Teens and self-respect

When it comes to teenagers, one of the subjects that comes up in my office is interpersonal relationships — especially sex. In a study presented at a meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA), researchers at the University of Kentucky studied 950 teenagers at 17 high schools in Kentucky and Ohio from 9th to 11th grades. Among other trends, they learned that teens who are sexually active tend to think their friends are too — even if they’re not.

‘You’re 2.5 times more likely to have sex by the 9th grade if you think your friends are having sex — whether or not they really are,’ says Katharine Atwood, assistant professor at the Kentucky School of Public Health. In addition, teens tended to overestimate how many of their friends were sexually active. Only 33 percent of kids in the study admitted to engaging in sex by the 9th grade, but 31 percent said that most or all of their friends had. (Source: Psychology Today Online, psychologytoday.com.)

It all comes down to self-respect. A young person with self-respect is willing to think for himself. He looks at sex on its own terms, not on what everyone else is doing. The fact that so many young people look to their peers’ behavior (real or imaginary) to determine what they should do simply means that they don’t know what to do.

For generations, the subject of sex was handled by simply not addressing it. Of course today, schools are involved. Though a lot of people oppose this, schools enjoy government funding, and government funding means government power. But young people won’t listen to educational ‘authorities’ any more than they’ll listen to their parents — many of whom won’t discuss sex with them anyway.

People will always fight over who should teach kids about such personal things. Should it be the church? The government? Parents? Lost in all this bickering is the fact that young people generally aren’t going to listen to adults on the subject anyway. Maybe the alternative is to encourage kids to trust in their own minds and judgment, and not blindly follow their peers or anyone else. Of course, I’m not suggesting parents shouldn’t set limits (curfews, etc.) on their kids, and I’m not suggesting parents shouldn’t express their opinions on the subject. But young people are going to think what they’re going to think, no matter what restrictions are placed on them, and regardless of the parents’ opinions. So why not just teach kids to think for themselves? Thinking doesn’t mean doing what everyone else is doing. That’s the opposite of thinking, and it’s as bad as blindly doing what anybody tells you to do. Rather than fight over sex education, why not focus on ‘ education?

Some adults interact with teenagers as if they were never teenagers themselves. Others assume, ‘When I was young I was not to be trusted. I wanted what I wanted and I didn’t care what any adult wanted. Therefore,  I have to tell this kid what to do.’ This doesn’t make sense. Why would kids’ attitudes be any different today?

Other adults tell me, ‘When I was a teenager, I was afraid of my parents. It was a healthy fear. Kids today don’t seem to have that fear.’ Well, there are two kinds of fear: rational and irrational. If you instill irrational fear, you will get a rebellious teen who lies to you. Teenagers who assume their ‘elders’ are irrationally fearful will lie to avoid being held to what they consider unreasonable standards.

The best way to deal with teenagers is to reason and think along with them. Help them to think decisions through, i.e., ‘What will happen if you do this (or that)? Or, ‘How well did that work out for you?’ This does not mean being permissive or refusing to enforce rules. Teens are not self-supporting adults, and it’s unfair to treat them as equals. At the same time, it’s important to remember that teens must be encouraged to weigh the consequences of their decisions.

Parents ignore this advice at their peril. Teenagers don’t like to be told what to do any more than adults do. They hate know-it-alls spouting platitudes like, ‘Say no to drugs!’ or ‘Say no to premarital sex!’ These ad-campaign slogans have zero impact on the typical teenager. The sensible way is to ask the teen, ‘What will happen if you use drugs? What are the risks and consequences?’

Rules shouldn’t be arbitrary. They should imply, ‘You haven’t proven to me that the consequences of doing what you want to do are worth doing those things. I’m open to persuasion, but you have to prove it.’

Teens have always questioned authority and adults, and the smart ones don’t assume an adult is right merely because he or she is an adult. In fact, adults can sometimes be wrong. But the teen has to reason it out and prove it. Until then, the rules stand.