The Teenage Mind

The internal experience of the young adult

Teen Pregnancy, Oprah, and Sarah Palin

Sex Education: Who? What? When?


Sarah Palin's book is out and she's been interviewed by Oprah and Barbara Walters. Curious about her political ambitions, I tuned into the Oprah interview. Surprisingly, Oprahs's very first question was not about politics but about Sarah's pregnant teenaged daughter, Bristol. According to Sarah, McCann's vetting team knew Bristol was pregnant even before she was selected as a VP candidate. She said the campaign managers told the media that she and Todd were very happy to be grandparents. According to Sarah that was not true. She said she was in shock. She said she would have preferred to use Bristol's teen pregnancy as an educational tool for the country. Oprah also asked Sarah Palin about her views on contraception and abortion. Then, she asked Sarah if she knew her daughter was sexually active. These are all good questions and for the answers I direct the reader to www.Oprah.com. But, my concern here is with teen pregnancy and while Sarah missed an opportunity to talk about it, I don't have to.

Probably the best thing a parent can do is talk openly and honestly with their children as recommended by my fellow PT blogger, Lybi Ma in "Kids: Open to Discussion" in the PT Blogs, Psych Basics on Adolescence (http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200509/kids-open-discussion). I know this because my parents didn't. What I learned about sex came from my teenaged boyfriends and they weren't very reliable sources.

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1. So first, who? Who should talk to a child about sex? The parent is always the child's first teacher. Will the parent feel uncomfortable? Most likely. Some of the most endearing teen movie scenes are Eugene Levi playing a father and struggling to discuss sexuality with his son in American Pie. Probably, both parent and child will feel uncomfortable but ignoring sex education is not an option. Even an awkward conversation can convey that a parent cares. In American Pie, Jason forgives his fathers' clumsiness because he knows he is trying to help.

Because this is such a sensitive topic many parents avoid it. If the parent doesn't feel comfortable talking about sex, the parent can enlist a trusted aunt, uncle or family doctor. An older sibling may be a good source of reliable information or even placing sex ed literature on the kitchen table will work. Just about anything is better than not educating a child about sex, pregnancy, and contraception. If it were up to me, school districts would have traveling health vans with trained personnel that provide free dental and medical exams, health education, and birth control.

2. When? At what age is a child ready to learn about sex? There are definitely some windows of opportunity and some closed doors. Personally, I believe younger is better and more than once. Children have a different receptivity depending on their developmental level but a parent can read a book at story time to a very young child about the differences between boys and girls and how they grow. For a preteen some parents recommend, It's Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris. Even an imperfect book is an opportunity to start a dialogue with a son or daughter. I learned about menstruation in fifth grade from a school video. One girl told me by the time she saw the video, she had already started her period. The movie came too late and she was startled by the new and scary experience. Obviously, sex ed should come before puberty.

3. What? What content should be communicated to the young person? The tone of the conversation is just as important as the content. The parent has the opportunity to communicate loving and tender messages about sexuality or fearful ones. Believe me, the child will remember the affective message as well or better than the content. But, still what to say?

Obviously, the conversation will vary depending on the developmental level of the child and their interest. My advice is to take your cue from the child. Sometimes short and sweet is enough but a curious child may want more information. WebMD suggests a list of topics to discuss with your child including: anatomy and reproduction, sexual intercourse, pregnancy, fertility, birth control, sexual orientation, STDs, rape, self image, and clothing (http://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/guide/talking-to-your-kids...). Planned Parenthood offers excellent guidance for parents on what to talk about, at what ages, and how to say it (http://www.plannedparenthood.org/parents/how-talk-your-child-abou...). I like Planned Parenthood's views because they emphasize the importance of self-respect, taking care of ourselves, and making responsible informed decisions. Without accurate and reliable information, young people cannot make responsible decisions.

So, O.K. Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, got pregnant as an unmarried teenager. Does this mean Sarah is a lousy parent? I don't think so. I think this could probably happen to the best child of the best parent. Accidents happen. But it does tell us that teens will be sexually active. And, it does cause us to stop and think, as a parent, is this something that can be avoided? What is your opinion? Any advice for other parents?

 

 

Jann Gumbiner, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine.

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