Even those who know their power may not know what to say, or how to say it, once their baby becomes a sullen adolescent. They may mentally prepare a quick speech to deliver on the eve of puberty, but the foundation for a child’s behavior is laid down in layers, over time, not built in one night at the dinner table.
“The Talk is not the way to think about this,” Brown says. “It’s really an 18-year conversation.”
Parents need to make themselves “askable” by sharing suitable information as soon as their kids grow curious about love, relationships and their own bodies.
Take Carolyn Davis, who graduated from a Dallas high school last year. From the time she was 12, her mother talked with her candidly about sexuality. “I used to cringe,” Carolyn says. “I would be, like, ‘Mom, can you just not talk anymore?’ She would totally keep going.”
A middle school librarian, Carolyn’s mother has seen the impact early sexual activity has. “I really wanted to save her from that,” says Carol Davis. She doesn’t want her daughter to fear sex as an adult but hopes she won’t view it blithely now. So far, her approach seems to be working.
“I know a girl who had a baby when she was 16 or 17,” Carolyn says. “She doesn’t think further than, What am I going to do next weekend?”
The reasons one teen has sex and another doesn’t are as different as each child, but many who aren’t sexually active come from homes where conversations about sex are clear and comfortable. Sherri Alexander decided early on to discuss sexuality openly in her house.
When her son, Matt, started sixth grade, the Dallas mom rented the raunchy teen-sex comedy American Pie. Then she and Matt watched the whole movie together. “I thought, If I watch this with him,” she says, “then he’ll know, hopefully, he can talk to me about anything.”
She was right. It was weird, Matt says, watching sex scenes while listening to his mother’s running commentary. Yet the high school senior says he now has “an open dialogue with my mom that keeps on going, about anything, including sex.” Above all, he knows his parents expect him not to view sex casually or carelessly.
Matt’s attitude isn’t unusual. While adults may go gray thinking about a pregnant Jamie Lynn Spears or a book like Restless Virgins, last year’s tale of sexual recklessness at an elite boarding school, today’s teens, on the whole, are making better choices than their counterparts did ten years ago. Still, upsetting deviations can rise to urban legend. Parents who worry, for example, about the trendy term “friends with benefits” — something between monogamy and a one-night stand — should know there is little evidence that it’s anything more than a catchy new name for an age-old practice.
Reality Check: 63% of high school seniors have had intercourse.