Getting Your Kids to Say 'No' When You Said 'Yes'
"Slogans that teach young people to 'Say No' to drugs or sex have a nice ring to them. But . . . they are as effective in prevention of adolescent pregnancy and drug abuse as the saying 'Have a nice day' is in preventing clinical depression."
--Michael Carrera, Ed.D., testifying at the Presidential Commission on AIDS
Many parents today grew up in times when things were different; kids weren't getting shot and killed at school; underwear ads weren't as graphic as Playboy centerfolds, and using drugs meant trying a cigarette, not snorting cocaine or drugging your date. Times have changed, but we haven't. We still want teenagers to say no to early sexual intercourse. We still want teens to avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. We still want our kids to grow up safe, healthy, and happy. But what do we say to them when they ask, "Did you and Dad ever 'do it' before you were married?" Or, "Did you ever smoke marijuana in college?" Ah, there's the rub.
Although rates of sexual intercourse have decreased slightly during the 1990s, the average age remains around 15 years for boys and 16 years for girls. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a physician or just a concerned adult, that seems young. Rates of drug use have apparently leveled off, but they, too, are alarmingly high.
The Monitoring the Future study, based at the University of Michigan, has involved 16,000 students in the middle and high school categories. Their latest data reports that more than half of all high school seniors have used an illicit drug, most often marijuana; two-thirds have tried smoking cigarettes, and nearly two-thirds have been drunk.
Do we really want young people to repeat the mistakes we made as teenagers? Or have our attitudes remained the same: 'Free love; tune in, turn on, drop out'?
Times have changed
Most of the parents I talk with are scared to death of what's out there confronting their children and teenagers. AIDS and HIV? Didn't exist in the 1960s or 1970s when most of us were growing up. Ecstasy, crack cocaine, handguns at school? No way. Nor were there videocassette recorders, R- and X-rated movies, e-mail, or the Internet. Times have changed, and parenting seems more difficult than ever.
What's a concerned parent to do? Stand idly by and watch their teens indulge in 'sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll' without worrying about it? Or is this a case of, 'Do as I say, not as I did'?
The answers are easier than you think.
As an adolescent medicine physician, I can tell you that early sexual intercourse is not a good idea for teenagers. Never has been, never will be. Sure, we can avoid some of the problems with conscientious use of birth control. But sex is not an easy thing for teenagers to deal with (as you yourself may remember). It takes maturity, time, sophisticated thinking about people and about the world, self-knowledge, and confidence. How many 13 year-olds do you know who are 'ready' to have sex?
Okay, sounds good so far, but how do you keep YOUR 13 year-old from having sex? And what do you do when she asks you, "How old were you when you lost your virginity, Mom?"
It's ALL sex education
First and foremost, parents need to recognize that sex education occurs at home, whether you talk to you kids openly or not. How you react to something racy on TV, whether you kiss your spouse in public, whether you have an 'open' or 'closed-door' bathroom policy: it's ALL sex education.
Be an approachable parent, and start early
What matters most is that you create an atmosphere with your children in which they feel safe asking you anything that's on their minds. Being an 'askable' or 'approachable' parent is what I call it, and it takes a lot of work right from the beginning of your children's lives. Sex education should begin at home, at around 2 years of age. That may surprise you, but how you refer to your child's genitalia when you're changing their diaper is important. Use correct terminology. And don't blush when you say 'penis' or 'vagina'. Kids need to hear those body parts named and discussed just like other body parts, or they start getting the idea that there's something different 'down there' that shouldn't be discussed out loud. If you're a Harry Potter fan, it's like the difference between saying Voldemort and 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be Named!' By age 7-8, kids should know all about the basic plumbing, and what it's used for. By age 10-12, they should have a good idea about your attitudes and beliefs about sex. Then, hopefully, sex education classes in the school will reinforce what you've been teaching them already.
Be flattered, not angry
If your kids ask you about your sex life, you should be flattered, not angry. It means that you've reached that lofty plateau of 'askability'. But how should you respond? You need to know that your kids are not prying. In fact, they are probably not very interested at all in your sexual history (many years ago, a survey of college students found that two-thirds of them thought their parents no longer even had sex). The real question they want answered is, 'When is it okay for me to have sex?' So respond to the subtext, and don't get upset that your kids are being disrespectful or trying to pry. In fact, it's the perfect time to give them a dose of your values.
If you don't educate them, someone else will
Remember that if you don't educate your kids about sex, someone else will: their peers, the media, or both, and they won't do a very good or responsible job. Kids see an average of 15,000 sexual references in the media per year. Less than 10% of these references are about abstinence, birth control, or the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. In a sense, we are trying to get our kids to say 'yes' to sex at the same time that we want them to say no. The cues they get from their friends and from the media indicate that 'sex is fun, sex is sexy, everyone is having sex but you, and there's no downside to it'. So if you don't counteract those myths at home, who is going to?
