Let’s look at the middle school years now. Whether you’ve just picked up this book and are playing catch-up, or you have already laid the foundation for your being approachable and your child’s number one source of sex information, sex has most likely been theoretical for your child before middle school. Starting with middle school, however, you face an unavoidable question: How much sexual behavior should adolescents engage in?
I’ve offered my opinion that a little “fooling around” by your adolescent is not all bad. Now that you are planning for the middle and high school years, it’s important to identify exactly what is acceptable sexual behavior for your budding adolescent. It is important to consider the role of adolescence in helping us learn about our eventual sexual roles as adults. Think about your own adolescence: the sexual experiences you had then helped to refine and define to some degree your sexual experiences in early adulthood. In other words, one stage of life helps to prepare us for the next stage, and so on. Whether good or bad, we all learn from our sexual experiences, and we hope that the bad experiences are minimal and involve nothing that is life threatening. Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual behavior, the bad can be very bad. That is why I have gone to the effort of helping you learn how to get your child through to adulthood with a minimum of harm.
To think that a young person should have no sexual experiences until adulthood is naive and probably not very healthy. There should be some “fooling around,” some tryout experiences—as long as your teen is prepared to manage and control those experiences so that risk of harm is minimized to its lowest common denominator. So let’s make a list of some of the sexually related behaviors that our teen might engage in and the conditions and circumstances in which they might occur, and discuss each in turn.
I cannot imagine our children going through adolescence without kissing; can you? Most of us remember our first few kisses, and I don’t know about you but some of the best times I had during my adolescence were the heavy-duty make-out sessions. Of course, the sexual feelings you can get from these sessions can at times be overwhelming and can certainly prime us to want to go further. But it’s going a little too far to say our kids aren’t allowed to kiss. And that goes for kids in middle school, not just high school. You may have some difficulty with the idea of your sixth or seventh grader kissing and making out, but I really can’t see any problem with it as long as you have had your share of discussions about how he would need to manage his feelings and behavior. To be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that you encourage your child to engage in kissing sessions.
So now that we’ve decided that kissing is okay, how about tongue kissing? Well, I do stand on the side of tongue kissing, but I say that we need to choose carefully the person we want to do this with. I have had many discussions with middle school students about tongue kissing and I always ask them, “What if the person you’re tongue kissing likes to eat her or his boogers?” They always respond, “Oh man, Dr. Fred, that’s really gross!” but it does give them pause. On the serious side, when you address this with your children just make sure you discuss with them the possible urge to go further than just kissing.
Feeling Up and Feeling Down Over the Clothes
When teens go beyond kissing, they generally try touching either the breasts or the genitals. You need to set boundaries and conditions: mainly, I suggest limiting your endorsement of this behavior to high school students only (but more on this shortly). You should only permit trying this behavior out with someone the teen trusts and respects. (True love may be too much to ask for at this stage, but teens should at least limit these experiences to someone with whom they feel real affection—not just lust.) Here’s where all your prior talks about respect and trust will pay off. But we must realize that when teens start feeling up and down, the urge to go further is very real. The next step is to explore with your teen how she would expect to keep things under control and not go any further than just touching.
Again, I think our middle school kids are too young for this. What do you think? Do you want your eleven-, twelve-, or thirteen-year-old son or daughter feeling or getting felt up? I’m guessing most of you will agree with me. If you do, you will need to discuss with your middle school child how to avoid these behaviors.
Feeling Up and Down Under the Clothes
Now things are starting to get a little dicey, wouldn’t you say? Touching the breasts or genitals under the clothes is going to make things very hot, perhaps much too hot for teenagers to handle.
This is where I would hope my teen would draw the line. Now we will see whether our guidance all through the years pays off or not. Even if your children decide to get to this level of intimacy during adolescence, thanks to all your preparation they will act wisely and responsibly and their risk of harm will be minimized. But don’t judge your success as an approachable parent solely on whether your children engage in intimate sexual behavior or not—judge it more on your child’s ability to act responsibly in the face of temptation and inherent risk. Even if you would prefer that your child does not go this far as a teen, if he does he will have a better chance of keeping himself safe if you have done your job as an approachable parent.
