Parents Just Don’t Understand

A sociologist says American moms and dads are in denial about their kids’ sexual lives.

Illustration by Sean Ford.

I want my 16-year-old daughter to have a happy and satisfying sex life. I don’t expect her to be a virgin on her wedding day, nor do I think she should be. I hope she takes all possible steps to protect herself from sexually transmitted diseases, but I believe it would be better if she had more than one sexual partner. All of this I want for her—just not yet. Figuring out how to convey the messages that sex is one of life’s great pleasures and that its consequences can be devastating requires a continuing conversation with your child. But of course it’s difficult to talk to someone who’s making gagging noises.

That means that sometimes you must use stealth to check in with your teenagers about their sex lives. I like to strike when she’s vulnerable:

Daughter: Maybe I shouldn’t go to school. I feel really sick.
Is it because you’re pregnant?

Sometimes one must disarm them with a non sequitur:

Daughter: Can you drop me at the mall this afternoon?
I will if you’re still a virgin.

This approach probably would not pass muster with sociologist Sinikka Elliott, the author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe About the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers. Based on interviews with about four dozen parents, all living in an unnamed liberal city in a conservative state (Elliott teaches at North Carolina State University, for what it’s worth), Elliott draws sweeping conclusions about the sorry condition of the sexual dialogue between parents and children. One of Elliott’s central points is that parents routinely engage in self-deception to keep at bay their anxieties over their children’s sexuality. A chief delusion: My darling is immature and asexual—the real problem is all those other horny kids. It’s a kind of insectarium view of teenagers, with one’s own a quivering, vulnerable larva surrounded by fully metamorphosed creatures oozing pheromones and menacing with stingers.

Like many experts, Elliott often condescends to parents as if we’re nitwits.

Not My Kid by Sinikka Elliott

But I don’t recognize myself, or the parents I know, in Elliott’s portrait of naiveté. As the mother of a teenaged girl, and inspired by my Slate colleague Hanna Rosin’s deeply researched work on why modern males are crapping out, I offer my own pet theory on the failure of high-school-aged boys to perform as well academically as girls. Next time you drop your high-schooler off, take a look around at the other kids. In warm weather, standard girls’ attire is Daisy Dukes and some minimalist chest covering. When it gets cold, they switch to leggings so sheer they make me think of that nightmare in which you show up in class having forgotten to put on your skirt. Sure, I’ve tried to make the case to my own child that more clothing would be better, but she responds that all the girls are dressed this way. And she’s right! But I am not under the misconception that these girls aren’t fully aware that their male classmates, suffering reduced blood flow to the brain, are walking into walls.  

Elliott notes that she commonly heard sex educators at schools dismiss the parents of the students they were teaching for being “out of touch concerning issues of sexuality.” Just the other day, my local NPR station had a report from a Washington, D.C., high school, and the nurse there said parents barely talk to their kids about safe sex, and if they do, it’s not enlightening: “The discussion is, ‘Keep your pants zipped, your dress down.’ End of conversation.” 

Of course it’s terrible if that’s the end of the conversation. My daughter and I have one of those perfect relationships in which we can discuss anything with each other, including sex. I like to initiate these conversations when we’re relaxing together on the couch. That’s her favorite place to have them, too, because it allows her to grab the afghan and throw it over her head. But I will also freely acknowledge that I myself have given the jeans-as-barrier-method talk to my daughter. It’s hard to deny that if both parties keep their jeans on and zipped, they may be hurting, but no one will get hurt. I presented this simple formula with the idea that it’s easy to remember in pressure situations, like when there’s a gang of kids in your basement “watching a movie” and writhing around in various configurations. Believe me, even if you, the parent, head downstairs to “check on the sump pump,” the lights will be too low for you to figure out whose limbs belong to whom.

Virtually all the parents in Elliott’s study—even the conservative, religious ones—believed there should be sex education in schools. But what should be taught has been a decades-long battle. Should schools offer abstinence-only education, emphasizing that kids are not ready for the consequences of sex, so they don’t need to know what to do because they won’t be doing it? Or should sex ed assume kids are (or soon will be) sexually active and give them the information they need to protect themselves? Elliott has a nice anecdote about listening to presentations from both sides at a school board and realizing how each provided similar arguments about the catastrophes that await sexually active kids. “One described seeing herpes that looked like cigarette burns on young women’s vulva. The other said that young people use plastic bags as condoms and douche with Coke in the hope that this will prevent pregnancy and STDs.” The first was an advocate of abstinence, the second of comprehensive education.

My child has not been in schools that teach abstinence as a life solution to the complications of sex, and I’m grateful. But so often the main message is: Have sex, get pox (and babies). My daughter came home one day from middle school and said her family-life class had gotten to the presentation on HIV and AIDS. (This usually comes up early on, the better to sock the kids with some psychological saltpeter.)  She said shortly after they got the unpleasant news, one of the boys started waving his hand wildly. “This is an emergency!” he said. “I need an answer right now. Can you get AIDS from masturbating?”

I agree with Elliott that this Liebestod—sex as death—manner of explaining the birds and the bees is not healthy. We shouldn’t simply terrify young people before they’ve even had their first dry hump. Her suggestion is that we embark with our children on a healthier discourse, one that acknowledges sexual pleasure. Great idea! The problem is that once that discussion begins, it quickly ends, because it inevitably leads to images of saggy, baggy parents engaged in EW, GROSS. Who can blame the kids? You’re an adult, and you don’t want to think about your parents rolling around on the dual-control Tempur-Pedic.

Sinikka Elliott.
Sinikka Elliott.

Photo by Becky Kirkland.

A preferable system to our oppressive American approach would be the Dutch treat, Elliott asserts. She cites the work of sociologist Amy Schalet, who has found vast differences in the attitudes of American and Dutch parents to their children’s sex lives: “American parents view adolescents as largely hormonally driven and potentially out of control. In contrast, Dutch parents construct teenagers as mature young adults capable of self-regulation.” In this New York Times op-ed Schalet herself compares the experience of American and Dutch 16-year-old girls. The American sneaks around to have sex with her boyfriend; the Dutch girl is allowed to have him sleep over at the house.

I have some Dutch ancestry, but I’m having a hard time imagining trying to rustle my daughter and her boyfriend out of bed Sunday morning because the pannekoeken are getting cold. The parents of any boy my daughter knows would also find this completely nuts. This is not to say things don’t change all the time when it comes to your kid. I do have a few friends whose teenagers were involved in serious, committed relationships that became fully sexual by senior year. (And the kids went to Ivy League schools!) But I don’t think it’s too much to assert that most teenagers would be better off sublimating their sexual energy into studying for calculus.

Elliott calls for a world in which parents chill out and teenagers are free to be sexually “agentic.” But sometimes she seems to forget that even the most “self-regulated” of teenagers make terrible decisions, and even the most understanding and communicative parents will never stop worrying about all the bad things that can happen when kids start getting agentic all over each other. In the end, Not My Kid—even though this surely was not the author’s intention—made me feel better about my own attempts to celebrate, monitor, and sometimes throw cold water on my daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. Despite Elliott’s frequent scorn for the parents in her study, I often identified with them—we’re just stumbling around, trying to do our best, keeping our kids out of trouble, and delaying, for now, the day we become grandparents.

Not My Kid: What Parents Believe About the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers by Sinikka Elliott. NYU Press.

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