Original article published here
What would you do when your teenage daughter or son asks if they are allowed to have their boyfriend or girlfriend stay the night? Many parents have asked for my opinion over the years, as most find it really difficult to talk to their children about sex.
Attitudes can vary depending on nationality. I grew up in the Netherlands, a country that has a very relaxed attitude. Two-thirds of Dutch parents allow their 16 and 17-year-old children to sleep with their partners in their homes. Dutch parents’ stance on teen sex was compared with that of American parents in a survey Sex, Love and Autonomy in the Teen-age Sleepover, conducted in 2003 by Amy Schalet, who was born in the US but grew up in the Netherlands.
The differences between the cultures, and between the parenting styles in each country, are many, but one of the most important is the attitude towards sex.
Dutch parents tend to downplay the dangerous and difficult sides of teenage sexuality; they normalise it. They believe in a process of becoming physically and emotionally ready for sex and that young people can self-regulate, if they are encouraged to pace themselves and prepare adequately.
“Being aware that your child is sexually active is very different from feeling comfortable knowing that he or she is having sex in the next room.”
Unlike American parents, who are often sceptical about teenagers’ capacities to fall in love, Dutch parents assume that teenagers can. They permit sleepovers, even if that requires an adjustment period to overcome their feelings of discomfort, because they feel obliged to stay connected and accepting as sex becomes part of their children’s lives.
Teenagers in the Netherlands tend to wait longer before having sex, have fewer partners and use easily-acquired birth control consistently and correctly, resulting in much lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortions.
The main reason for this is that the country has a liberal attitude towards sex, and teen sex education is based on an assumption that young people are curious about sexuality and have a right to accurate and comprehensive information, unlike in Australia, sex education is compulsory. Educational materials at schools are characterised by clear, direct and age-appropriate language and attractive designs. The leading message is: If you are going to have sex, do it safely.
The Dutch philosophy is a simple one. Young people have the right to adequate sex education so that they can make well-informed choices in sexuality and relationships.
In Australia, unfortunately, school sex education is lagging very much behind. In 2012 the former Labor minister for education Peter Garrett included the subjects of “sexual and gender identity” and “managing intimate relationships” in the new curriculum. But the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority had to delay its plans to upgrade sex education after religious and conservative groups raised concerns. They believed talking about puberty and sex was “best done by family”.
It would be great if parents could sit down with their children and discuss sex-related issues. But most parents are ill-equipped to do that; they feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and they don’t really have the knowledge, either. Things have changed a lot since they were young.
Children and teenagers should get age-appropriate information as part of their school curriculum. As a parent it is advisable to have back-up information ready to give them and to educate yourself. Think of sex education as an ongoing project — if children know they can talk to parents about issues that are important to them, they will.
An excellent DVD called The Talk is available for parents and their teenage children, presented by Melbourne comedian Nelly Thomas. It features talks about sex and relationships in a frank, informed and non-threatening way.
Another great source is the book Loveability written in 2014 by Nina Funnell and Dannielle Miller, an empowering advice book for teenage girls, which treats them as responsible, intelligent human beings. It’s also a must-read for teenage boys and has a chapter with useful websites, organisations and books.
Let’s get back to the sleepover dilemma: Being aware that your child is sexually active is very different from feeling comfortable knowing that he or she is having sex in the next room. But on the other hand, why create a situation where your children are forced to hide, sneak around, be dishonest, be uncomfortable, take unnecessary risks and make uninformed decisions about their physical and emotional health?
If you want your teenagers to be safe, don’t close your eyes or hope they won’t have sex — they just might!