If your child does become involved in some intimate touching under the clothes, you may be all right with that if it’s done with someone your child deeply trusts and respects—ideally, someone with good character and judgment, someone you and your partner or spouse have met and approve of. We parents can at least hope our child has already formed a fairly solid bond with the chosen partner.
Sexual Intercourse and Other Types of Intercourse
Based on the best available statistics, just about half of all teens in this country have had sexual intercourse.1 So, statistically, there’s a good chance that your child will engage in intercourse at least once while still a teenager. However, if you follow the guidelines laid out in this book, this will likely not be the case. I’m assuming it’s your goal to ensure that your child will not have sex as a teen and that he will avoid the primary sexual risk behaviors that represent some of the major causes of illness and death in this country. When I advocate delaying intercourse until adulthood I make the assumption that, all things being equal, a person is more likely to behave responsibly as an adult than as a teen. I fully understand that there are many adults who behave irresponsibly and make their fair share of mistakes. It is just that with teenagers, from a developmental standpoint, they are still learning the basic concept that present behavior has future consequences. That is, many still lack the ability to see beyond their noses.
However, if your teenager does become sexually active, our goal is that it be with someone with whom she has mutual love, respect, and trust. You know I have some reservations about just how good our kids are at identifying real love, even with all of our approachable guidance. Yet I hope the big three will be a part of their decision to go ahead and have sex, if they make that choice.
Thanks to all of the work you are putting into being an approachable parent, your child will still be making far better decisions than if you had remained on the sidelines all these years. Don’t forget this.Without your efforts to be approachable, think what your child might have gotten involved in with respect to sex.
Dating and Getting Involved
At what age do you think it’s okay for your child to start to date and get seriously involved with a boyfriend or girlfriend? Are you okay with your kid forming some sort of romantic relationship during high school? How about during middle school? You will need to come to terms with your expectations for your children.
When I visit fifth-grade classrooms, I am struck by the number of kids who appear to be engaging in some form of dating. It may not be the classically defined “couple date” but it does involve some pairing off in various social situations. Irrespective of how one defines dating, going out, hanging out, hooking up, or getting involved, our kids will likely form “romantic” relationships in one form or another.
I recommend that you address this issue with your child proactively, around age ten, before she or he gets to middle school. By starting your conversations around ten years of age, you start to lay the groundwork for establishing boundaries that you hope your child will abide down the road. This means sharing your thoughts and expectations about dating or get-togethers that are different from regular socials with one’s friends and peers. I don’t think kids in middle school need to be dating or even thinking about forming a special relationship with another. I think they are too young and it restricts their ability to branch out and explore the social landscape. Having said that, I do think that it’s important that your child take advantage of as many socializing opportunities as possible in order to make friends and gain experience interacting with others.
It is here where you also want to hammer home the potential pitfalls of the Internet. Numerous hazards await your child online, whether he is surfing the Internet or joins the online social networking scene. I know I spoke about these hazards earlier but I want to take another moment to have you reflect on how important it is that you discourage your child’s involvement. You know the reality behind social networking and unsupervised online Internet surfing. Nothing, I repeat, nothing is more important on the social landscape issue than having your child meet and interact with others in person. Sitting in front of a computer screen does not take the place of real face-to-face involvement with other people (not to mention the importance of being active physically). And I’ll throw the whole texting thing in there as well. You know our children spend way too much time on these high-tech activities and not enough time actually interacting socially with their peers. And when you throw in the potential destructiveness of harassment, bullying, and exposure to uncensored material that can come with being online and involved with social networks, this activity becomes even more dangerous. You must find the strength to limit your child’s participation. Specifically, supervise your kid when he’s on the Internet until at least high school, and forbid him from joining the social network scene until, well, adulthood.
Many parents will disagree with me, especially with respect to social networking. Your kids may be participating right now on a social networking site. Some of them might still be in elementary school. For all the supposed benefits of the social network scene, people reaching out and connecting to a diverse, eclectic, and expanded social environment, we know all too well that it has a downside that can be devastating and deadly. At the very least, it is not a place for eleven-, twelve-, or thirteen-year-old children to be; plain and simple.
