A few years ago Bronwyn W. Mayden was cooking dinner when her son, then 6, came running inside with an urgent question: "Mom, what is sex?"
As executive director of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, Ms. Mayden was earning her living by talking to parents and young people about sex. So how did she respond?
"I froze," she recalls. "All I could think to say was 'Go downstairs and ask your father.' "
A short time later, her husband emerged from the basement, asking why she had fobbed the question off on him. By that time, she had recovered her composure enough to sit down for a family talk, the first of many discussions of sexuality, family and values they have had through the years.
Mr. Mayden recalled that story this week, as she wound up a seven-year tenure at the council. Tomorrow she joins the Child Welfare League of America in Washington, D.C., to help that organization map a national strategy for dealing with adolescent pregnancy.
Her move comes at an opportune time -- only days after a new surgeon general took office proclaiming adolescent pregnancy one of the nation's chief health concerns. Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the feisty, shoot-from-the-lip Arkansan, will find a good resource in Bronwyn Mayden, who has compiled an impressive record of bringing people together to reduce the number of young people who are becoming parents while they are still children themselves.
Her inclusive approach has produced results: In 1992 Maryland was one of only six states in the nation to see a decrease in the number of births to single teens. Overall, during the period of the council's work, Maryland has seen a 13.7 percent reduction in births to girls 18 and under, as well as a 16.8 percent reduction in teen abortions. Meanwhile, the national teen pregnancy rate has risen by 8 percent.
Clearly, she's done something right -- and it's something from which national leaders can learn. For one thing, the council has set forth a clear agenda, something missing on the national scene. Moreover, by taking a broad, inclusive approach -- with as much emphasis on innovative programs to encourage abstinence as on health services for sexually active young people -- the agenda has avoided the political pitfalls that often trip up efforts to deal with adolescent sexuality. In addition to programs targeted at young people, the council also believes in helping parents and communities shoulder their own responsibilities in this area.
Regardless of political bent, most Americans would agree that educating children about sex isn't so much a matter of teaching the mechanics of human reproduction but rather passing on to them the values and beliefs that provide the context in which families are formed and nurtured. Unless adults define their own values -- not just about sex, but about what it means to be a man or a woman and what it takes to make a family -- and pass those values and beliefs on to their children, we're probably fighting an unwinnable battle in the effort to persuade young people that being an adolescent and a parent at the same time is a losing proposition.
Yet faced with the frank questions of a 6-year-old, the giggles of a 9-year-old or the red-faced dismissals of a 12-year-old, even the most well-intentioned parents can find themselves floundering.
For those parents -- which, in all likelihood, is most parents -- the council is trying to provide the support that will help them be effective as the primary sexuality educators for their children. PACT! (Parents and Children Talking) is the council's program of activities and materials designed to encourage family communication about sexuality.
The council has also undertaken an innovative effort to teach young people the value of abstinence, the Campaign for Our Children. You've probably seen the ads, placed in schools and other public locations, and you probably remember them. Who could forget the slogan: "Virgin: teach your kid it's not a dirty word"?
The campaign, developed in partnership with the Baltimore firm of Richardson, Myers and Donofrio, has attracted worldwide attention. The federal government is now providing matching funds for state and local governments to purchase the materials.
Even so, just saying no isn't easy in a obsessively sex-conscious culture. The reality is that teens are having sex, and at ages far too young for responsible parenthood.
Maryland has its trends heading in the right direction. But there is much more work to be done. Now, with renewed attention to the issue at the national level, there may be hope that Maryland's modest successes can grow and spread to other states.
Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun.