Care and Feeding

I Have No Idea How to Be a “Sex-Positive” Parent

I want to have reasonable, progressive dating rules at home—but what’s the limit?

Two teens go on a date.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Valeriy_G/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Slate Plus members get extra parenting advice each week from our Care and Feeding columnists. For today’s column, we’re sharing a few choice letters from recent months with all our readers. Curious for more? Join Slate Plus today! 

Dear Care and Feeding,

What are some reasonable rules around teenage dating? We’ve covered the big stuff of consent, respect, and condoms, but what is reasonable for parents to allow for their high school-age teens? I want to be a sex-positive parent in theory, but I’m not OK with the dating sleepovers that my sophomore swears their friends’ parents allow! I’ve been asking around, and it seems like half the parents we know allow their teens to have dates in the house when no one else is home, and the other half have a no-bedrooms-ever-even-with-the-door open rule! Neither my spouse nor I have a good grasp of how to handle this. My parents were theoretically strict but functionally clueless, so I was taught nothing and engaged in very risky behaviors on the sly, while my spouse was a late bloomer and has only ever dated me. And most of what I’m finding online is either purity culture or geared towards older teens. I need some guidance!

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— Kinda Wish My Kid Couldn’t Get a Date

Dear Kinda Wish,

Look, I get it. It’s hard to adjust the way we think about our kids as they begin to grow up, and many parents find it unbearable to think about their kids being sexually active. Plus, the way most of us were raised means most of us, like you and your husband, have no grasp on how to handle it. So I understand why this has you in knots.

The trouble is that being a sex-positive parent “in theory” means … well, that you are not actually a sex-positive parent. I’m not scolding you about this, but I do think you need to own it if this is the truth. In other words: don’t pretend to be one way and then be another way, in practice. Take some time to think about what you mean by “sex-positive.”

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And while you’re at it, think about the bigger picture: the ideas we hold as a culture about teenagers and sex. Ellen Friedrichs, a health educator who is the author of Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World, suggests that we all “challenge the idea that sex is inherently dangerous for teens.” She notes that “shaming attitudes and policies have created a climate where a lot of teens have sex in unsafe ways … [in this] climate that encourages [them] to have sex in secret and prevents them from going to parents, teachers, or health-care providers for help.” And she does, in fact, urge parents to consider letting teens have sleepovers or privacy with their partners. This seems shocking to many American parents, but as Friedrichs points out, it’s a practice that has been adopted across Western Europe—a region in which teens tend to have sex at the same age as Americans, but with measurably fewer negative outcomes.

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If you’re willing to consider allowing your teenager to have sex safely at home, you might take a look at some of these commonsense guidelines from Sex Positive Families. And for readers who are clutching their pearls, I will add that Friedrichs and other sex-positive educators, clinicians, and parents (and advice columnists, including this one) aren’t suggesting a hands-off, anything goes policy in which parents merrily wave to their children as they pair off with other children and close their bedroom doors. There are essential, sensible conversations to be had with our children about sex. Instead of saying, “Sure, go ahead—have it at!” or “You are absolutely not ready for sex! You’re too young! You’re forbidden!” or the close-your-eyes-and-hope-it-will-go-away non-solution you may be on the verge of making by default, how about a series of conversations with your child?

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Ask questions that will help them consider aspects of sex that they may not have given much, or any, thought to. Don’t demand an answer in the moment: just get them started thinking about what their answer might be once they’ve had a chance to think about it. Ask what their thoughts are about what sex means to them and what it has (or doesn’t have) to do with being in a relationship. Ask what their expectations are around sex and what happens afterwards. Will they expect more commitment from a partner, or will their partner expect more commitment than they’re willing to give? Are they feeling pressured into having sex? Is their partner feeling pressured? If they’re going to have sex, or are already having sex, are condoms and other contraceptives available to them? It’s one thing to tell a 15-year-old to use a condom; it’s another for them to obtain them without shame—and while minors in many places may have the legal right to confidential reproductive health care, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accessible, in part because very few clinics offer free or low- (enough) cost teen health care for a real-life teen to access it.

