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Thoughts about teens, tweens, parenting and this adventure of living on Earth in the 21st century.

Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

Not under my roof: A conversation w/author Amy Schalet

November 16, 2011

For the past 14 years I’ve received email from t(w)eens around the world. 80% of them fictitiously sign their letters “Confused.” They’re confused about a whole lot of stuff, especially sex. It’s cool that they use their confusion as a motivator to ask questions of an adult (by most measures, that would be me). Otherwise, how are they going to understand what they need to know so they can make good choices?

Here’s one that came in last week from a young teen:

If a male only sticks the tip of his penis into a girls vagina, is it considered “having sex”?

The next day this one arrived:

I was walking with my partner and as a tease he held my leg from the top and I think his hand hit near my vaginal hole but he didn’t put his finger straight in and I moved. It was literally one second but I had my trousers on and it was just whilst I was walking. Any chance I can get pregnant with that? I’m very young and scared.

Required reading for 21st Century Parents

Don’t let their ignorance of mechanics distract you from the bigger picture: Too many t(w)eens seem to view sexual contact as a casual activity with no serious relationship or emotional closeness required. I fear those kids will have trouble developing bonds of real intimacy.

Last week’s Glee episode featured two in-love high school couples (one gay, one straight – all four teens were 12th graders), crossing the threshold in their long-term relationship and choosing to have sex for “The First Time.” Kudos to the writers for showing us characters sensitive to each other’s needs. Rarely on TV or in films do we see teens willing to put so much careful thought into decisions having to do with sex.

It got me thinking how American teens might make different choices if they had more role models for talking about sex with their partners… or even with their parents.

I know it sounds totally crazy to imagine teens having real conversations with their parents about serious relationships, but after reading Amy Schalet’s new book Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex I learned the American way isn’t the only way. If we can agree the goal is to prevent teen pregnancy and to help older teens “navigate the challenges of sexuality and first relationships” then, generally speaking, American parents and educators are doing a lousy job.

As Schalet’s book thoroughly documents, Dutch parents have a more open attitude about sex education which results in Dutch teens having less casual sex and far fewer pregnancies. They also sneak around less and experience much less alienation from their parents during these years. Wow! I didn’t know there was an alternative to teen alienation. My view is tainted by emails from teens who don’t like lying to their parents and aren’t particularly enjoying random hook-ups or “friends with benefits” arrangements. Bottom line, they don’t seem to be having all that much fun doing the stuff they’re sneaking off to do and yet, they’re doing it anyway and not necessarily learning anything positive.

I was eager to talk to the Amy about Not Under My Roof. We had a great conversation which included many eye-openers. Check this out: When asked about their first sexual experience, a majority of American girls said: “I wish I had waited longer.” That indicates regret for whatever reason. There’s also a possibility that the girls felt pressured to have sex when they didn’t really want to. When Dutch girls were asked a similar question, 85% said: “We both wanted it. We chose it.”

Very interesting.

Here are my big takeaways from my conversation with Amy Schalet, “One narrative doesn’t fit all.” When we give our teens only one message we:

  1. Fail to give them the education/guidance/space they need to make responsible choices about their own sexual behavior.
  2. Build unnecessary walls between us and our kids based on deception and distrust and the false assumption that we can control their behavior.
  3. Prevent them from a basic understanding of what it means to “be ready” to have sex. This is something only the individual can determine but the parent can help with these guidelines:
    1. the partner is trustworthy
    2. the time you’ve had in the relationship thus far
    3. you and your partner have talked about having sex and what crossing that threshold means to each of you
    4. you both want to have sex
    5. you understand it will change the relationship. You’ve thought about and talked about how might it change your feelings for each other. How might it also change your expectations, your behavior, your agreements?

Some of you may feel that teen sex is never ok. If so, then you’re in agreement with the American cultural narrative of “Just don’t do it.” Even if that is your perspective, the teens in your life will still benefit from your talking with them about sex and relationships. They’ll also appreciate your listening to what they have to say. They need to hear your values because by 19 years of age, 70% of young people have had sex. That’s reality. Since that’s where they’re going, you want them making conscious, healthy choices.

btw, in addition to reading Amy’s book, you might also want to check out my interview on FoxNews.com where I talk about Teen Sex in the Family Home.

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6 Comments »

  1. Hi Annie,

    I strongly believe that this conversation with teenagers needs to start when they’re in kindergarten.

    To me there is no point in suddenly expecting a teenager to share if you’ve never made it easy for them to do so in the past. Case in point : my ex husband made sure he teased our two kids mercilessly for their ‘boyfriends’ and ‘girlfriends’ ; he also made sure he told them that ‘if they chose to be gay they didn’t need to ever come home again’. He now wonders why neither of them will tell him anything about their personal lives.

    I could say so much about this, but I will not in the interests of not taking up your bandwidth … great topic. All the best to every parent reading this.

