May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. Media will herald the fact that teen pregnancy rates in the United States are at historic lows. But, before you don your party hat, consider this: Not only is Texas number 3 in teen births, we have the highest rate of repeat births to teens in the country. More Texas teens with more than one baby than any other state in the nation?
Let’s take the gloves off and acknowledge that every Texas adult bears some responsibility for these appalling statistics. Why? Because teens, with still developing brains, sometimes faulty impulse control, a sense of invincibility and at a stage in life where it is natural to try out various scenarios of who and what they want to be, are extremely vulnerable when it comes to sexuality. You don’t have to be an expert, just a former teen willing to search your heart, to know that this is true.
If children are our future, teens are our immediate future, and they deserve our best efforts in navigating the peril-laden path to adulthood. A one-time talk, shaming and scare tactics don’t work. What is it about human sexuality that makes it such a challenging subject?
Because preventing teen pregnancies involves more than discussing sexually transmitted infections and a litany of “don’ts.” Teens need to know how to form healthy relationships, negotiate limits with girlfriends or boyfriends, avoid sexually charged situations, develop aspirations for the future and build the self-confidence to delay the onset of sexual activity until fully prepared, fully informed and fully protected. In addition to knowledge and skills, adults need to provide teens with consistent messages that encourage responsible behavior both before and after they become sexually active.
To be perfectly candid, it’s the “after” that makes us really uncomfortable. Frank, honest and respectful conversations about these issues simply didn’t happen when most of us were teens. In light of this, it’s understandable that we doubt the overwhelming evidence showing that teens with more information, including information about contraception, make better decisions. It’s not part of our collective experience, and hence the fear factor among us is very high.
Since this is an “everyone has a responsibility” issue, it’s easy for none of us to take responsibility. Here’s a starting point: What would happen if we think about high-quality sex education the same way we think about Advanced Placement (AP) classes for our kids? We know that AP classes give our kids an advantage in college. High-quality sex ed is akin to AP classes in LIFE. And parents know that the more pre-AP and AP classes their kids take, the better prepared they are for the challenges that lie ahead. High-quality sex ed takes the same measured approach. It’s appropriate to the age of tweens and teens and has a proven track record of success.
We should insist that our kids get the best sex ed available, and that it forms a continuum of knowledge throughout their middle and high school years. People who work in this field can be confusing when they describe programs as “evidence based,” “medically accurate,” “age appropriate” and “culturally sensitive.” All of these terms add up to the same conclusion: They work. They’ve been carefully evaluated and shown to reduce teen pregnancies. And, if they work for our kids, they work for us as parents, community members, taxpayers and Texans.
Side note to parents: Teens consistently report that you’re the most important influence in their lives. Talk to your teens early and often about love, relationships and, yes, sexuality. Work with your schools to ensure that your teens receive the best instruction from qualified and committed teachers. Don’t allow fear of doing the wrong thing keep you from doing the right thing.
Sex ed is one piece of a larger puzzle that involves all of our major community institutions – from churches to chambers of commerce. Let’s keep this conversation going for more than a month.
Written by: Gwen Daverth, president and CEO, Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy; and Cindy Sesler Ballard, board member, Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy