When it comes to teenagers, one of the subjects that comes up quite often in my office is interpersonal relationships. In a study presented at a meeting of the American Public Health Association, 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. According to Psychology Today Online, 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.
It all comes down to self-respect. A young person with self-respect looks at sex on its own terms, not as something everyone else is doing. The fact that 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. For better or worse, schools enjoy government funding, and that 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 simple fact that many young people 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. Of course, I’m not suggesting parents shouldn’t set limits on their kids or 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. 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. Rather than fight over sex education, why not focus on … education?
Some 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, irrational fear creates 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 help them to think decisions through. For example, “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. But they should be encouraged to weigh the consequences of their decisions.
Parents ignore this advice at their peril. Teenagers hate know-it-all platitudes like, “Say no to drugs!” or “Say no to premarital sex!” These ad-campaign slogans have zero impact. The sensible way is to ask the teen, “What will happen if you use drugs? What are the risks and consequences?”
Rules should clearly imply, “You haven’t proven to me that the consequences of doing what you want to do are worth doing those things. Prove it.”
Teens are wired to question authority, and the smart ones don’t assume an adult is right just because he or she is an adult. Adults can sometimes be wrong, but the teen has to reason it out and prove it. Until then, the rules stand.