The United States has the highest teen birth rate of any industrialized country. Teen pregnancy leads to negative health, educational, and economic outcomes and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
Only 33% of teen girls who have a child by age 18 graduate from high school, and, out of those who do, only 3% obtain a college degree. Teen fathers have a 25 to 30 percent lower probability of graduating from high school than teenage boys who are not fathers. Children of teen parents are at increased risk for abuse and neglect; boys born to teen moms are more likely to be incarcerated later in life, and girls born to teen moms are more likely to become teen moms themselves.
Admittedly, there are many teen parents who overcome the odds and break the cycle. However, these teens are the exception rather than the rule.
Research shows that parents have the biggest influence on their children’s sexual decisions. And, believe it or not, teens want this information from their parents; that’s right- parents, not the Internet, their friends, or school.
Although teen birth rates are declining in the United States, they are not declining fast enough, and we still see zip codes with rates comparable to Honduras and Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, STD’s are on the rise in teens and young adults, and sexual education should focus on not just pregnancy, but also STD’s.
Debates about whether or not schools should teach sex ed continues, with proponents stating it is part of science and biology and detractors claiming it’s not the government’s role to talk to our kids about sex or that teaching about sex leads to teens having sex (this latter claim is not wholly supported by research). Comprehensive sexuality education is important; and research shows that states that implement evidence-based, medically-accurate, and age-appropriate sex ed have lower teen birth rates than states that do not.
Full disclosure: for the longest time, I believed that sex education belonged in homes, not public schools. I did not oppose the teaching of sexuality education, I opposed the government having any role in these teachings. Parents should be the ones having these conversations, I vigorously argued, not teachers with a bureaucratic agenda. However, after working in nonprofits and serving teens and parents for ten years, I witnessed how a lack of knowledge and education leads to diminished opportunity for our communities. I had to challenge deeply-held beliefs and come to terms with the fact that schools may have to sometimes step in and fill in the gaps for the children who are not receiving the information they need at home.
That being said, sexuality education in schools provides facts, not values. The school teaches teens how not to get pregnant or get somebody pregnant, but does not address why not to. This is where parents come in because the why is more important, complex, and necessary than the how.
Talking about sex is not easy. Parents avoid the talk for a variety of reasons: they think talking to their children will lead to them having sex, parents may not have all the facts, parents are embarrassed, etc. But, it is time for parents to have these difficult, yet crucial conversations with their children about abstinence, sex, pregnancy, STD’s, and healthy relationships. The sex ed taught in schools should reinforce what teens have learned at home- not the other way around. At each stage of the conversation, parents can imbue their family morals and values.
Prom season is upon us, and, if you have not had the talk, this is a great time to do so. Don’t know where to start? Don’t fret- there are many resources which can help you get started.
The talk is different for each family. However, it’s important to convey your values, listen to your child, and make expectations clear. And, this is not a one-and-done thing, it should be an ongoing conversation that promotes healthy, open communication.
Diana Ayala, Director of External Affairs, North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens. Based in Dallas, she is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.