My friends and I sat high up in the rafters of the middle school gym as a basketball game ensued below. A teammate among us revealed he was in possession of three condoms. One from our group opened a condom, unwound it, and carefully inflated it to the size of a small zeppelin. He tied the knot, and we then batted the oversized balloon around the rafters until it floated slowly down onto the basketball court. We held our breath. As it hit the half-court-line, whistles blew the game to a stop and the next sound was the assistant principal yelling and waving his arms frantically for our crew to meet him in the locker room. First, he asked where the condom came from. Then he told us, “These things aren’t for making balloons. Don’t do this again.” That was the end of the conversation on condom zeppelins.
Recently, I bumped into one of those guys from the rafters in 1983. We laughed about the event, then chatted about the teachable moment that was missed. Our nostalgia concluded that we would have benefitted hearing information about sexual and reproductive health (SRH) from trusted adults. For us, this SRH of information came through a series of soundbites, hearsay, myths, and assumptions that were later confirmed or refuted—hopefully without major repercussions.
Where are we now?
My conversation with my teammate sparked my curiosity as a researcher and parent. After a quick scan, I found two 2016 Guttmacher Institute reviews of the literature on state of their sexual and reproductive health and teen’s sources for sex education in the US. As stated in many news reports, the rate of teen sexual intercourse has been relatively consistent, but pregnancy rates have steadily declined and more teens are using condoms or other forms of birth control at first sexual intercourse. These findings are counterbalanced by a decline in sources of formal sexual health education for teens. Curricula that are implemented often emphasize a focus on abstinence as opposed to helping teens—both female and male—understand their fertility, recognize how to protect their reproductive health, and learn about the various methods of birth control or how to access them. And unfortunately for many teens, any sex education they may receive occurs after they have already had sex. While parents do talk to their children about some aspects of sexual health, they are more likely to discuss birth control methods with girls than boys. When talking to boys, parents focus more on disease prevention and abstinence than pregnancy prevention—reinforcing existing gender norms that family planning is strictly a woman’s responsibility. Compounding this bias in shared information, studies have found that parents often have inaccurate or incomplete information about fertility, family planning methods or adolescent’s ability to use them correctly. This findings could be linked to other summative research on the limited relationship between parents’ conversations with their children and how it relates to children reducing their sexual risk behaviors. Like the rest of us, teens are turning to the internet for health related information, including sexual and reproductive health. Currently, there is limited scholarly research about the specifics of teens’ searches, but the studies that do exist have found the sources accessed by teens often have inaccurate information.
Parents as power
Some research suggests that children would prefer to receive information about sex and reproductive health from parents more than any other source. Predominantly, mothers engage children in conversations about their reproductive health more than fathers. Parents found it easiest to talk to their children about sex if they had a good basic relationship, took advantage of opportunities to talk and began having the discussions when their children were very young. Although sex and reproductive health can be challenging and taboo topics to discuss, the benefits of open and accurate communication are clear and include increased FP use.
A few weeks ago, “The State of America’s Fathers” report was released through Promudo’s Men’s Care project. What is unique about the recommendations within the Men’s Care report is the focus on the need to educate young men about their own reproductive health and the role fathers can play in sharing this education and modeling these actions. They suggest that this education does not stop with biology or “the mechanics of sex”, but includes the interpersonal and relational aspects of reproductive health. Those are somewhat scary topics for most parents, but they have benefits for your children over time, including improved physical and psychological outcomes.
You may have learned about reproductive health as I have through hindsight in your own life, watching friends work through relationship challenges, and joking with friends about the weirdness that was adolescence. Now we know from personal experience and decades of research that fathers matter to the emotional growth of their children. The benefits are greatest when fathers are “secure, supportive, reciprocal, sensitive, close, nurturing and warm.” Before the next Father’s Day rolls around, take the initiative to earn that golf-club, kid-creation coffee mug or whatever gift you received last Sunday. Earn those gifts through this awkward, but essential discussion on sexual and reproductive health with your children.
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