Per the Center for Disease Control, in 1990, the teen pregnancy rate in the United States was at an all-time high of 77.1 pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls. Recognizing this as a serious social problem, the United States set a national goal to decrease the teen pregnancy rate to 43 pregnancies per 1,000 girls by the year 2010. In the year 2002, the teen pregnancy rate was 44.4 pregnancies per 1,000 girls and the rate has steadily decreased since that time, making it probable that we will reach the nationwide goal before 2010. While teen pregnancy rates are steadily decreasing, the United States holds the second highest teen pregnancy rate of 46 countries in the developed world. Why? While the rate of teen sexual activity in the United States is about the same as other countries, U.S. teens are less likely to consistently use effective contraception.
Statistics from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy dated February 2004 indicate significantly different statistics. They show that individual states range from 42 to 128 pregnancies per 1,000 teen girls, with an average for the United States of 84. (North Dakota has the lowest teen pregnancy rate and the District of Columbia has the highest.) According to the NCPTP, this is a decrease of 24% since 2000.
While the numbers vary greatly, the one thing that both of these agencies can agree upon is that teenage pregnancy is on the decline. For the teenage girls who become pregnant this year and for the parents of these girls, these statistics are little comfort. These teen girls and their families know first-hand how difficult it is for pregnant teens to finish high school, find and hold a job that will support them and their child, and offer their child a life where they have a reasonable chance at success. What do we need to do differently?
I am a strong believer in abstinence for teens. I do not believe that teens – boys or girls – are emotionally or spiritually mature enough for the responsibilities of sex. I was very clear with my daughters on this subject – as I believe all parents should be. Teens, for the most part, want to please their parents and generally try to abide by our rules. However, I also believe that we, as parents and rational adults, have to accept that our children will not always listen and abide. Teens battle many forces that, combined together, are often stronger than a parent’s influence. These include peer pressure, raging hormones, immature emotions, and instinctual desire.
I believe that all parents can remember at least one time in their life when their emotions and/or desires over-ruled their head. The “heat of the moment,” passion, can be a very strong force for adults to handle. When teens are confronted, all those well-intentioned lessons of their parents’ fly straight out of their heads.
Which is why, right along with abstinence, it is vitally necessary to discuss and teach your children about effective birth control. I do realize that many parents believe that to teach birth control is to give permission to have sex. I disagree. I believe that we should strongly stress that we do not believe children should engage in sexual activity and I believe that we should explain why we feel this way. Religious reasons are excellent; however, they cannot stand alone. Explain to your children how physical, emotional and spiritual immaturities degrade the sexual experience into something much less than it is meant to be. At the same time, we must inform our children that when they do engage in sexual activity, there are inherent risks and protection is absolutely necessary.
Sexual protection is more important than ever, no longer referring to only the risk of pregnancy. Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS, make protection an absolute necessity to discuss with your children. I do not believe that there is a parent in this country that would truly state and believe that their child “deserved” to be pregnant or infected with a disease that could result in sterility or death because they make the mistake of having sex before marriage. For this reason, discussing birth control and ‘safe’ sex with your children should be a top priority.
Sex is never an easy topic to discuss with our children. For many adults, it is not an easy topic to discuss with our doctors, family or friends. Discussing sex with our children can be awkward to say the least. But we have to step up to the plate, take control of ourselves, and do it – for the sake of our teens. I will admit that my parents never discussed sex, sexual activity or birth control with me. My mother educated me about my menstrual cycle through a pamphlet she got from my pediatrician. There were many things that I found out from my peers, in often awkward – at least for me – situations. This was definitely not the way that I wanted my daughters to be raised. So, despite the fact that I felt awkward and embarrassed, I decided that open discussions with my daughters were necessary. A few guidelines I made for myself included:
• Let your children know that ANY topic is open for discussion and mean it.
• Let them know that you will not judge them when they have questions about any subject.
• Use proper terms and names for body parts and actions.
• Never act shocked by what your children tell you. They need to see that they cannot shock you or they are not going to come to you the next time they have questions. (This one is not always easy. I was driving my youngest home from school when she was in the sixth grade. She very innocently volunteered the information that one of her girlfriends had “given head” to a boy in class when the lights were out during a film. She wanted to know why the girl would do this. There is nothing like hearing common sexual slang come out of your twelve year old daughter’s mouth to make your heart plummet to your stomach – trust me. It was my initiation into sexual conversations with my daughter and I had to make sure that it was successful. I took a deep breathe and very calmly asked if she knew what “giving head” meant. After informing her that “oral sex” was the appropriate term, we had a very enlightening and, believe it or not, comfortable conversation.)
I know there are a lot of you out there who disagree with me and more still that may not disagree, but cannot see yourself having a completely open conversation regarding sex with your children. I understand. But when you consider the possible alternatives – uneducated children who only know your objections without your reasons and without sound provisions for the possibility of a mistake which results in teen pregnancy or disease – can you really take the chance?