It’s in the Script
As your child begins to expand her awareness of in-person social opportunities in middle school, you can introduce to her the idea of scripting her outings. That is, prior to your child going out with peers, you and she develop a script of what is expected to occur on the outing—much as a movie script determines how the characters interact and what actually occurs in a scene. This includes when the outing starts and the time it will conclude, who will be at the outing, what happens if someone suggests a change in the plans, and the time you want your child to check in with you. Doing this with your child establishes clear expectations and boundaries for her social get-togethers and will be a useful tool to use when she actually starts to date. It forces her to think about being responsible while out with others, especially when you have her reflect on her course of action in the event that someone tries to change what was planned for the outing. This happens all the time, doesn’t it? The kids have plans, they go out, and suddenly someone wants to do something different. Changes of plans can get our kids in trouble so make sure your child always lets you know when it comes up.
You can see how much easier it would be to discuss your reservations about middle school dating prior to the actual middle school years. If there is one central theme that I’ve harped on this entire book, it is the need to have conversations about important issues before your child starts to experience them. And dating is no different. You sure don’t want to start your conversations about it when your seventh- or eighth-grade child comes home from school one day and tells you he’d like to go out on a date tonight. Trust me; you don’t want to have to scramble and improvise.
Keeping the Conversations Going
Middle school will be an altogether different experience from elementary school for both you and your child. Somewhere during this time your kid is going to start to pull back from you. Fortunately for you, your attempts at being approachable all these years will pay off handsomely. I speak to a lot of middle school parent groups and I always cringe inside when a parent tells me that he really hasn’t dealt with sex and sexuality to date and now wants to know how to proceed. I always say better late than never but in all likelihood he has a pretty steep hill to climb as he moves forward in his efforts to become approachable. You, on the other hand, as a result of reading this book, will be way ahead of the game by the time your children get to the sixth grade. Yet, even though you may have done a good job up to now, you must keep things going. You have to stay on top of your game at all times when it comes to being approachable.
You’ll need to remember that sexual feelings will continue to become a more pervasive reality for your child, becoming more recognizable in middle school and far more relevant in high school. Consequently, you will want to continue your conversations, authentic teachings, and setting of boundaries on how to manage and deal with this part of your child’s sexuality. Continue to be supportive of your child’s sexual feelings, yet remind him of the risks of being sexually active and the need to have love, respect, and trust as part of a relationship. Your child is a sexual human being, and by acknowledging his sexual feelings you will help him to feel normal. Your child’s middle school and even high school years will bring alternating episodes of both maturity and childish behavior that at times will keep you guessing about who your kid really is. But that is the way it is with a middle-school and early-high-school child—your kids are still kids even though they’re becoming more and more like adults.
By middle school, puberty will be in full bloom and your child will be going through so many changes physically and emotionally that you need to be as laid back with it all as is possible. Keep making occasional references that the changes he’s going through are normal and feel free to jump in at any point to help him better understand those changes. Unlike when you started your puberty discussions way back when your child was in elementary school, your child is now living and breathing puberty every day. Be prepared, though; some children don’t change as quickly as their peers, and if your child’s in sixth grade or early seventh grade, he may not be changing much at all. You will need to reassure him that changes are indeed on their way if he just sits tight and stays the course.
I let my own son know that my puberty changes didn’t start until midway through seventh grade. This was back in the day when every student had to shower after gym class, and on the very first day of class I noticed that there was a big difference between my body and the other boys’ bodies when I stripped down to shower. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “there are some pretty big penises in here and many of them have a lot of hair around them.” I, on the other hand, didn’t have a single pubic hair and as far as my penis went, well, let’s just say it was still a little fellow. I made up my mind that very first day of school to avoid the showers as best I could, or I would hide out in the locker room until the other guys finished and then dart in for a quick wash. Needless to say, I was late for my next class on numerous occasions. But as it turned out, all of my worrying was for naught; as it wasn’t too long after these experiences that I started to go through puberty. At long last, I started to fit in a whole lot better. A story or two like this can be very helpful if you’ve got a child who’s lagging behind.
