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Conversations worth having

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Esther Cepeda
October 9, 2011
— Prepare to blush.

According to findings from a poll called “Let’s Talk: Are Parents Tackling Crucial Conversations about Sex?” a whopping 82 percent of parents say they’ve talked to their children about topics related to sex and sexuality.


I was deeply skeptical about this seemingly wonderful news from an August survey of 1,111 white, black, Hispanic and other-race moms and dads of children 10 to 18 by New York University’s Silver School of Social Work and the organization Planned Parenthood.


As a teen, I would rather have set myself on fire than willingly talk to my parents about s-e-x, and I believe the feeling was mutual, so I imagined respondents to the poll thinking that the commandment “Don’t you dare have sex before you’re married!” qualified as “talking.”


“It’s true, the lead question was a very broad one,” said professor Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, co-director of New York University’s Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health, who assisted in interpreting the data. “Unfortunately, we also found that though parents report broaching some topics, they’re really not necessarily talking about the most critical issues, specifically different forms of birth control and how to say ‘no’ to sex.”


Parents typically underestimate the behaviors their children are involved in, but even when they do talk about issues, they usually focus on their own concerns such as pregnancy and STDs. But those are not the things that are most important to young people. The social reasons why they might be considering sex—the short-term positives such as feeling closer to their girlfriend or boyfriend, expressing their love, being more popular; all the kinds of things that operate in the lives of teens. Those are what, many times, never get talked about.”


Gulp. Who wants to talk about any of that with their 10- to 15-year-olds? Not that it would be any easier with kids 17 or 18. Still, my generation is probably more inclined to try because of our own experiences. Guilamo-Ramos said that about 90 percent of the poll respondents said their own parents had not done a good job of reaching out to them about sex.


We don’t have much choice, do we? Bravo to the 60 percent of parents who told pollsters they’d talked with their kids about birth control. They know what they’re up against.


Today’s children live in the presence of 24-hour TV, cable, and Internet video streams that feature sexual situations running from funny to romantic to frighteningly violent. Some even glorify teen pregnancy. The radio is no better: Researchers from the State University of New York at Albany just released an analysis of song lyrics from the 174 songs that made it into the Top 10 country, pop and R&B Billboard charts in 2009 and found 92 percent contained one or more “reproductive messages,” with an average of 10.49 such phrases per song.


“The great news is that parents do care about these issues,” Guilamo-Ramos told me. “They’re really trying because they feel they can really help their kids—and the data supports that. We’ve reinforced this notion that adolescents are primarily peer-focused, but we know that when young people make big decisions they want to go to their parents because they value their parents’ perspectives. But they don’t because they’re fearful that their parents will automatically assume they must be sexually active if they try to open up a dialogue, then the conversations become tense and don’t have the best outcomes.”


Parents are understandably terrified about how to talk about sex with their “babies,” which is why providing easy-to-understand information for sparking meaningful conversations was the whole point of releasing the birds-n-bees talk poll.


At www.nyu.edu/socialwork/clafh, the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health has posted a whole program of downloadable materials providing parents and teens extensive information on how to talk about these delicate matters.


The materials are geared toward Latinos and African-Americans because half of their girls, compared to 19 percent of white teens, are expected to become pregnant at least once before they turn 20. But, aside from a few culturally sensitive examples, these modules are perfect for anyone who needs facts, insight into their teens’ lives and advice on how to start talking.


So if your kids are old enough to make you feel embarrassed when something risque comes on the TV, don’t wait another minute. Start downloading—and don’t be afraid to blush.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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