Teenage Sex: A Family Affair?
According to research published by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, our teens may have more wisdom than we give them credit for when it comes to sex education. Most teens (94 percent) think that adults should inform them that they ought to wait to have sex at least until they get out of high school. Most teens (88 percent) say it would be easier to avoid early sexual activity and teen pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents.
Open, honest conversations about early sexual activity and teen pregnancy. How are we doing?
I fear that we, as parents, have too often allowed schools and private programs to assume the role of sex education. This is nothing new. When society argued the wisdom of teaching sex education in our schools two sides appeared. On one side stood the argument that sex education should be taught in the home, but the other side responded that it simply wasn’t being done.
Yet I wonder, can we expect abstinence programs taught by schools or private organizations to have much impact on our teens if we as parents don’t get behind the effort? If we are comfortable allowing schools to teach the program, should we not at least involve ourselves by discussing the issues with our teens as the sex education unit is being taught? Would you not expect such programs to make more of an impact if parents used the opportunity to engender discussion with their teens?
Research data suggests that if abstinence programs are going to have maximum impact, families must get involved. Working with middle school students, a Pennsylvania agency conducted an eight-session abstinence program in certain public schools. More than 250 students participated in the educational unit and responded to questions measuring their values and knowledge about sexual relationships. These measures were conducted before the classes began, and were repeated throughout the process.
Because the questions were asked before the program began, it is possible to analyze the children’s changes in sexual values and knowledge. By removing the pretest scores, we can statistically control for preexisting differences in knowledge and values. Students from traditional family backgrounds are likely to give different answers than students from a more liberal background. All such differences can be removed from the analysis by statistically controlling for the pretest scores. The resulting research question can be addressed: To what extent do students change their sexual values and knowledge through an eight-session abstinence education program?
During the program, 20 percent of the students missed one or more sessions. It could be expected that class attendance would be predictive of change. Those who attended more sessions should have gained more knowledge and been more likely to change their values. Also, some students might choose to skip sessions just because they are not buying into the program. One would think that class attendance would predict changes in knowledge and values.
Another question asked the students whether or not they discussed the class content of each session with a parent. About 33 percent of the students said they had talked with their parent about every class; another 33 percent said they had never talked with a parent about the classes; the remaining indicated that they had talked with a parent about some, but not all, of the classes.
The results showed that the number of classes that a student attended was not predictive of a change in sexual values and knowledge. On the other hand, the number of sessions about which they talked with their parents was predictive of change. Those who talked with their parents about the sessions showed more change in their sexual values and knowledge, giving responses more consistent with an abstinence approach.
If class attendance had been a significant predictor, those questioning the impact of the program might argue that the students just learned how to give the expected answers. However, this is not what the data showed. Instead, the data showed that parental discussion was the critical component associated with change.
We have now allowed schools and private organizations to take over sex education. This data suggests, however, that parental involvement remains an important part of the mix. Parents, we must establish positive communication patterns with our teens. We must discuss sexual realities with them. We must get involved in their sexual education programming. Our teens both need and desire our input on the topic of sexuality. Teenage sex needs to be a family affair.
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.