June 11, 2001 -- Which factors matter most to teens deciding
whether to become sexually active? Peer pressure? Media images? Education?
Religious background? All play a role, but new research suggests parents may
have the most influence of all.
You may think they're tuning you out when the talk turns to
birds and bees, but they're not, according to two studies released in April by
the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP) that reinforce the role
of parental advice and role-modeling in determining the sexual behavior of
teens. In those studies, more teens, 38%, pointed to their parents as the
biggest influence on their sexual behavior -- more than friends, the media,
educators, siblings, or religious organizations.
In recognition of this, the organization urges parents to
engage their children "early and often in discussions of sex, love,
relationships, and values."
"A lot of parents wonder when to have 'the talk' with their
kids," says Ingrid Sanden of NCPTP. "The answer is never. You have to
create an environment where your kids feel comfortable coming to you when they
need answers, and that means keeping things open from the time your kids are
old enough to understand."
Both mom and dad need to start the dialogue early and keep the
lines of communication open, she says. Many parents who are otherwise fearless
when it comes to keeping their children safe become cringing, tongue-tied
cowards at the thought of talking to them about sex. But it may be one of the
most important steps they can take to protect them.
Parents should also establish rules and standards of expected
behavior, Sanden says. They should discourage frequent and steady dating among
younger teens, take a strong stand against a daughter dating a significantly
older boy or a son dating a much younger girl, and emphasize the value of
"Parents are really important in forming their kids'
values," Sanden says. "It is strange to even have to say that, but so
many parents feel that they are powerless, especially with teens."
One Million Teen Pregnancies Each Year
Although teen pregnancy and birth rates in the U.S. declined
significantly during the 1990s, approximately 1 million American teenage girls
still get pregnant each year. That is by far the highest rate of teen
pregnancies of any industrialized nation -- and eight out of 10 are unplanned,
according to NCPTP figures.
After rising 23% between 1972 and 1990, pregnancies among girls
between the ages of 15 and 19 declined 17% between 1990 and 1996. The teen
birth rate dropped by 20% between 1991 and 1999, to approximately 50 births per
1,000 young women.
So is the drop in teen pregnancies due to fewer adolescents
having sex or to better contraception use among those who are sexually