BOSTON -- When the news broke early this month that teen-age motherhood had dropped by nearly 12 percent in the past five years, I had a bit of trouble putting on my party face.
Teen-age motherhood was down to the level of the 1980s? Teen-age motherhood was down to the highest level of any industrialized country? Been up so long this looks like down to us?
Nevertheless, the usual suspects claimed credit for the usual reasons. One side said that abstinence education was working. The other side said that contraception was working.
The researchers, meanwhile, said that what's driving the drop in birthrates is not one or the other but both: better use of contraceptives and less sexual activity.
I don't believe in looking a gift statistic in the mouth. But nearly lost in the news cycle was a second piece of research released the same day by the nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. This one deserves a rare moment of news recycle.
The study portrayed the shadowy figures who may in the end make a much bigger difference in lowering teen-age pregnancy than condoms or pledges: parents.
For a long time, parents of teen-agers have been cast as the beleaguered, hapless characters whose voices are barely heard and rarely respected in a cacophony of peers, pop culture and jTC body piercers. Mothers and fathers, we are told, are road kill on the way to adulthood.
But the study went through all the research on the role parents play in teen-agers' lives and what impact they have on their children's sexual activity. It turns out that parents are a remarkably effective anti-pregnancy program. The greater the closeness of parent and child, the lower the pregnancy rate.
As Isabel Sawhill, the president of the National Campaign puts it succinctly, "When teens have a reasonably close relationship to their parents and when the parents communicate their own values to the children, rates of sexual activity and pregnancy are lower."
This does not mean that a sweaty-palmed 45-minute lecture is better than a thousand condoms. Rather, says Campaign director Sarah Brown, "Parents who communicate values . . . firmly over a long time in the context of a close relationship can reduce sexual risk. What isn't helpful is no opinion, and no conversation."
In the wake of this report, the Campaign has put together "Ten Tips for Parents to Help their Children Avoid Teen Pregnancy." This sounds sort of cutely simplistic until you encounter Tip One: "Be clear about your own sexual values."
This has in fact been the sticking point for a whole lot of parents who may still find themselves tongue-tied, or even panicked about the first question on their kids agenda: What did you do, dad? The baby-boom generation of parents was not famous for crystal clarity about sex.
But in reviewing polls and studies, it turns out that parents really have arrived at a consensus about what they want for their kids. They want their teens to postpone sex at least through high school -- an age that mysteriously coincides with when they leave home. And they think birth control needs to be there as a backup.
In other words, parents want to communicate precisely the ideas that seem to be -- slowly -- working.
Ms. Sawhill says as well that parents should be less worried about giving mixed messages -- kids can understand ambivalence, better than hypocrisy -- than about giving no messages. One thing the research has shown clearly: Talking with kids about sex does not encourage them to be sexually active.
The other "tips" run from discouraging steady dating before 16 to helping teens have options that are more attractive than early pregnancy and parenthood. Sometimes easier said than done. But saying is a kind of doing.
"We are trying to break through the notion that parents have no role. It's not true. Parents matter and teens want to hear from them," said Ms. Brown.
Indeed the argument about teen pregnancy has been stuck for years in a pitched battle over contraceptives or abstinence-only programs. It's been a battle waged in schools and legislatures.
But if any public issue has a private face, it's this one. The most effective "program" may be right on the tip of your tongue.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/26/98