The choice is really theirs
Parent-child communication is highly effective in preventing early sexual activity, and the more explicit you are, the better. That means telling your kids that you would prefer they not have sex until they are older (the age is up to you), but if they do start early, they should use birth control. Is that a double message? You bet it is. Is it a message that a teenager has difficulty understanding? No. In fact, it plays right into normal adolescent psychology. 'Don't have sex' is what they expect to hear. It's very authoritarian, very parental. 'But if you do . . .' is something they don't expect to hear. It acknowledges that they may not listen to you. It tells them that you know that they are going to have to make up their minds themselves.
Politics and poor science, sex education today
What about sex education in schools? Unfortunately, the Federal government has embarked on the 'abstinence-only' bandwagon and local school systems are signing up in droves. The government will spend $50 million a year for the next 5 years trying to encourage abstinence-only sex education programs, despite the fact that there is precious little evidence that such programs actually work. What's worse, there is strong evidence that a comprehensive sex education program, spanning the topic areas from abstinence through birth control, does work. Why has the government decided to go with a program that has not been successful? Politics, and poor science, pure and simple.
Where is the birth control?
The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the western world, despite the fact that our teens are not more sexually active than Swedish teens, or Canadian teens, or British teens. Why? Because we don't educate about birth control in sex education classes, we don't discuss it at home, we don't give teens good access to it, and we don't advertise it in our media. Other countries do, and they are rewarded with low rates of teen pregnancy and teen abortions. But, you say, making condoms available in school-based clinics would 'give kids the wrong idea'. In fact, 5 recent research studies indicate that it doesn't. Educating teenagers about contraception makes them more likely to use contraception when they begin having sex, but it doesn't lower the age at first intercourse. Why? Probably because the decision where and with whom to become sexually active is a very complicated one, rooted in family, peers, religion, the media, and individual personality factors. But the decision whether to contracept or not is a very simple one: is it available? If so, I'll use it. If not, I'm still going to have sex, but I'm not going to go out of my way to get birth control. Until Americans get over their hysteria about giving young people access to birth control, we will continue to have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the western world. It's really that simple.
We must educate our kids about sex - because we want them to enjoy happy and successful sexual lives, just not when they are 13 years old! On the other hand, with perhaps the exception of alcohol, we never want our children to use drugs.
Honesty is the best policy
So, did you smoke marijuana in the 1960s or 1970s, folks? By 1979, 60% of you had, as teenagers. Some of you are going to be trapped in a lie by your kids, especially if you swear that you never touched the 'evil weed' and your college roommate pays a surprise visit and regales your kids with what a 'cool smokin' surfer dude' you were. Here, I think honesty is the best policy. But again, there is no unwritten parental law that you have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You may have experimented with several illegal substances as a teenager. Do you really want to go into the gory details with your kids? I don't think so. Remember to answer the question that they are really asking: When is it okay for me? If you tried marijuana, here's your chance to tell your kids that:
If you had it to do all over again, you wouldn't do it
Marijuana is a different substance now than it was then (approximately 15 times more potent)
We now know far more about the dangers of marijuana than we did back then
You hope they won't even feel the need to try it (a perfect opportunity to discuss peer pressure)
The whole 9 yards
Other drugs? Fuggetabouttit. Make it clear that there is no way they should ever touch cocaine, inhalants, uppers, downers, LSD, ecstasy, or heroin. They don't even know who Timothy Leary was.
Like sex education, drug education starts at a very early age. Do you drink alcohol in front of your children? Do you laugh at drunkenness on TV or in the movies? What is your reaction to people who smoke, or do you or your spouse smoke? Studies show that parental role modeling is a powerful influence on children, long before they hit adolescence, with its own unique form of peer pressure.
Media as 'super peer'
Again, think of the media as a sort of 'super peer'. Tobacco and alcohol manufacturers are spending $9 billion a year advertising their products in the media. Hollywood is contributing unprecedented numbers of smoking, drinking, and drug use portrayals in its contemporary films. If you, or your school system, don't do something to counteract this form of drug education, then your kids are in potential danger.
Demand SUCCESSFUL drug education
It may surprise you to know that physicians have known for the past 25 years how to decrease the amount of drug use among teenagers through drug education programs in school. Successful curricula involve life skills training, peer resistance skills, and media education. Not scare tactics. Of course it's easier for school administrators to pick up the phone and dial the local police department to sign up for one of the many drug and alcohol 'scare programs' (DARE, for example). It would be far more effective, however, if they would invest in a full-blown drug prevention program that's been scientifically tested and shown to be effective.
Raising a teenager has never been more difficult than it is now. It takes time, courage, perseverance, and wisdom. Getting them to say 'no' to sex and drugs is important, but it requires your attention and help from your school system and your pediatrician or family practitioner. It is not impossible. Not all teenagers have sex at age 14. Most teens do not smoke regularly. And many teens abstain from alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. You can make a difference. But 'Just Say No' just won't work, not with today's savvy, skeptical, media-soaked teenagers. Good sex and drug education programs, and good communications with parents will go a long way in creating healthier kids. As Crosby, Stills, and Nash used to sing in the 1960s and '70s, "teach your children well."