Today, in the 21st century, we ask whether parental influence has bearing on a child’s choice of birth control and to what extent it shapes views on children and parenthood. These questions are especially relevant considering the onset of social media and the broader worldview that has created. Will an open dialogue with children about their choices encourage safer sexual practices? Studies show it does.
Since 1960, when the birth control pill became a formal prophylactic, parents across the nation were faced with changing patterns of sexual acceptance and choice. No longer were the restraints of risky sex a factor, and the time to make decisions based on future plans or immediate circumstances changed the way America approached sex and sexual activity. No longer could it be ignored that adolescents and adults alike were sexual beings with wants and needs. Baby boomers weren’t waiting for marriage to have sex, and it was no longer just about procreation.
Fifty-eight years have passed since “the pill” revolutionized a woman’s choice to plan just how and when she would conceive a child, if at all. Parents have always been parents, and parenting styles have had influence over children’s behavior and choices since long before 1960. Stoic views have evolved, minds have opened, and patterns have changed.
What Is Your Child Hearing?
As decades pass, the subject of birth control loses its taboo and is much more likely to be discussed around the dinner table. Teens have gained the confidence to talk to their parents about prevention and abstinence, and parents have found their own voice and understand that talking to their kids does a lot more good than keeping quiet and hoping for the best. Studies show children may learn more about relationships from their peers and social media, but parents, especially mom, still hold rank when it comes to advising contraceptive decisions.
Today, adolescent females are much more likely to seek out their mothers for direction, recognizing parents as sexual beings and not simply authority figures. Speaking openly with children about risk and reward empowers teens with knowledge to make informed decisions and weigh the costs of their choices.
Savannah, a 24-year-old Millennial, has this to say about her mother’s role in her sexual choices: “My mom was pregnant very young, so as soon as I started having sex, she took me to the gynecologist to get BC. She was super adamant that I didn’t become a teen mom or get an STD, so I always had ready access to condoms and birth control in high school.”
Awareness on the Rise
Studies from the Journal of Adolescent Health confirm that unwanted pregnancies have dropped considerably over the years. The study looked at unwanted pregnancies from 2007-2014, reporting a 10-percent increase in the use of contraceptives over that time period. It’s also encouraging to note that understanding the proper use of contraceptives such as the birth control pill, IUDs, condoms, and diaphragms has helped stave off not only unwanted pregnancies but STDs as well.
Although sexual activity itself did not increase over that same time frame, the fall of unwanted pregnancies is significant, with credit given to increased contraceptive use as well as communication and frank discussions about sexual responsibility and the consequences of risky behavior. As parents recognize the impact of their own experiences and wisdom, teens find that turning to a parent for answers is a positive and enduring approach for current and future decision making.
What Message Are You Sending?
Although 60 years seems like a very long time, it wasn’t that long ago that young women were caught off guard by their own menstrual cycles, some ignorant to their own bodies and the processes going on within. In today’s world, it’s almost unimaginable that young women weren’t aware of the workings of their own bodies and the changes of puberty, let alone why they began to bleed once a month. The idea is reminiscent of the shower scene in the 1976 horror movie classic, Carrie, in which the title character is mocked and shamed for her shocked reaction to her first menstrual flow.
Of course, the movie also implies that her embarrassment is the fault of her fanatically religious mother, who never bothered to tell her anything. But is that so far off? Religion has always played a role in women’s reproductive rights, and again, the messaging from parents does, in fact, effect their child’s choices and awareness.
Allison, 42, remembers her experience: “My parents were a bit older when they had me. I came from a family where sex just wasn’t discussed. When I started getting my period, my mom gave me a book (from the 50s, no less) to explain what was going on… so, like I said, we never really talked about it. I became sexually active in my teens, and there was no open channel of communication. I actually took myself to my first gynecologist appointment and put myself on the pill. I just didn’t feel like I could have that conversation with them at all. I can’t even say that I knew what their opinions about birth control were.”
As the World Wide Web tumbles most sexual skeletons out of the closet, parents have a prime opportunity to shape the conversation. Since the internet can create more questions than it answers, parents do well when they remain vigilant about what messages their children are hearing and become an anchor for common sense.
Sources of Influence
Parents also need to remember that, although teens may be taking their contraceptive advice, parental wisdom isn’t the only thing they hear. Peers, social media, and schools also play a role in defining outlooks on sexual activity and birth control. Peers may contribute a positive perspective, emphasizing the good points of sexual activity while downplaying the risks. Media, including social media, TV, and movies, may glamorize sex to the point of creating unrealistic relationship expectations. These influences may increase sexual activity among adolescents and increase the risk of unwanted pregnancies, mainly because the risks are understated.
Natalie W., 32, shares: “I would ask my mom her opinion on birth control. I used the patch once and reported to her side effects I was having.” Natalie’s statement suggests her mom was open to talking to her about birth control, but how many parents initiate the conversation? Mothers and fathers can pick up the slack by sharing hard truths.
Even when parents do initiate a conversation, they are much more likely to discuss the biology of sex and miss the opportunity to have discussions about healthy relationships and self-worth. Parents are encouraged to become educated to the full benefits of birth control, especially the pill, in treating acne, reducing cramps, and regulating menstruation. Parental thinking may be clouded by worry about what their children might hear, making it difficult for parents to tell their kids what they need — and want — to know. Still, the rewards of open discussions are noted in the results.
Minority at Risk
Lisa Lieberman, author of the Perspective study on sex education and a professor of public health at Montclair State University, explains minority risk: “In particular, studies suggest that the needs of sexual minority youth are not being met in school sex education or by their parents. Some recent work in which I’ve engaged, on college students’ retrospective views of sexual debut, suggests that sexual minority youth have been virtually excluded from their schools’ sex ed messages, and have even greater difficulty communicating with parents about sex and sexuality.”
Public school sex education may be the only source of information for minority teens, with abstinence the focus of the discussion. If parents aren’t stepping in to fill in the information gaps, minority teens are much more likely to search for answers elsewhere. Ms. Lieberman goes on to say: “There is a great deal of data suggesting that young people are finding and using resources on their own.”
Fathers and Sons
There is also hope that fathers will play a more active role in their child’s sex education, primarily their son’s development. Men and boys have as much of a role in birth control and the consequences of unprotected sex as women.
Dialogue and open discussions about sex have virtually removed its stigma. Changes in parental attitudes and willingness to talk to their children about a topic that is still daunting in many ways empower teens, both girls and boys, to ask questions before making choices.
With this in mind, fathers can break down the walls between themselves and their sons. Young men need to be educated not only about sexual practices but also in regard to the same characteristics that fathers uphold for their daughters: self-worth, healthy relationships, responsibility, and accountability.
We aren’t in the dark ages anymore, and communication has worn down the boundaries that kept young women in the shadows regarding their own bodies. As parents continue to effectively communicate with their children about all facets of sexual activity, including risks and rewards, adolescents are armed with the information they need to make smart choices. Each new generation may have its own struggles for communication, but as views evolve and change, conversations may turn to talks about self-worth, boundaries, and choices. Gender and identity have seen a shift in their mantles, and dinner tables everywhere may get crowded.
As today’s adolescents become tomorrow’s parents, attitudes toward sex, sexual activity, birth control, and the recognition of adolescents as thinking, feeling beings continues to improve. If parental figures strive to maintain an open-door policy, teens can relax their fears of retribution or judgment when the time for conversation comes. Knowledge is a doorway to power, and with social media opening that door a little wider, teens have access to more information than ever before. The time for mom and dad to be the biggest influencers is now.