IT'S too soon to call it a sexual counter-revolution, but a growing number of teen-agers appear to be saying "no" to early sexual activity and its consequences. For the sixth year in a row, births to teen-age mothers declined. In 1996, according to figures released by the federal government and other studies, the drop is at least partially a result of fewer teen-agers engaging in sex, particularly in their early teen years. Ironically, this trend occurs at a time when all too many adults have given up trying to discourage teen-agers from having sex.
For years, the sexperts have been telling us that a "just say no" approach will never work when it comes to teen sex, and baby-boomer parents have largely bought the line. But new evidence suggests that parents' behavior and attitudes are key in determining whether their children have sex or become teen parents. Maybe it's time for some straight talk with parents about their role in preventing teen sex.
"Families matter," according to a new report of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which synthesizes research on family influences on adolescent pregnancy. "Over two decades of research confirms that families -- and particularly parents -- are an important influence on whether their teen-agers" become parents, says Brent C. Miller, a professor and head of the department of family and human development at Utah State University, who wrote the report. Among the major findings:
Teens who are close to their parents are more likely to remain abstinent, have fewer sexual partners and use contraceptives when they do become sexually active.
Teens whose parents closely supervise them are more likely to be older when they first have sex and have fewer partners.
Teens whose parents hold strong opinions about the value of abstinence or about the dangers of unprotected intercourse are at less risk of becoming pregnant.
And on the other side of the equation, teens who live in single, female-headed households are more likely to engage in sex in their early teens. Teens also seem to be influenced by their older siblings' sexual activity and the dating patterns of their unmarried parents, both of which may encourage promiscuity and/or out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
These findings shouldn't come as a surprise, but they certainly fly in the face of current popular opinion. Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, we've come to accept premarital sex as nearly universal, even among 15- and 16-year-olds. That's partly because we're inundated with movies, television shows, songs and news reports about the prevalence of teen sex.
Teen sex has been increasing over the past several decades, but it has never been as ubiquitous as the media make it out to be. In 1995, 50 percent of all girls age 15 to 19 reported ever having had sexual intercourse (down from 55 percent in 1990). But most of these girls were 18 or 19, a small percentage of whom were already married.
Far less than half the girls who were 15 or 16 had ever had sex, 25 percent and 39 percent, respectively. Yet teachers, guidance counselors and parents often act as if everybody's doing it, so there's nothing they can say or do to prevent teens from early sexual experimentation. Of course, by remaining silent -- or worse, letting youngsters know that we expect them to have sex before they leave high school even if we don't like it -- we may be encouraging the very behavior we ought to try to prevent.
It's easy to blame the media for all the bad influences films and television exert on young people, but much of the responsibility belongs on parents' shoulders. The Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has just issued a powerful pamphlet, "Ten Tips for Parents," which urges parents to step up to the plate.
"Be clear about your own sexual values and attitudes," it advises. If you aren't clear about right or wrong, how can you expect your children to understand the difference? "Know your children's friends and their families," it suggests. "Discourage early, frequent and steady dating. . . . Take a strong stand against your daughter dating a boy significantly older than she is. And don't allow your son to develop an intense relationship with a girl much younger than he is. . . . Know what your kids are watching, reading and listening to" are a few of the sound recommendations the campaign makes.
As the pamphlet says, "Supervising and monitoring your kids' whereabouts doesn't make you a nag; it makes you a parent." We'd have a lot fewer new teen parents if adults would take their own responsibilities as parents more seriously.
To find out more about Linda Chavez visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Pub Date: 5/06/98