The Parent-Teen Gap in Attitudes Over Sex

It is widely believed, among counseling and medical professionals as well as the public, that it is desirable for parents to talk with their children about sex, and that openness in the family and a good sex education at home will discourage teens from behavior their parents disapprove of.

Parents may be dismayed by several recent studies that found neither parental beliefs about sex nor parent-child communications about sex appears to have an effect on adolescent sexual behavior.

A second finding, that may not be surprising to parents of teen-agers, is that teens are not very accurate in perceiving their parents’ attitudes and that, when asked to describe their communications about sex, what the teen-agers said they heard often contradicted what their parents reported they said.

Uncovering a Gap

This finding was made by the Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood which collected data for two years from a group of 500 14- to 16-year-olds and their mothers. The Guttmacher researchers found quite a communications gap.

For example, only 45% of the mothers of boys said they believed that only married people should have sex, but 73% of their sons thought their mothers believed this. The discrepancy was about the same for mothers and daughters.


While in that case, children thought their parents more conservative than they are, the finding on another question revealed an equally mistaken belief in parents’ liberality--or perhaps just that there is a hefty measure of self-interest in what teens think their parents think: Only 10% of mothers of boys and 9% of mothers of girls agreed with the statement that “sexual behavior of teens is their own business,” but three times that many of their children of both sexes said their mothers would agree with the statement.

The young people also disagreed with their mothers’ perceptions of sex education in their homes. While 75% of the mothers of boys agreed with the statement, “Mother has taught things about sex,” only 33% of their sons thought this was the case.

This portion of the research questionnaire also revealed that mothers report they are more likely to teach girls about birth control than boys--50% of the mothers of girls said they had talked about contraception, but only 39% of the mothers of boys.

Again, the teen-agers disagreed with their mothers: 20% of the boys and 26% of the girls contradicted their mothers’ statements that they had discussed contraception with them.

An Important Exception

However, regardless of whether mothers and their teen-agers agreed or disagreed about what was taught, the Guttmacher finding was that parental attitudes and communications about sex had little bearing on their children’s sexual behavior--with one important exception. Girls who reported that their mothers had discussed contraception with them were more likely to use effective contraceptives. (However, when the mothers reported that they had discussed contraception, there was no correlation with the girls’ contraceptive practices.)

This conclusion confirms other studies in the field. A 1974 study reported in Developmental Psychology, a journal, found that parental communications about sex neither encourage nor discourage teens from initiating sexual activity.

Another study in New Jersey in 1983 found there was no difference in communications with parents between teens who were sexually active and those who were not.

The Guttmacher researchers suggested that parental communications about sex may be too vague and that openness between parent and child about sexuality may not be as effective as direct, specific discussions between parent and child about the child’s behavior.

The research certainly concludes that parents should not assume their children are accurately perceiving what they teach about sex or about their values.

El Nido Services of Los Angeles has received a $311,358 grant to assist pregnant teen-agers in the South-Central and Pacoima areas. The award, from the Maternal and Child Health Division of the State Department of Health, is the largest issued to date under the state’s new Adolescent Family Life Program.

A total of $5 million has been given to 38 projects throughout the state including county health departments, social service agencies and clinics.

The program is intended to combat the health and social problems associated with teen pregnancy and parenting.

El Nido has conducted a counseling program for pregnant teen-agers since 1979. The project to begin in January with the state grant will coordinate all of the health, counseling and social services available to teens before and after their babies are born. It will be the first coordinated networking of such services in the area.

There were 1,600 births to women 17 and younger in the area served by El Nido last year (53,000 babies are born to teen-agers annually in California). El Nido will serve 300 teens during the first year of the grant program and an additional 460 with its counseling service.