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My own children are grown but I can remember with cold shivers exactly how parents feel when puberty strikes their child.
You realize with a combination of amazement and dread that your teen who just yesterday was a baby is now able to produce a baby! Plus your teen has developed a nasty habit of doing what he or she wants to do not what you want or think best.
I was clear in my own mind that I didn’t want my teenager having sex at all. But I knew the statistics. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 56% of girls and 73% of boys have had sexual intercourse before age 18, the average age of first intercourse is 17 for girls and 16 for boys with one quarter of youth reporting first intercourse by age 15. Even though there has been a drop in teen pregnancy and teen births that has been related to an increase in teens opting for abstinence, 55% of males and 50% of females between 15 and 19 reported having sex.
This means that chances are your child will have sex before graduating from high school, a scary thing to contemplate. Plus we all know how easily raging hormones can overpower resolute brains in the best of us.
So I evolved in my thinking. I came to the conclusion I didn’t want my teen to have irresponsible sex. Irresponsible sex is sex that causes a pregnancy or a disease. By my definition all teens are irresponsible if they are having unprotected sex. Why? Because a teen is not yet able to be responsible for self let alone for a child that might arrive. Most teens can’t pay their own medical bills for a pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease.
So what I did was tell my kids 1) you are too young to have sex, 2 we hope you won’t have sex until you are much older, 3) but if you do have sex I want you to know how to prevent a pregnancy and avoid STDs.
Of course abstinence is safer but if half of the teens out there are not abstinent, parents have an obligation to do all they can to protect their kids.
My advice to parents today is to start sexuality education at home early and become askable parents so that sex is a topic that can be readily discussed in your home. Promote sexuality education in your children’s schools. Have a specific talk about teen sex early. I used to suggest at the beginning of high school but now I recommend this talk take place when your child is in middle school.
If I had a teenager today –either a boy or a girl– I would say, “We don’t want you to have sex until you are an adult and responsible for your actions both morally and financially. Right now we are responsible for you, we pay the bills, and we set the rules. But we know you are growing up. We know you have gone through puberty and that you have sex urges. We know that during the teen years you will gradually take increasing responsibility for yourself. We know and deplore that there is much cultural and peer pressure for you to have sex. We expect you to have the strength to resist such pressures and concentrate on growing up.
“This is our bottom line: if you do have sex, it must be RESPONSIBLE SEX. This means you don’t get pregnant or cause a pregnancy. You don’t get or transmit a sexually transmitted disease.
“We expect you to come to us if you are being pressured to have sex and need our help in finding strategies to resist this pressure. We expect you to come to us if you are ever considering sex so that we can help you get the medical care you need to protect yourself.”
I know this is a controversial issue but whenever I have to deal with controversy I look at which side of the argument causes the least harm. Ignoring the issue is not a tenable position in today’s world. Insisting on abstinence will not work in a number of teens. The argument that talking to teens about contraception encourages them to have sex is silly, their own hormones do that quite nicely without our help.
Recognizing what pregnancy or STD can do to teens is what made me take this stand when my own children were teens and what makes me advise parents to do the same thing today. When I graduated from medical school I took an oath to “Do no harm.” I am convinced that my stance on this difficult matter is the one that does the least harm to vulnerable teens.
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