– by Doug West
© 2003, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
As parents of three young children, my wife and I are constantly on the lookout for our girls, whether by being physically present or being within ear shot. We are particularly mindful of our youngest daughter, whom we politely, and comically, refer to as the “happy house wrecker.” As a former youth minister who has worked with teenagers for many years, I found myself living out those same monitoring principles, figuring-or should I say knowing-that teens with ample time and opportunity have a strange attraction to, and fascination with, inappropriate behavior. I’m afraid to know just how “clueless” I was, and soon will be.
In either case, the point is clear: unsupervised free time for children or teens invites trouble, particularly in terms of substance abuse (alcohol, tobacco, drugs) but also in terms of sexual initiation and experimentation. As evidence, one survey of teens appearing in the November 2002 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family found that June and December were the top two months when teens “lose” their virginity. Not surprisingly, these months correspond to times when teens typically have more time and opportunity on their hands.
Other recent surveys of teens reveal trends in today’s youth culture that should raise considerable concern for today’s parents. A majority (56 percent) of teens said they had their first sexual experience, not at some distant “love shack,” but under the roof of their family’s (22 percent) or their partner’s (34 percent) home (www.childtrends.org ). The Kaiser Family Foundation andSeventeen magazine surveyed teens and discovered that 37 percent of sexually active teens’ parents did not know they were having sex (www.kff.org).
Perhaps this comes as little surprise given the current cultural climate. Standards of decency and modesty are spiraling downward in our increasingly sexually saturated and permissive culture. The nuclear family continues to dissolve as reflected in high divorce rates and rising single-parent families. Increasingly demanding economic realities and/or confused priorities create absent parents and “latch-key” kids, with the undesirable consequence of increased unsupervised time. These societal factors are a perfect catalyst for a dangerous and deadly concoction when combined with a teen’s blossoming physical development and natural curiosity.
So how can parents, youth workers and concerned adults combat, if not remedy, this growing concern as a growing number of kids are having sex in the home? Here are just a few suggestions:
First, minimize and monitor opportunity time. Set standards regarding what rooms in the house are appropriate and inappropriate areas for entertaining visitors of the opposite sex. While it might sound archaic by today’s standards, a child’s bedroom should not be a place for visits to take place. In addition, set standards regarding who is and isn’t allowed in the house when a parent is not present. And, get to know your teen’s cultural context and peer network so you can be in their world as a loving presence, instead of a manipulative, dictatorial and smothering one.
Second, minimize the “everybody is doing it” mentality by raising awareness of the growing abstinence and “new virginity” movements, as reported, among other places, on front-page cover stories in Time (10/7/02) and Newsweek (12/9/02). The results of two separate studies reflect the fact that NOT everybody is doing it, even though the percentages of sexually active youth are disappointingly high. A University of Minnesota study tracked 2006 adolescent virgins for one year. By the end of the study, 11 percent of the boys and 16 percent of the girls had initiated sex. A recent survey of college-aged students revealed that 18 percent of women and 34 percent of men reported being virgins (www.smartersex.org).
Third, maximize teachable moments by explaining and affirming the long-term benefits of desiring to be sexually pure. The January 2003 issue of Seventeen magazine found that 92 percent of surveyed teens said it is a good thing for a girl to be a virgin. Also, avoid discounting the power of teaching sexual purity. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 60 percent of teens said sexual behaviors were influenced by religious teaching (www.kff.org).
Lastly, as teens are bombarded with tempting and enticing messages about expressing their pent-up sexual feelings and urges, invest time to critically process cultural messages from a biblically informed and grounded perspective. While all of these steps are by no means foolproof, they provide the framework for an active and effective strategy to guide children and teens through the maze of adolescent maturity.
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For more information on resources to help you understand today=s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.