Should your teen's partner sleep over?
Talking about sex with teenagers is something most parents find difficult; the teenage years are tough on both teens and parents. One topic that often comes up is when teenagers are allowed to have their boyfriend or girlfriend stay the night.
Attitudes can vary widely depending on nationality. One country that has a very relaxed attitude is the Netherlands. Two-thirds of Dutch parents allow their 16 and 17-year-old children to sleep with their partners in their homes. Dutch parents' stance on teen sex was compared with that of American parents in a survey, Sex, Love and Autonomy in the Teen-age Sleepover, conducted in 2003 by Amy Schalet, who was born in the US but grew up in the Netherlands.
Schalet, is now associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex. The book offers an "intimate account of the different ways that boys and girls in two different countries negotiate sex, love and growing up".
The differences between the cultures, and between the parenting styles in each country, are many, but one of the most important is the attitude towards sex.
Dutch parents tend to downplay the dangerous and difficult sides of teenage sexuality; they normalise it. They believe in a process of becoming physically and emotionally ready for sex and that young people can self-regulate, if they are encouraged to pace themselves and prepare adequately.
Unlike American parents who are often sceptical about teenagers' capacities to fall in love, Dutch parents assume that teenagers can. They permit sleepovers, even if that requires an adjustment period to overcome their feelings of discomfort, because they feel obliged to stay connected and accepting as sex becomes part of their children's lives.
Teenagers in the Netherlands tend to wait longer before having sex, have fewer partners and use easily-acquired birth control consistently and correctly, resulting in much lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortion.
The main reason for this is that the country has a liberal attitude towards sex, and teen sex education is based on an assumption that young people are curious about sexuality and have a right to accurate and comprehensive information. Educational materials at schools are characterised by clear, direct and age-appropriate language and attractive designs. The leading message is: if you are going to have sex, do it safely.
The world over it would be great if parents could sit down with their children and discuss sex-related issues. But most parents are ill-equipped to do that; they feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and they don't really have the knowledge, either. Things have changed a lot since they were young.
Children and teenagers should get age-appropriate information as part of their school curriculum. As a parent it is advisable to have back-up information ready to give them and to educate yourself. Think of sex education as an ongoing project - if children know they can talk to parents about issues that are important to them, they will.
An excellent Australian DVD called The Talk is available for parents and their teenage children, presented by Melbourne comedian Nelly Thomas. It features talks about sex and relationships in a frank, informed and non-threatening way. And Sarah Tarca, editor of popular teenage magazine Girlfriend teamed up with Professor Alan McKee from Queensland University of Technology to co-edit a publication, Girl-friend Guide to Life, which is a great resource that covers all aspects of emotional, physical and mental development in teen girls.
Another fantastic source is the newly published book Loveability, written by Nina Funnell and Dannielle Miller, an empowering advice book for teenage girls, which treats them as responsible, intelligent human beings. It's also a must-read for teenage boys and has a chapter with useful websites, organisations and books.
But back to the sleepover dilemma: Kiwi parents should take notice, why create a situation where your children are forced to hide, sneak around, be dishonest, be uncomfortable, take unnecessary risks and make uninformed decisions about their physical and emotional health?
If you want your teenagers to be safe, don't close your eyes or hope they won't have sex - they just might!
Sydney Morning Herald