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One other important thing to bring up in this frank conversation—or, better yet, multiple conversations, each of them brief—is that age of consent laws in the U.S. rarely allow sex for people under 16, and a complaint by the parent of the other teenager could lead to serious problems for your kid. Whether these laws make sense or not, they are a reality you and your child should be aware of.

As to the question of what’s “reasonable” in your household … well, only you know the answer to that. Can you answer it for yourself honestly, decoupled from all the external noise around it (including your own and your husband’s upbringing)? Can you make sure part of that honesty to yourself includes the recognition that your kid probably will have sex—if not now, then soon—whether or not it’s in their own bedroom?

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— Michelle

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 2-year-old daughter is in a nanny share with a 2-year-old boy. Our nanny is excellent, and I have zero concerns about all my daughter’s basic needs in her care. But, it has become obvious to my wife and me that our nanny has a favorite, and it’s not our daughter. I don’t know how or whether to address this. We have noticed the nanny saying, “I love you” to the boy more than our daughter, giving him more cuddles, engaging him in conversation more, and subtly being a bit more enthusiastic with him.

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On the one hand, I know that people just have personality preferences. The boy is very physically and verbally affectionate, and he is speaking well above a 2-year-old level. My daughter is very independent, much less of a talker (although perfectly normal for a 2-year-old), and is indifferent to most verbal and physical affection, except in the contexts she likes. They have very different personalities.

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Also, the nanny share is at our home, so my wife and I can pop in throughout the day and hug, comfort, or engage with our daughter. Maybe our nanny gives him a little more to compensate? Maybe she has a preference for boys, or feels closer to him because he is of the same race as her? Whatever it is, I just don’t know if it is harmful for our daughter. The nanny is very affectionate with my daughter, she’s just a little more affectionate with the boy. The difference in treatment is not tangible—snacks, rules, care—are all split equally between the two kids. And my daughter is only 2—does she even notice or care? What would you do?

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—Is Favorites a Bad Thing?

Dear Is Favorites a Bad Thing,

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It can feel a bit like a slight when our children aren’t the obvious favorite child of the other adults in their life. But no, a nanny favoring one child over another isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can’t control how much any adult likes our children. We can only try to ensure that the adults we trust to care for them will do so as competently as possible.

The last paragraph of your letter provides a few answers to your questions. The nanny is affectionate with your daughter. She provides her equal care, and there’s no tangible difference in how she performs the duties of her job with your daughter and the other child in her care. Your daughter is only 2. Given how well she’s being treated by the nanny, as well as by you and your wife, who are in and out of the room, doting on her throughout the day, it’s highly unlikely she’s able to discern any difference. The nanny’s perceived preference for the other boy isn’t impeding her ability to do her job. And it isn’t causing your daughter harm.

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You’ve asked what I would do. I think I’d just be grateful to have what sounds like a pretty efficient and capable nanny.

— Stacia

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

· If you missed Tuesday’s column, read it here.
· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My niece recently passed away with what we all assumed were heart-related issues due to her size and eating habits. My sister recently found out that the actual cause of death was due to drug toxicity. My niece was 40 years old and mentally handicapped. One of her medication dosages had been changed by her doctor, but no one told her parents, who assumed the prescription was still the same and continued to give her the usual two pills a day. The overdosage caused a toxic buildup of the drug in her system that led to her death.

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My sister has told only me this and does not want to tell her husband or other daughter because she doesn’t feel that they could handle the news of missing the change in dosage and therefore may be in part responsible for her death. Should I just keep my mouth shut, or do I have an obligation to point out the doctor didn’t mention the change, nor did the pharmacist, and no one else caught it either? My sister doesn’t want to dredge up a whole new set of problems or guilt for everyone else, and this has obviously caused a great deal of stress for her to carry the guilt alone.

