from the September 05, 2002 edition -
Teens, sex, and power of
Study finds strong impact of moms on
adolescent sexual activity.
LOS ANGELES - Moms and dads
everywhere, take heed. The once standard parent/child rite
of passage – "the birds and bees speech" – is on the way
When it comes to sex education, and whether adolescents
become sexually active, parental guidance is most
influential when it delivered with warmth, openness, and
And to the surprise of many parents, such efforts are
welcomed. While it may seem that youths are more attuned
to peers, media, and pop culture, experts and teens alike
say parents are needed as role models and cultivators of
values in today's confusing, image-saturated culture.
"We have reclaimed the lost fact that parents matter to
teens when it comes to teaching them about sexuality,"
says Robert Blum, coauthor of a report released Wednesday
based on the largest-ever survey of adolescent sexual
behavior. "Even as parents tend to think their influence
is waning during the teen years, this shows there is a
significant and ongoing effect."
Wednesday's report, part of an ongoing federal study of
thousands of young people and their parents, focused
especially on the guiding role of mothers. But researchers
say the evidence makes a case, more broadly, for the
benefits of strong parent-child relationships.
It comes against a backdrop of challenges and progress.
As of 1995, when the survey was getting under way, 19
percent of girls and 21 percent of boys said they had
sexual intercourse by age 14. The new report did not
update those figures.
But Dr. Blum and others say that over the past decade,
pregnancy rates among adolescents have dropped steadily.
Rates of some key, sexually transmitted diseases have
fallen 50 percent over the same time. The use of condoms
is up, and more teenagers are delaying sexual activity.
Yet there are still a million teen pregnancies a year,
half of all new HIV infections occur in those under 25,
and only half of sexually active teens report using
The growing consensus, say researchers: Parental
discussions of such topics need to start earlier – as
early as lower elementary school (in age-appropriate
discussions) – and parents' actions speak louder than
words in transmitting key values.
"At the broadest level, the most important message of
this research is that parents matter," says Sarah Brown of
the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
IN yesterday's report, researchers found that mothers
who were actively engaged in the lives of their daughters
– who knew their friends, and friends' parents, for
example – significantly delayed early sexual activity by
those daughters. Mothers generally felt more comfortable
talking about sex with their sons than with their
daughters, but their influence on sons' behavior was not
Other parental factors that may make a key difference,
the study concludes, include having high expectations for
school, having rules and regulations, knowing where one's
child is, and having meals together. "We too often hear
parents lament that once their child is 12 or 13, they are
drowning in outside influences out of their control," says
Brown. "The point of these findings is parental guidance
remains supremely important throughout the teen years,
whether it seems so or not."
Other findings include:
• For older teenage boys, as well as younger teens of
both sexes, a connectedness with mothers – the perception
that mom is warm and caring – makes a difference.
• Teens whose mothers are highly religious are no less
likely than other teens to start having sex.
• Even when mothers strongly disapprove of their kids
having sex (and most do), 30 percent of girls and nearly
45 percent of boys do not believe they strongly
• Many parents don't know what sexual practices their
kids are engaged in. When teens said they have had sexual
intercourse, half of mothers believed those same children
had not. By contrast, when teens said they had not had
sex, their mothers almost always believed accurately that
this was the case.
The study noted nonparental factors influencing teen
sexual activity – biological, genetic, economic, and
educational – but found that parents play a key role
regardless of other circumstances.
"One of the most helpful findings in the ... study is
the realization that the issue is complex and not simple,"
says Doug Kirby, senior research scientist at ETR
Associates, a health-education research institution. "It's
not saying what sexual values should be, or exactly how a
parent should behave, or that one approach works for
Several experts say the findings are the broadest yet
to underline what they find anecdotally in their local
clinics. "We find all the time ... that parents can't just
lecture and talk to kids about these issues. They have to
develop communication and real relationships," says
Kristin Moore, president and senior scholar of Child
Trends, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.
"Many of today's parents erroneously back off in response
to adolescent's pushing them away in their search for
autonomy and identity formation."
Researchers also say youth-serving agencies should
promote greater parent-child connectedness. "All the
research is now showing the spotlight on where we need to
reform, says Tina Hoff of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"It's taking our relationships with adolescents more
seriously across the board."