By the age of 20, four out of every 10 young women in the United States will become pregnant at least once. We are the leaders in the industrialized world in teen pregnancy, with nearly half a million teen pregnancies a year, or 55 teen births each hour. Yet we are reluctant to do the single most important thing we could to prevent more teens from becoming pregnant. No, I'm not suggesting handing out condoms or birth control pills in school. There's a more effective way to prevent teen pregnancy -- it's called talk.
According to the best research available, the first and most important step to preventing teen pregnancy and early sexual activity is to talk to teenagers. And it's the step too many adults haven't even thought about taking.
A recent survey by the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a non-profit advocacy group on whose board I sit, shows that parents remain the most important influence over their children's sexual behavior. Teenagers surveyed said that parents influenced their sexual decisions -- more than friends, siblings, teachers, sex educators, religious organizations or the media. But adults in the same survey, by a wide margin, said that friends were the most important influence on teenagers' decisions whether to have sex or not. Although adults interviewed said that parents should talk to their kids about sex, most said they didn't know what to say, how to say it or when to start.
For years, the debate over teen pregnancy has focused on two approaches: abstinence or contraception. But it turns out teens aren't especially motivated to accept either approach, at least in part because the right people aren't saying the right things.
"Too many parents and other adults in positions of leadership are unwilling to take a strong stand against teen pregnancy," notes the Campaign. "But if we can't say clearly and forcefully that teen pregnancy and parenthood are in no one's best interest, how can we be surprised at our high rates?"
So what should adults be telling teenagers? First of all, that abstinence is the best choice. One of the surprising findings of the Campaign's survey was that most teens agree. You would expect a majority of adults to frown on early sexual activity. But so do most teens. More than 93 percent of teens said that they should be "given a strong message from society that they should abstain from sex until they are at least out of high school."
Instead, parents have believed that kids would have sex no matter what adults said. Given our reluctance to state our values plainly to our own children, it's amazing that about half of all teenagers refrain from sexual relations anyway. And growing numbers of young people say they are opposed to casual sex. In 1987, 52 percent of college freshmen surveyed said, "It's all right to have sex if two people have known each other for a short time." By 1999, only 40 percent of college freshmen agreed with that statement.
Even for those parents who believe that sexually active young people should have access to contraception, it's clear that won't be enough to solve the teen pregnancy problem. "Remaining abstinent is a tough challenge," says the Campaign, but "using contraception carefully and consistently is an equally tall order, because most contraceptive methods require both motivation and a constancy of attention and action that are difficult for even married adults to maintain, let alone teenagers."
The best motivators seem to be parents. Earlier research by the Campaign showed that the teenagers least likely to become pregnant were the ones who had close relationships with their parents and whose parents shared with them their own moral values.
The battle against teen pregnancy can be won. But it must be fought by parents and adults, as well as teenagers. For more information, including tips on how to talk to your teenagers, the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has an excellent Website at www.teenpregnancy.org.