Overall, you will be balancing your involvement as an approachable sex educator for the next seven or so years by speaking up when it’s really important and laying back when things aren’t quite as pressing. You can’t talk your teenager to death but you can’t avoid her either. Using teachable moments will be very helpful, as they can be used as a springboard into a brief conversation that won’t feel as contrived as a formal sit-down discussion would. Be smart about choosing those times when you do have a one-on-one with your child. Riding in the car, bike riding, or taking a subway with your kid can give you some moments to chat without interruption and won’t be viewed by your child as one of those formal talk moments.
Try not to get frustrated if your teen doesn’t respond much when you talk to him or her. Many parents of middle and high school age kids complain about this during my presentations with them. “My kid just doesn’t want to talk to me anymore, Dr. Fred,” they worry. “No matter what I do I just can’t get them to say much to me.” It’s okay. Our teenagers are not supposed to talk too much to us. That is just the way it is when you get to this age. They are no longer those cute little talkative kids they were just a few years earlier.
So you’ll have to get over it and move on; there’s no use wishing for something that at least for now just doesn’t exist anymore. When your kid reaches his junior or senior year in high school he will begin to morph back into the wonderful kid you remember him to be. Maturity will do that to most kids. But for now what does count most is that you continue to be approachable and find those times to speak up and say to your child what you think needs to be said. If your kids complain and bitch about your involvement, you can reply, “Too bad; it’s because I love you so much that I have to say what I say.” Your kids may not show it, but they love it when you tell them you love them; it gets them every time!
Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex
The reality of alcohol, drugs, and sex for teens today in our country is alarming. More than 20 percent of kids in this country have had a significant drinking episode before age thirteen. That’s one in five kids! In addition, more than 20 percent of kids who are sexually active used alcohol or drugs the last time they had sexual intercourse.2 You’ll recall that sexual risk behaviors are one of six health-related behaviors that account for the majority of major illness and death in our country. Well, alcohol and substance use is another one of those six major health behaviors. Each of these behaviors is dangerous enough by itself. But together, sexual risk behaviors and alcohol and drug use are positively deadly. We must wake up about the potentially lethal combination of the two among young people. Getting high and having sex can be a deadly combination. In addition, getting high can open the door to other potentially harmful behaviors. Statistically, significant risk behaviors such as using alcohol and illegal drugs and substances are behind the majority of serious crimes in this country and a major cause of vehicle-related accidents and deaths.
When teens get high they risk compromising their ability to make reasonable and responsible decisions. Put them in a social situation when they are intoxicated, and of course the risk of engaging in sexual behavior becomes more real. It is not just the risk of engaging in intercourse but also the risk of not using a condom or becoming sexually active with multiple partners. We must be aware of the significant problems associated with teen drinking and drugging and sexual activity, and help our kids understand how to minimize their risk for engaging in all of these behaviors, both by themselves and when done together.
I hope you have already had conversations with your child about the hazards of drinking and misusing drugs, both legal and illegal ones. At around the time your child is about to enter middle school, age eleven or so, have your first talks about the risks and dangers of mixing alcohol and drug use with sexual activity. Talk about how, even if you’re not interested in sex, alcohol and drugs can break down your inhibitions. These hazards are real. It’s very likely that your children and mine will try alcohol and some legal or illegal substances prior to graduating from high school. We deceive ourselves when we think, Oh, not my child. Remember, most of us tend to underestimate what our children are involved with.
I think your conversations about drinking and using drugs should happen periodically throughout middle school. Several times each year, check in with your kid and remind him of your expectations around making good decisions as they apply to these issues. You can use the same strategies for dealing with alcohol and drugs that you have used for sex and sexuality; teachable moments, authentic teaching, and using the media are all useful when dealing with the topics of alcohol, drugs, and sex, or with any other critical health issue, for that matter.