    Comment by Bella — November 16, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

  2. I have a friend from Holland and she’s said the exact same thing.
    I’m a little fearful of sending my girls the message of it’s okay (because that does not fit our family values). But I do want them to understand the consequences and what it does to a relationship.
    So, I’m trying to walk that line of being open and available, yet clear on values. It’s even harder than it looks!

    Comment by BigD — November 20, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  3. Dear Big D,

    It is great that you trying to make yourself available to your daughters. Your fear is a common one. The thing that I like to emphasize in conversation with parents is that the most important thing for your daughters’ well-being is that they feel that they can continue to have conversations with you and draw on you as a resource as they grow up, and start exploring romantic relationships.

    Your comment reminded me of an interview I recently did with Janice D’Arcy from the Washington Post. Below is the segment, as well as the link to the remainder of the interview.

    All the best in your parenting journey!

    Amy Schalet

    Question: What do you want parents to take away from your findings?

    Amy Schalet: I think that many parents want to be available as resources for their children, and want to create open relationships, but they may be unaware that by only expressing concerns and warning against dangers, they are making it difficult for their teens to confide in them when they start exploring sexuality, by which I do not just mean intercourse, but the continuum of sexual feelings and experiences.

    Especially among girls I interviewed in the U.S., [teens] often feel that were they to confide in their parents about having sex or thinking about it, their parents would be very disappointed. This creates a kind of “sneaking around” and a psychic burden for girls, a sense of being split between being a “good” daughter and a sexual being, which I don’t think is good for them. Adolescents still need their parents as support, to help sort out what are healthy relationships, to take precautions against the risks of sex, and deal with experiences of first love.

    Question: What would you say to a parent who says “If I broach the subject of sex with my teen, I may give the impression that I condone it or worse, put the idea in their head in the first place.”

    Amy Schalet: We know that most young people in America make sex part of their lives before leaving their teenage years behind, the majority by age seventeen or eighteen.

    Many experts agree that talking about sexuality does not increase the likelihood of sexual activity. Addressing sexuality frequently and with regard to different aspects, including relationships, helps young people make more empowered and responsible choices. In addition, I would emphasize the risk of not talking or not making oneself available as a “talkable” parent is that young people will turn elsewhere for role models — the media, the peer group. When parents, and other trusted adults, are able to provide guidance around questions of what does it mean to be ready, to give and receive respect in a relationship, then youth will be less likely to rely on unrealistic and unhealthy media portrayals to help them understand how they should behave with regard to this part of their life.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-parenting/post/teen-sex-is-denial-the-real-problem-for-american-parents-author-amy-schalet-says-yes/2011/11/16/gIQAEQjFVN_blog.html

    Comment by Amy Schalet — November 21, 2011 @ 9:23 am

  4. Thank you for this excellent follow-up, Amy. It’s greatly appreciated!

    Comment by Annie — November 21, 2011 @ 10:07 am

  5. Great information. I just went through all of this with my youngest daughter when she started dating her first boyfriend (a six week relationship). We talked quite frequently about the fact that they didn’t know one another well enough to get into the whole sex thing, but if they did go there, she needed to make sure he used a condom. I also reminded her of her personal commitment to wait until she’s married, with the warning that if she’d changed her mind, he needed to wear a condom (yes, condoms came up on a very regular basis).

    Fortunately things didn’t get to that point. If they had, she would have felt even worse about the breakup, which was likely caused by the fact that she wouldn’t give in to his pressure.

    Yes, parents definitely need to talk to their children about sex, the requirements for safe sex (CONDOMS!), and how important it is to really care about one another before taking that irreversible step. Strictly forbid them to have sex, be judgmental and harsh in the words you say, and you just might wind up being a grandparent before you know it.

    Comment by Kristy K. James — November 22, 2011 @ 11:45 am

  6. Thank you for providing such a wonderful blog/site for parents. I work as an advocate for kids in the court system and have well-learned that there is no such thing as common sense. If we want our children to understand the full ramifications–physical and emotional–of their actions, we need to talk to them.

    Early and often.

    It starts with labeling body parts to curious toddlers in a confident and unembarrassed manner and never ends.

    Just last night my 15 year old daughter asked if my hubby and I had a contingency plan in place when we were first dating. “What would you have done if you had gotten pregnant?”

    Whether we’d had premarital sex or not wasn’t the question. She simply wanted to explore how we each would have handled the situation at an age she is now. Her question paved the way for discussion about abortion, adoption, rape, teen pregnancy and birth defects.

    If she ever has premarital sex (even though it runs contrary to the values we’ve tried to teach our kids), I know it will be an informed and deliberate choice. Not one driven by hormones and misunderstanding. I also hope she will be able to talk to me about it without fear that her actions will somehow change the way I feel about her.

    Parenting isn’t easy. But there are tools out there to help us in our journey. Thanks for doing your part!

    Comment by Cat Woods — February 28, 2012 @ 11:11 am

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