Arts & Culture » Kid You Not

Burning Down the House

Being open and connecting with your teen on the topic of sex.

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Should I let my sixteen-year-old son's girlfriend stay over at our house?

Wondering Mama

Ah, why can't they just sneak around, like we did?

American adults seem to still be afraid of teenagers' sexuality, even though teen sex is totally normal. According to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of teens nationwide have had sexual intercourse by the time they reach their senior year in high school, and nearly 80 percent have initiated some sexual activity. Teens are sexual beings!

Wondering Mama, you know your kid. You know if your teen is ready and eager for some private time with his girlfriend or if he's not and is feeling pressured to be cool. This decision about the sleepover, in other words, is not about you and your comfort level with your child's sexuality, but about how well you know your teen, and how well you're staying connected with him.

Many of us are still waiting to have "the talk" with our teens. (My mother's exact words, "Don't lie down on a bed with a boy. They can't control themselves.") But you're likely more hip than that. Hopefully, you've already talked to your kids about sex — in fifth or sixth grade, about puberty and hygiene, and by eighth or ninth grade, about relationships, identity, and sexual pleasure. And by tenth grade, you've gone to Planned Parenthood or your family doctor to discuss safe sex, HIV prevention, and contraception.

There is a gap, though, between having these talks and maintaining regular open communication with our kids about difficult topics. No matter how hip we are, many adults still deny teens' emerging sexuality. We turn our heads away from the making out, the pushing up against, and the lust in their eyes. We doubt our children are ready — and capable of making their own decisions.

A researcher I know, Amy Schalet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, compared US parents to Dutch parents in terms of healthy teen sexuality. She found that, in contrast to American parents, Dutch parents regard teenagers as capable of falling in love, and of reasonably assessing their own readiness for sex. In her 2011 book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex, she noted that the progressive attitudes of Dutch parents actually allows them to exert more control over their children, not less. According to Schalet, Dutch teenagers, as a result, often reinforce what we view as 1950s-style mores: They're eager to win approval, they bring up their partners in conversation with their parents, and they're more likely to introduce their partners to their parents and help them make favorable impressions.

But Americans create a recipe for disaster when we force our children to sneak around. We're asking our teens to split their burgeoning sexual selves from their family roles. Instead, we can learn from the Dutch: Teens who are allowed to integrate different parts of themselves into their family lives can feel safe enough to tell their parents what they are doing and feeling, and ask for help when they need it.

In short, Wondering Mama, your son's request to have his girlfriend stay over provides you with an opening to connect and talk about sexuality. And it gives you the chance to have more influence over his decision-making.

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