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—Unnecessary Accident

Dear UA,

My sincerest condolences on the loss of your niece. This is a tremendous tragedy, and it sounds like there is some accountability on the part of the doctor, and perhaps the pharmacy, as pharmacists often are expected to counsel patients and their family about changes to medication. But since it seems unlikely that your sister will choose to pursue any action against them, then she may continue feeling like she’s shouldering much of the responsibility for her child’s death, especially if she doesn’t want her other loved ones to contend with the tragic truth alongside her. So it is important that you try and help her to understand that she should not blame herself for what happened, and one of the best ways to do that would be to encourage her to speak to a professional.

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Your sister has endured a tremendous loss and is now alone, in many ways, in processing it. To lose a child, even one who suffered medically through much of her life, is to go against the natural order of things as we have come to expect them to be. While I know you’ve got a lot of love and care for her, she may need support that is beyond your means as a sibling. Furthermore, it is hard to think of her keeping the circumstances of her daughter’s death to herself indefinitely without coming to either blame herself or, perhaps, these other household members. Guide her toward a professional; meanwhile, be there to remind her that she did all she could, that she loved and fought for her baby, and that this is not her fault. Wishing you lots of strength and comfort, to have and to give.

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— Jamilah

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently went back to work after maternity leave with my second baby. I work in a school as a speech therapist. Lately, I just feel like everyone is expected to see more students, more paperwork, more duties, more tasks, all with no more time. I love working with the students. But I also love being with my kids. I feel like the majority of people I work with stay late or even take work home. And with how much my caseload is increasing, it’s a challenge to get all of my work done during the workday. But my afternoons and evenings with my kids are important to me. I can’t help but feel this makes me a lesser employee and therapist. I give it my all when I’m at work. I work through lunch, rarely take breaks, I feel guilty if I talk to my coworkers about anything other than work. Am I a terrible person if I’d rather see my kids than work (unpaid) overtime?

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Aside from my kids and family, I have hobbies I enjoy and are fulfilling. The little time I have after the kids go to bed, I enjoy spending it on my hobbies. For the most part, I like my job. Should I have just picked something else if I don’t have it in me to work constantly? Or just accept that I’ll just be a mediocre employee if I want time with my kids and my husband? I know everyone is short-staffed and we are too, but how is it okay to ask or expect people to sacrifice time with families or even down time? Am I weak for needing time with my family and by myself?

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— Not a Workaholic

Dear Not a Workaholic,

You are definitely not weak. You may not know this, but currently 65 percent of employees are looking for a new job right now. The pandemic has changed everything, and there are millions of people just like you who are questioning what to do with their lives.

I’ll tell you a quick personal story that may help with this. Many years ago, I was a childless man working in a 9-to-5 job for a large company, and one of the middle managers there was guy we’ll call “Marty.” Marty was the kind of guy who showed up to work at 7:00 a.m. and often didn’t go home until past 10:00 p.m.—and I knew that because I had to drive past my office on the way to the gym when I wanted a late-night workout, and I’d see his car in the parking lot and his light on in his office. Marty was married and had young children at home, but he often bragged about how dedicated he was to his job and how he was the model employee because he worked so hard. Making a long story short, Marty died from a heart attack. After some tears from my colleagues, his office was cleaned out and his job was posted by the end of the week. Years of working for a company were forgotten in a few days. More tragically, his young kids didn’t even get to truly know their dad because he put his job before them. Everyone lost in that scenario—except for the company who viewed Marty as easily replaced.

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My point here is that time is the most valuable asset we have, because it’s the only thing we can’t get back once it’s gone. You don’t want to be saddled with a boatload of regret for passing up time with your family. So with that said, you really have two choices:

Option 1 is to draw a line in the sand by saying, “I’ll bust my tail when I’m at the office, but I refuse to take any work home going forward so I can spend time with my family.” The thing that Marty never realized is the work would still be there if he left at 5:00pm or 11:00pm, so why kill yourself (as he literally did) to work unpaid overtime? In his case, it was a tragic example of working harder, not smarter.

Option 2 is to find another job that values work-life balance as much as you do. Trust me when I say there are more companies/schools out there than you think who believe in this. Employers are doing whatever it takes to retain talent nowadays—especially in light of the statistic I posted earlier.

Don’t be like Marty. And never apologize for choosing yourself and your family first.

Doyin

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