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IGMP: How can a parent/caregiver encourage/talk about safe sex?

My immediate response is, “How can a parent or caregiver NOT encourage and talk about safe sex.” Unsafe sex isn’t just unsafe – it’s really dangerous. You wouldn’t let your teenager do other potentially life-threatening things. Why would you shy away from having this conversation? Most parents who avoid talking about safe sex do so for one of four reasons: they assume that someone else will do it (like their child’s sex education teacher); they assume that their child already knows what he or she needs to know; they assume that their child is not sexually active (and doesn’t need the information); or they think that talking about safe sex leads kids who wouldn’t otherwise be sexually active to have sex. So here are the facts. First, not all sex ed classes cover safe sex; many follow the preachings of “abstinence-only” education, which has been shown time and again in objective scientific evaluations to be ineffective at preventing teens from becoming sexually active. Second, no matter how smart your adolescent is, he or she may be clueless about why it is important to practice safe sex, and what safe sex is. If schools aren’t covering it, you can only imagine where your adolescent is getting his or her misinformation. Third, it actually is easier to talk to your son or daughter about sex before he or she has become sexually active, because you are more likely to have an attentive audience than one that is rolling its eyes. Finally, there have been many studies of parent-adolescent communication about sex and its impact on adolescent sexual activity, and they find that talking to your teen about safe sex doesn’t increase the chances of your adolescent becoming sexually active. What it does do, however, is increase the likelihood of a sexually active teenager practicing safe sex. If you haven’t had the conversation yet, have it tonight.

IGMP: What age is appropriate for providing birth control to your child?

When your child becomes an adolescent, you should start talking about sex, and part of that conversation should include the message that if and when your child becomes sexually active, you will help arrange for (if a visit to the physician is needed) and provide (in the case of condoms) contraceptives. If you find out that your child is sexually active, or think he or she might be, the first question you should ask is, “Are you using birth control, and do you need my help in getting it?” Because many teenagers are having sex by the time they are 15 or 16, it is a good idea to buy a box of condoms and put them in your child’s bedroom or bathroom. I know that this is an upsetting thought for many parents (it is jarring to think of your little boy or girl – who is no longer so little, in reality – having sex). But think of how much more upsetting it would be to discover that your child was pregnant, had fathered a pregnancy, or had contracted a sexually-transmitted disease.

IGMP: Do you think providing birth control to your child gives the message that it is ok to have sex?

No, not at all. It sends the message that if you are having sex, it should be safe sex.

IGMP: Many schools are switching to segregated core classes to minimize the amount of distraction in hopes of raising student performance. Do you agree or disagree with this change? What impact could it have on the social development of the students?

The notion that all that teenagers think about is sex is silly, as is the notion that the only distraction that gets in the way of concentrating in class is seeing teenagers of the other sex.  There is no scientific evidence that sex-segregated education is superior to coeducational education. (And the idea that boys and girls learn differently, or that their brains develop in ways that make them learn differently, is a complete myth.) But nor is there evidence that sex-segregated education is harmful. Believe me, teenagers who go to same-sex schools have plenty of interest in socializing with people of the opposite sex, and have plenty of time outside of school to do so.

IGMP: Similarly, many students now attend middle and high schools online. Do you agree or disagree with this? What impact could this have on social development?

I’m not a big fan of this (although I don’t think it is all that prevalent). One of the most important skills needed for success in life is the ability to work well (and play well) with others, and part of what a good school can accomplish is helping adolescents learn these capabilities.  (David Brooks, the columnist for The New York Times, has written very thoughtfully about this.) I think that online classes may be effective enough in conveying information, but education is more than the transmission of information.

Interview continues here!