Your teen (16) says she and her boyfriend want to have sex. What should you say?
Several years ago, after I gave the morning talk at a Canadian conference on parenting, we broke into small discussion groups. In the group I was part of, a mother spoke first.
She said she had come to the conference hoping to get help with a situation she was facing with her teenage daughter, Jennifer.
For the past year, she said, Jennifer had been dating a boy named David. Jennifer was 16; David was almost 19. They met at their church's youth group.
Jennifer had recently come to her and said, "Mom, David and I feel we're ready to have sex."
As the group of parents listened, you could hear a pin drop. The mother continued:
I was stunned. I said, "But, Jennifer . . . sex is meant for love."
She said, "But, Mom, we do love each other, and this is how we want to express it."
I didn't know how to respond to that. I had no language.
What Would You Say?
What could this mother have said to her daughter? What would you say to Jennifer if you were the mom (or dad)?
How do you know when somebody really loves you? When they want what is truly best for you, for your welfare and happiness — not just now, but forever.
Jennifer's mother might have begun by saying something like this:
I understand the depth of your feelings for David. I'm also grateful you came to talk to me about this. I take that as a sign of your respect and trust.
Jennifer had also given her mother an important opening when she said, "But, Mom, we do love each other." Her mother might have responded:
You say that you and David love each other. Let's talk for a minute about love.
What does it mean to love someone?
It means wanting what is truly best for that person. How do you know when somebody really loves you? When they want what is truly best for you, for your welfare and happiness — not just now, but forever.
So, the question you have to ask yourself is this: Is having sex with David really an act of love?
One way to answer that question is to ask, what are the possible consequences?
Pregnancy is one. It can happen even if you' re trying to prevent it. If it does, a new life has been created.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are another possibility. Girls are more at risk for long-term health consequences. For example, if you want to have a baby someday, a single infection of chlamydia can keep you from being able to do that.
Emotional hurt is a third danger. Most high school teens who have had sex say they wish they had waited. Among young people your age, most romantic relationships eventually break up. If that happens with you and David, will you regret having been sexually intimate with him?
So here's what it comes down to: If you really love another person and you want what is truly best for them, would you subject them to all these risks? Would you gamble with their health, their happiness, and their future life?
Bringing Faith into the Picture
As it happened, Jennifer and her mother were Catholic, so it would also have been appropriate to bring their faith into the conversation. David, too, was Catholic. Jennifer's mother might have said something like this:
Have you and David asked yourselves, "Is this what God wants us to do? What does our faith teach us about sex outside of marriage?" In fact, Jesus names "fornication" — which means sex between unmarried persons — as one of a number of serious sins. [Mark 7:21-22; in some translations, "fornication" is rendered as "unchastity"] If you and David were to pray about this, do you think you'd come away believing that God wants you to have sex?
Those are some of the things Jennifer's mother could have said to help her think more clearly and more deeply about what it really means to love somebody.
In Our Hypersexualized Culture, Be Proactive
If we want to be an effective counter-influence as parents, it's crucial to be proactive. We'll have to look for many opportunities to share our values about sex.
Of course, it's best not to wait for your child to bring up sex. This is an issue where it's crucial for parents to be proactive. In our sex-saturated society, kids are bombarded with the wrong messages and models. If we want to be an effective counter-influence as parents, we'll have to look for many opportunities to share our values about sex.
We can also point them to other sources — books, articles, websites, etc. that give outside validation for what we're saying. For a good website on STIs, see medinstitute.org. For good books on waiting, check out Jason Evert's If You Really Loved Me (chastity.com) and, with his wife Crystalina, How to Find Your Soulmate without Losing Your Soul.
Sean Covey's book, The 6 Most Important Decisions You'll Ever Make, has a terrific chapter on sex, love, and dating. Just for Girls/Just for Guys (humanlife.org) is a slim, smartly formatted magazine packed with true stories, good graphics, and straight talk about sex and love. My wife Judith and I, along with our friend William Boudreau, M.D. (a family doctor and expert on STIs), have written an easy-to-read book for teens that includes a chapter on emotional dangers: Sex, Love, and You: Making the Right Decision.
The main thing is to keep the conversation going. To encourage that, Jennifer's mother might have shared a small pamphlet on this subject. One of my favorites is Love Waits (no longer in print, alas). Its message was simple and short:
Love is patient; love is kind. Love wants what is best for another person.
Love will never cross the line between what's right and wrong. It's wrong to put one another in danger of having to deal with hard choices, choices that could change your lives forever.
Having sex before marriage may feel right for the moment.  But the possible costs of an unexpected pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted disease — as well as the deep hurts that can come from a broken relationship — outweigh the feelings of the moment. The feelings are temporary; their consequences are long-lasting.
All good things are worth waiting for. Waiting until marriage to have sex is a mature decision to control your desires.
If you are getting to know someone — or are in a relationship — remember: If it's love, love waits.
Thomas Lickona. "But, Mom, We Do Love Each Other!." Psychology Today blog (February 12, 2021).
Reprinted with permission from the author, Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.
Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a psychologist and educator who has been called "the father of modern character education." A professor of education emeritus at State University of New York, Cortland, he is the founding director of his university's Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and author of nine books on moral development and character education. He is the author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain, Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his web site here.Copyright © 2021 Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.
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