I am constantly asked by parents how often or how many times should they bring a particular subject up with their kids. I hate to put a number on these things, but I would say that you should devote at least one major conversation each year during the middle school years that link together alcohol, drugs, and sex, and perhaps more often depending on each of your own particular situations. A reminder or two before your child goes out somewhere with her friends won’t hurt. Don’t beat a dead horse, but do justice to this important issue. When it comes to your child’s health and safety, there are many such issues. Certainly, as your child gets older, enters high school, and expands her opportunities to encounter more and varied social situations, you will probably increase the number of discussions you have with her around these topics.
Too Permissive or Too Strict?
As I’ve discussed earlier, an authoritative style of parenting, from an empirical standpoint, is the most effective style—not too strict and not too permissive. Operate by a clearly established set of rules and boundaries, identify a set of rights and wrongs, and allow room for input and discussion—these are the basics of effective parenting.
But what if you’re too permissive with your child? Or just the opposite: way too strict? I have come across more than my share of both types, and each presents its own unique set of difficulties for parents who are trying to handle a hormonally charged teenager.
Let’s Be Friends
As I’ve said before, permissive parents want to be friends with their kids. They allow their teens to drink in the home and allow their kid’s girlfriend or boyfriend to have more than their share of privacy and alone time in the house. You’ll see them allow the girlfriend or boyfriend to stay overnight occasionally, and even allow them to sleep in their child’s room. They don’t want any confrontation with their children; they give them way too much leeway. They will supply their teenager with condoms but not spend a whole lot of time in meaningful discussion about core values and sexuality (see sidebar).
The inherent flaw in a permissive parent’s thinking is that a minor child has the personal right to make her own decisions about sex, so the parent’s wishes take a backseat to the child’s. Although the permissive parent may not want her teenager to date until a certain age, or become too serious with a girlfriend or boyfriend until after high school, or fool around early in adolescence, this parent will abandon any of these wishes and cave to her child’s demands.
My Way or the Highway
At the other extreme, the authoritarian style parent is really not any better at things either. The authoritarian parent doesn’t want his kid doing any fooling around. There isn’t a whole lot of room for discussion; if what the kid wants goes against what the parent wants, then forget it. There’s no middle ground. This dictatorial style doesn’t hold together well at all during adolescence. Fear of punishment may at first discourage a child from acting a certain way, but over the long haul the child is going to rebel. Punishment will have no long-lasting, positive influence on the child. The older the child grows, the more difficult it becomes to control him. The fear of punishment that the child felt when he was younger is replaced with anger as he grows older, and that anger drives him to act contrary to what his parent wants. So if it’s abstinence that the parent wants, it’ll be sexual intercourse that the parent gets. What better way to get back at a hurtful parent than to do the very thing the parent doesn’t want you to do?
We see kids rebelling under this sort of parental regime by sexually acting out when they get the chance. The teenager of this sort of parent eventually does all he can do to get away with things when his parent isn’t looking or paying attention.
THE PERMISSIVE PARENT
A permissive parent came up to me after one of my presentations and we had the following brief conversation.
“I gave my thirteen-year-old daughter a condom,” she told me, confident that I would be impressed.
“Oh, really,” I replied, “and what sort of discussion did you have with her?”
The parent said, “ ‘In case you ever have sex I want to just make sure that you are prepared.’ ”
“And what else did you say to her?”
“Well, um, you see, I really didn’t want to get into too much talk because I didn’t want to say anything that maybe she wouldn’t like to hear.”
This is the perfect example of the permissive parent. A noble intention, wanting her daughter to be able to protect herself should she have sexual intercourse, but the parent provided no parental oversight. She could have shared with her daughter her thoughts about sexual intercourse, and when and with whom it should be engaged in, and the exchange would have been much more effective.
You just don’t hand over a condom to a thirteen-year-old without having a major conversation beforehand. The parent acted as if her daughter was just a friend of hers who was about to have sex but forgot to bring protection. (“Oh, here you go, take one of my condoms, I’ve got plenty more.”) But when the person is her thirteen-year-old daughter and the parent behaves this way, what message is she sending? Rather than setting boundaries that discourage sexual intercourse and having meaningful two-way discussions about why these boundaries are in a thirteen-year-old girl’s best interests, this parent acted as if she didn’t want to infringe on her daughter’s personal right of sexual expression.
