1. Why Parenting might be a lot less important than most people think it is
To me, a significant part of parenting is about providing leadership. One thing I learned a long time ago is that leaders have a lot less influence than they think they do, especially in situations where people are not compelled to follow leaders (and adolescents have limited interest in following any input or advice from many authority figures).
2. The old shibboleths about how to control adolescent sexual activity
I found this on my wall this evening.
IMMEDIATE DISCLAIMER – I AM NOT A BIOLOGICAL PARENT. If you only take opinions seriously from biological parents, Exit Now.
Comments and thoughts follow.
1. The last time I looked, the Immaculate Conception has only been written about in a very old collection of books, and has yet to be observed in nature. I assume that the equivalent injunction about sons is to be found on the Internets somewhere.
2. The age of puberty in the Western world has been dropping – and quickly. Here is a quote from a recent article in the Guardian:
“…the statistics provided by German researchers. They found that in 1860, the average age of the onset of puberty in girls was 16.6 years. In 1920, it was 14.6; in 1950, 13.1; 1980, 12.5; and in 2010, it had dropped to 10.5. Similar sets of figures have been reported for boys, albeit with a delay of around a year.”
This means that any rules like the ones that are enunciated in his article, which was presumably written by a parent or a grandparent, are already out of date. It also shows that girls enter puberty on average one year earlier than boys.
This creates all sorts of awkward issues. In practice what it means is that boys and girls are entering physical and hormonal adolescence at an age much earlier than that which is a safe age for them to be generally capable of informed consent. middle school education has not moved up 4 years to match human body development. This presents a challenge for today’s parents that did not exist 50 years ago.
3. One of the more frustrating phenomena in homo sapiens is that as a species we are lousy learners in one key area. We are not good at learning by hearing about other people’s bad experiences. When we are young, we always tend to have a preference to find out how hot the fire is by sticking our own hand in it. And, when we are adolescents, we think We Know It All, we tune out most advice that comes from anybody who looks like an authority figure, and we are lousy at handling hormonal drivers.
This means that all adolescents are at high risk of making poor decisions, often based on Trying Something Out rather than acting on advice from older people that it might be A Bad Idea. They are also at an age when they tend to regard parents (at least part of the time) as elderly, killjoy nitwits.
4. Parents have wonderful amnesia. They quite cheerfully engage in all manner of tactics, stratagems and actions in attempts to prevent their children from engaging in physical contact with people they are sexually attracted to, while cheerfully forgetting that they themselves once did exactly the same things they are trying to prevent. What I believe tends to happen (based on some observation) is that parents, instead of channeling their past experiences into sensible, pragmatic advice, tend, often without realizing it, to simply repeat the advice that their parents sternly intoned to them, ooh, at least 15 years ago – advice that is out of date and not mediated by modern experience and a parent’s own experience.
5. Normal arguments against under-age sexual behavior, once standard injunctions about self-restraint and respect seem to be falling on stony ground, often revolve around some combination of “you don’t want to be pregnant” for girls, and “you don’t want to be in jail” for boys.
I have bad news for some parents.
Those are not useful or viable tactics for scaring people into different behavior. When I was in school, being in trouble with law enforcement was actually seen as a badge of honor by many boys. It showed that they were “tough”, “pushing the boundaries” etc. etc. These kinds of dire warnings are similar to the “descent into hell” messages that a lot of anti-drug campaigns consist of, which have been shown, when repeated stridently, to actually attract young people to drugs.
This brings me to my central arguments.
A. The idea that parents can somehow prevent their adolescent children from sexual exploration is naive and unworkable. It won’t work, for most of the reasons that I already laid out. Hormones, seeking of peer group approval and social status, and the natural rebellion mindset mean that young people will engage in sexual experimentation. If you think you can stop that, I suggest that you try getting water to flow uphill first as a rehearsal before you try making that happen.
(Abstinence-only programs, one day, will be seen as one of the most ludicrous wastes of government money ever).
B. As is depressingly normal, there is a focus on the girls, and less focus on the boys. Girls don’t get pregnant on their own. I still detect too much of an element of “boys will be boys” and “we better lock up our daughters” in these kinds of communications and discussions.
C. The nature of the existing laws that criminalize sexual conduct under the age of 16 are not helping the situation. The possibility of felony charges makes parents and school authorities desperate, and desperation leads to silly decisions. And no, before some of you start forming an online lynch mob, I am not advocating that those laws be scrapped. However, they are not useful in their current form, which forces everybody pretty rapidly into defensive, lawyered-up responses.
The pragmatic course of action is to accept that adolescents will experiment, and work to educate children that this is not necessarily bad, but that it carries risks that they need to learn to evaiuate. There are limitations to this, since we are not good as a species at risk evaluation, and the education system we have does not cater to this (if you are a parent, try answering the question “does my child’s school curriculum contain logical analysis and critical thinking education?”. If the answer is Yes, you and your children are lucky).
If we try to wrap young people in cotton wool by attempting to steer them away from inevitable life experiences, we are delaying their learning. They will learn sooner or later, the objective should be to have them learn sooner and more comprehensively. Tussles over sexuality are both hormone-driven and driven by peer group pressures and norms. They are in the “least likely to win” category if you are a parent. This I do know, having been a step-parent for a while.