Aug. 30, 2002 -- Parents who smoke, drink, and ignore their own health are a bad example for their kids -- one that's leading to early, unsafe sex.
A nationwide study of some 19,000 adolescents -- in grades 7 through 12 -- finds that parents are indeed their kids' role models, whether they like it or not.
"Parents' behavior creates a whole atmosphere of risk, a sense that living on the edge is OK," says lead author Esther Wilder, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at Lehman College in the Bronx in New York.
"Kids grow up thinking, 'If they don't care, why should I?'" she tells WebMD.
Wilder's report appears in the September issue of the The Milbank Quarterly.
Among her findings: Most adolescents used contraception the first time they had intercourse. But one-third did not. "That's real cause for concern," she says.
Also, parents who smoked -- more than drinking or any other risky behavior -- were more likely to have kids who were also engaged in risky behaviors.
"Adolescents whose parents smoked were 50% more likely to have had sex -- and to have it at very early ages," says Wilder. "This was regardless of whether the family was affluent or received welfare, parents' level of education, religion, whether they were in stepfamilies or single-parent families."
"Risk gets reproduced across generations," she tells WebMD. "It may take different forms, but we found a strong intergenerational pattern of risk."
Smoking sets a "behavioral tone" in the family, one creates the same pattern of behavior in the child, says Wilder. "It's like a risky syndrome that gets passed from one generation to next."
Parents need this kind of wake-up call, says Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
"Families have been hoping the schools could do it, that if they could find the right curriculum -- or if we could change what Hollywood does or doesn't do, rate the movies just right -- all kids' behavior problems would go away," Brown tells WebMD.
She talks with lots of parents. "Parents have really felt they have lost kids to the power of peer influence and media influence," says Brown. "We've even heard parents say, 'once they're 12 or 13, we have no role in their lives. It doesn't matter what we do, we don't see them.'"
But families are the first and best sex educator for children, she says. "The nation is rediscovering the power of parents. This research reminds us, parents in particular, that what parents do influences their children. Parents need to be mindful of that."
Kids watch their parents like hawks, Brown tells WebMD. "I have three children at home. They have opinions about everything I do. They observe it, think about it, discuss it with their friends."
While kids can get information on sex and "basic body facts" at school, parents need to put it in context, she says.
"Contraception is only one part of it. Some of the larger issues about relationships, lifetime goals, respectful interaction between males and females, what's safe, what our family expects, what our faith tradition teaches, how to handle negative peer pressure -- those things are incredibly important. That's where parents have an edge."