A Sexually Responsible Adolescent
We’ve dealt with so many aspects of sex and sexuality, haven’t we? We explored in detail how to become an approachable parent on all matters that are sexual, beginning early in life and continuing right through childhood. Our goal: to provide the necessary knowledge and guidance that will assist our children to develop into healthy and responsible sexual adolescents. And here we are! On the cusp of having our teenager go out and successfully negotiate a sexualized world, and emerging ready and able to take on the challenges of adulthood. You have the power to make it all work for your kids. If you carefully follow what I’ve laid out here for you, your child will weather adolescence in a way that we hope for. You will have prepared your child to handle his emerging sexuality in a way that he will understand and accept, and by being approachable you will remain at his side, serving as both parent and mentor.
Your Goals, Revisited
Let’s take some time now and go over what we expect to have accomplished by the time our child is well on her way through adolescence. The following list represents what I would consider the fruits of your labor in becoming an approachable parent for any sexual issue or situation. Your adolescent will:
You’ve worked hard to convince your child of the importance of delaying sexual intercourse and intimate sexual touching until she or he has love, respect, and trust in a relationship—and ideally not until she or he is an adult. But again, if your adolescent does have intercourse while in high school, you should not consider this a failure. Your adolescent is allowed to make mistakes; it is after all one of the things that makes us distinctly human. Through it all, I think you want to judge whether or not you are a successful, approachable parent based on your adolescent’s ability to make responsible sexual decisions, and, if he is in a relationship, how he treats the other person. It is so important for an adolescent to know how to treat others. Not having to worry that my child might be nasty to others or choose a partner who would be unkind toward him is very important to me, and I’m sure you feel the same way. Of course, making good, responsible decisions is too.
If there is just one thing you can take away from reading this book, I would like it to be the fact that you can be the single most influential source of sexual information and guidance in your children’s lives. If you can establish yourself as an approachable parent on all matters related to sex, you will minimize the chances that your child will engage in sexually related behavior that is dangerous to her or his health and safety. No other source of sex education is more powerful or more effective than you—none! If you take the initiative to make an early start in your conversations about sex and sexuality, and follow the steps outlined here, your children will be in the best position possible to develop into sexually healthy and responsible adolescents and young adults.
Don’t be afraid to become and remain actively involved in the sex education of your children. You must stay in charge. Remember that your kids are being educated and potentially influenced every day by a sex-saturated society that is relentless in its pursuit to confuse and distort your children’s understanding of what it means to be male and female. If you sit back and allow it, this sexualized world will swallow your children whole, and by the time they reach adolescence they will be primed to behave sexually in ways that are contrary to their best interests. The Internet, the social networking world, your children’s peers, and the vastly sexualized media never take a day off. Day in and day out, all of these forces influence your children, and without your intervention and guidance they will have harmful effects on their lives.
This is a battle, and it is one that you could lose. In research, most kids say that they don’t receive enough guidance from their parents on sexual matters.3 This should not be a surprise since a majority of parents are either uncomfortable talking about sex, would rather have someone else teach their children about sex, or are afraid that talking about it will cause their kids to become too interested in it. So if you are one of these parents, then your children will be influenced about sex more from outside sources than from you. And if that is to happen, your children will pay the price.
But all you need to do is to become approachable, and you will win the battle. Think positively and optimistically as you move forward. What an awesome set of responsibilities you have, caring for the most precious thing in your life: your children. Parenting is certainly the most difficult and complex thing you will ever do; to also be the primary sexual educator for your children makes it that much more difficult. Your parents and your grandparents didn’t have to be the sexual educators that you have to be today, and there was no one to teach you how to prepare for all the sexually charged topics that you now have to help your kids understand. But the way things are in our society nowadays demands that you actively educate your children about sex and sexuality on a regular and ongoing basis. There isn’t much room to slack off.
Your children need you to be the go-to person on all things sexual. There is no escaping that reality. Now is the time to step up and be that person. You can do it. Let’s all join together and make sure that we, our children’s parents, become the most important and significant source of sexual guidance in our children’s lives. When we do this, our children will be the winners.