is a relationship with a partner all about? What is love and closeness? How can I trust someone else with who I am and what I feel? What do I need in a relationship? What is physical intimacy all about? What is pleasure?
Independence: Where am I going? How can I separate from my family and stand on my own, make my own decisions, be in charge of my life? What do I want to do in terms of my career or work? What do I do when I make mistakes or don't do what others want me to do? How do I get privacy in my life and personal space? How important is confidentiality to me when I seek help in health care?
When we view these 3 tasks of adolescent development as the highway into adulthood, we can see how difficult it might be to have parents "involved" in an adolescent's sexual and reproductive health life and decisions. As adolescents seek to define who they are, explore intimacy, and become independent, perhaps we need to rethink what "parental involvement" means. Instead of trying to find ways to help parents and teens come for family planning services together, we need to help parents empower and support their youth to do this by themselves unless they request a parents presence or help. Maybe we need to think about all the barriers that are placed in the way of a teen accessing reproductive and sexual health care and ask parents to try and eliminate some of them. Perhaps we need to help parents and caregivers to understand that saying only "don't do it" does not work for most teens and instead help parents find ways to express that sexual intimacy is a choice but also has responsibilities. Instead of trying to find ways to stop teens from having sex, we might focus on how we can convey that respect, honesty, and safety are necessary components of a sexual relationship.< ?p?>
How willing are we as parents to focus our communication on what is healthy, positive and good about relationships and focus on pleasure, both physical and emotional that comes with relationships instead of just the horrors of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy?< ?p?>
American parents today, especially those who are more traditional and conservative in their values, seem to believe that their "lease" entitles them to ultimate control. They believe that just because they have a "lease," children have no rights. These parents are maybe forgetting what growing up is really all about- making choices, sometimes making mistakes and facing the consequences. These parents seem to see concepts like respecting teens' growing independence and need for privacy as perverted and taking away control from parents. Other parents bury their heads in the sand, deny that their youth are sexual beings, and believe, if they just tell them they can't have sex until they're married, their teens will obey.
Smart parents understand that adolescence is a time of exploring all kinds of relationships and sometimes relying on adults other than parents for guidance. Smart parents recognize that young people can make responsible, healthy decisions about their sexual health.
When children are young, of course parents hold their hand when coming to a busy street. But somewhere, sometime-children have to cross that street without a parent. A parent's job is to prepare them for that day, because if parents don't, the consequences can be tragic. Pa
rents tell children how to cross the street safely. Parents demonstrate how to cross the street safely, and then they have to trust that children can do it by themselves.
Adolescence is the only road into adulthood and there are many crossroads and sometimes hazards. Parents meet the "lease" conditions when they respect their children, teach them responsibility through setting reasonable limits and being consistent, are honest and open, and give them the skills they need to make healthy, responsible choices. If parents "practice what they preach" and serve as role models for the behaviour they expect of their children, they fulfil their "contract." If parents accept that values are "caught" not taught and that young people live in a very complex, confusing world- where sex is used to sell every product imaginable from sunscreen to soup, and where sexual violence is depicted as "cool" and proof of manhood, then parents will know that they must spend a lot of time helping their teens understand respect, caring, and commitment as integral to sexual expression.
When parents recognize that most marriages are not virginal and stop setting marriage as the only standard for intimate relationships, young people may understand that the decision to be sexually intimate is a profound part of adult relationships and has no place in childhood. When parents convey the importance of respect, honesty, and love in relationships, then perhaps American teens will wait for that kind of relationship, and will behave responsibly and use protection.
When the lease is up, parents must be able to say, "I gave them the two most important things they needed to finally "own" who they are- roots and wings." Roots to fall back on, to be the refuge of experience, values, and security and wings to soar, to grow and change and perhaps "lease" their own children one day.
This article was written by Barbara Huberman RN, BSN, MEd – Director, Education & Outreach, Advocates for Youth