Today’s New York Times has a fantastic article about the research of New York University’s professor in developmental psychology, Niobe Way. Dr. Way writes about the significance of close friendships between boys, and the heartbreak that results when boys lose those friendships, as they often do when they enter their mid-teens. She urges us to create a cultural climate that allows boys to love their friends. In my own research, I find that US parents and teens tend to characterize boys as heartless, and just driven by hormones, in their pursuit of sex. But many US boys have a strong desire for romantic intimacy (see for example the young man featured in an earlier blog post). Dr. Way’s research gives us important insights into the hearts of boys and the damage that is done when we don’t nurture them.
In a recent article, I describe the personal and professional experiences that led me to research and write this book about cultural differences between the United States and the Netherlands. On the Social and Behavioral Sciences website of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, you can read the story of how I got here:
The book is the result of personal experience, education and research. “My parents moved to the Netherlands from the U.S. when I was young,” Schalet says. “I returned to the U.S. as a college student almost two decades later. My research on cultural differences at the University of California Berkeley, where I earned my PhD, was inspired by observations that came from moving between these countries. Because both are rich democracies, they often are thought of as similar, but in fact they have very different prevailing cultural beliefs and practices—including approaches to teenage sexuality.
Ross Reynolds, host of The Conversation (at the Seattle, WA-based KUOW.org at 94.9 fm) interviewed me about my upcoming book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, and the New York Times oped on the Sleepover Question. Listeners can call in to give their opinions. If you want to continue the conversation after the show, please post a comment.
A lot of different things. I am referring to the discussions, sparked by The Sleepover Question, about how parents can best respond to their children’s sexual maturation. Today the New York Times published several letters to the editor.
One of the most interesting discussions, with a nice mix of opinions, can be found among New York Times’ columnist Lisa Belkin readers’ comments. Carrie Seim at Guyspeakcom asked men and women about their experiences with “the talk” and got many different answers.
At offsprung.com, pajamasmedia, and clutchmagazineonline, you can find discussions across the political and cultural spectrum. Anne Engelland, MD gives her perspective as an adolescent medicine specialist. And Caroline Miller at the Child Mind Institute responds to the article with these words:
What’s most compelling here is the idea that teenagers don’t necessarily have to drift off into a parallel universe, leaving their parents out of touch with where they are and what they’re doing—and even more important, who they’re becoming
Meanwhile, I continue to receive very moving responses from parents. One came from a mother who, when asked whether I could quote from her email, wrote:
Yes, of course you may quote from my e-mail. Thank you for asking. I have never written to a newspaper, magazine, author, etc. like this before. The fact that I felt compelled to write to you reflects how important this issue is to me now.
Earlier, she had written:
Until I happened to see your recent NY Times Opinion article, I was unfamiliar with your work. Your article made me so happy because I have been instinctively handling sex issues with my teenage daughter in the same way that most Dutch parents do.
When my daughter was little, I NEVER would have predicted that I’d handle things that way (sometimes I still can’t believe it), but when she was 17 and the issue of sex with her boyfriend came up, my heart and my gut told me to respect her decision, listen to her, and use the opportunity to guide her so that she’d be making safe, healthy choices. At the time, nothing else made sense because my husband and I realized that she was going to have sex whether or not we approved. So we let her make her own decision about whether or not to have sex, although I talked with her about it a LOT, I went with her to the doctor’s office when she got on the pill (which she was already on before she had sex for the first time), and we let her have sex with her boyfriend in our house and allowed him to sleep over with her. He was very much a part of our family while they were together, and although they broke up after almost two years, he still stays in touch with me regularly.
I am telling you all this because while I didn’t have any doubts about the way my husband and I dealt with these issues, I felt like I had to keep it a secret from most of my friends and family because I knew they would judge me and think I was crazy. I know absolutely no one who has handled their teens’ sex issues this way, and I know a lot of parents of teens. People just do not do things this way in the U.S. I felt isolated and worried that people would find out. Frankly, it was kind of a difficult, lonely time. Reading your article made me feel like I wasn’t crazy – I did the right thing! And there are some parents out there in the world who ‘get’ that!
As comments to an an earlier post show, there are other American parents who have decided to permit sleepovers for older teens. I wonder how common it is for American parents who make this decision to feel the same way as the mother quoted above? Comment welcome as always.
On Sunday, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled, The Sleepover Question. The article looks at how and why American and Dutch parents respond differently to the question of whether teenage couples should be permitted to spend the night together. Stay tuned for the book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, which provides a multi-faceted analysis of the complex issues involved in comparing between cultures, teen sexuality and parenting. In the meantime, in this post I’m responding to some readers’ responses to the article.
I have been following the conversations that have been happening on the blogosphere and noticed that in several posts, there is some confusion about my research and conclusions. So to clarify a couple of points: 1) I asked parents about the sleepover with regard to 16 and 17-year-olds, not younger teens. 2) Of course, parents must make their own decisions about whether/when to permit a sleepover, based on their beliefs and their assessment of their adolescent child’s development and relationship.
3) Regardless of whether or not parents think sleepovers are right for their family/adolescent, many parents and youth can benefit from greater openness around sexuality. Research has found that parents often start talking about contraception and other important sex-related topics after their children have already started engaging in sexual intimacy. Research also shows that youth respond more positively to “the talk” when talks about sexuality are frequent and communicate parental openness, skill and comfort. My study suggests that in addition, greater openness can strengthen the parent-teen bond, and thereby enhance parental influence.
Some emails I received asked for information that other readers may also find useful, like the comparison between the US and Netherlands in terms of pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates, which can be found here. Another reader was concerned that many girls in the US have sex when they are not ready. In this article, I review some of the US and Dutch research on this issue.
One of the most moving letters I have received in response to the NYT opinion piece focuses not on the question of the sleepover, but on the larger issues that are at stake—whether young people can and may form emotionally intimate relationships and become sexually intimate within them. This email comes from an 18-year old young man who sums up beautifully the cultural contradictions that he faces, as a teenage male in a committed and sexually intimate, romantic relationship.
It is hard to grow up in an America that treats its teens like children. After all, if everyday we hear on the news how our brains are completely undeveloped and how we as teens are completely morally inept won’t that become a self-fulfilling prophecy? The sad part is that because of this attitude no one tries to promote sex within committed relationships in high school and college. So called ‘conservative’ students and adults say sex is almost always wrong outside of marriage but an equally destructive group promotes sex as only a physical act that shouldn’t be moderated at all.
This leaves those in a relationship demonized with the one-night standers by conservatives and attacked as naive romantics by the one night standers and sexual ‘liberals’. As I prepare for college I hear only about how I either shouldn’t have a relationship in college so I can get the ‘college experience’ or that I should constantly remain focused to avoid all the temptations in college. In my opinion this viewing of teens as sex crazed animals who either need to let it all go or lock it down until marriage is a major cause of stress to many teens like me who just want to grow up and find love.
Here you can read my op-ed, The Sleepover Question, in today’s New York Times. And below are some really interesting responses from readers to the article. Additional thoughts and perspectives are welcome!