With a bombardment of sexually-charged messages in pop culture, some parents find it difficult — and even awkward — having a discussion youngsters about sex, even with the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In this week's parenting roundtable, regular contributing moms Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey — both of whom have teenaged children — discuss the challenges of such conversations and share their approach.
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JENNIFER LUDDEN, Host:
The decision of officials in Washington D.C. to offer STD testing in schools may still be controversial, but across the country, states already have the legal right to conduct STD screening for those over 12 without parental consent. That can complicate one of the most difficult tasks facing the parents of adolescents. How do you talk with children about sexual health and ethics?
Joining us to discuss that are TELL ME MORE's regular parenting contributors Jolene Ivey and Danette Tucker. Welcome both of you.
JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Jennifer.
DANI TUCKER: Hello, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: Dani, let me start with you. You have children in D.C. public schools, including a son in high school. Under this program, parents can opt out. Do you know what you're doing?
TUCKER: I'm opting out because my kids and I have a really good relationship about talking about sex, talking about STDs, and my son is very private - the high schooler. So I'm going to opt out and continue what we've been doing, as well as if I do want him tested, get his doctor to test him because I think he's looking for the privacy. And I think they need a little more education on him before they just throw him in the bathroom with a cup, you know what I mean? Just a little bit.
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LUDDEN: Jolene, you've got five boys. You're in Maryland's school district, not D.C., but what do you think about this new program?
IVEY: I think it's great. Actually, I like the fact that they give the cup and the bag to everyone. Everyone goes in the stall, and everyone comes out. So I think that that is a pretty clever way to do it. I give them credit. And I would encourage my kids. I am pretty certain my kids would test negative, but I'd rather know for sure. And I don't think that it would hurt anything for them to find out.
LUDDEN: Well, it seems like it's this - they're going to all talk, and it's a way of kids finding out who's having sex and who's not, maybe.
IVEY: You know, from what I can tell, a whole lot of kids are having sex who we don't think are, you know, and I worry about that. I know that my number two son is 16, and he's a very handsome fellow. And he's at that part of his life where many girls are paying him a lot of attention. So we've had to kind of talk to him about not being alone with girls and being careful what kind of situations you find yourself in because it doesn't make you a bad person because you've had sex. It makes you a normal person. These things can happen. It doesn't mean you're a monster, but it does mean that you could end up pregnant, or you could get a disease, or emotionally, you're not ready to handle it. So I don't want my kids that age and younger having sex, but I don't want them to be in the position where it could happen.
LUDDEN: Now, Jolene, have your kids in the Maryland school system, have they been educated about STDs?
IVEY: Well, I educate them, and they do have information at school. I know that in eighth grade that - in Prince George's County Public Schools, they have sex education, and then they do it again in high school. But I think it's more important that parents do it and that parents maintain an open relationship with their children, bring it up themselves because kids don't generally bring it up with you. You have to be the one to start the conversation.
LUDDEN: Dani, what role do you think public schools should have in talking about sex and sexually transmitted diseases?
TUCKER: I agree with Jolene. I think it should be education. I know they have the classes. I like when they bring the health-care officials in there, and they do the separate type of counseling sessions and things, but I want to do it with my kids. I think - I like it as private.
LUDDEN: Well, since both of you ladies have said you have talked to your children and really want to play a role in this education, let me ask you: Jolene, five boys. What do you say? Do you do it? Does your husband?
IVEY: Pretty much me because I'll talk to anybody about anything, and it's gotten me in plenty of trouble over the years, and sometimes my boys will be like oh ma, do you really have to? But I don't have any embarrassment about it. I'm happy to bring it up. And once I do start talking about sex with them, they're pretty good about engaging on the issue.
LUDDEN: Does your husband play a role also?
IVEY: Yeah, he does. He does, it's just that I'm the more chatty one about such things. But yeah, he definitely does.
LUDDEN: So, I mean, once you bring it up, do they then have questions, or do they talk, or do they just kind of absorb it?
IVEY: They more absorb, and then sometimes they'll tell me stories. I have to ask them specific questions about their friends sometimes to find out what's going on because sometimes they're more likely to tell you what their friends are doing than what they're doing and never, ever with names. I would never want them to betray a confidence unless it was something that really needed to be betrayed. But if I know what their friends are doing, I have a pretty good idea what they're doing.
LUDDEN: Dani, how's it gone with your kids?
TUCKER: A little different because two of my sons' best friends are already fathers. You know, so my son came home at the age of...
LUDDEN: That was a lesson.
TUCKER: Yeah, he was, what, 12, and he goes mom, I'm a godfather. I'm like, no you're not. You're nothing with father in it, not a godfather, not a grandfather - no father and you in the same word other than, you know, call your own father. You know? But yeah, two of his friends have...
LUDDEN: Now he was 12. How old were they?
TUCKER: One was 12 that just had his baby in eighth grade, and the other one's baby, just had a baby, he's 15, just turned 16. So I took those opportunities, you know, and I said, well, you know, okay, so what's going to happen to, you know, Friend A, Friend B. Well, you know, he got to work at night now, and he can go to school, but he's got to change his hours. So I took the opportunity to have him watch his friends go through what they're going through being these young fathers to teach him why you wait.
And I found a condom in his wallet, which kind of rocked my world a little bit. I had to call in my little village and go help, you know, I don't know what to say. So you know, I used again that opportunity. He convinced mom that it was only in there because all 16-year-old boys have one in their wallet, which I found out was not true - talking to Jolene - but it was okay.
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TUCKER: I mean, however he had to introduce it to mommy was fine. But I say all of this to say at least we're open about it, and I use the situations in our neighborhood to teach him and my daughter because in my neighborhood, there's so many of them. There's so many young women walking around with kids, you know, so many new fathers now. I am too young to be a grandmother. You know, that type of thing. So we use that, and they listen. They look at their lives and what's going on, how it really changed for his friends. You know, now a lot of their dreams can't come true. He can't go to football practice all the time because he's got to watch his own child, you know, and do his homework. So my son doesn't want that, and that's a good thing.
LUDDEN: Well, you know, one of the reasons Washington is doing this STD education program, they did a survey in 2007. They found that 60 percent of high school students and 30 percent of middle school students were sexually active.
TUCKER: And I totally believe that.
IVEY: Yeah, I saw that statistic, too, and I was totally alarmed. I really was. I would love to see it broken down by some other numbers to make me feel better as a parent.
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IVEY: I know when I talk to my 19-year-old, the one who's in college, he told me - and I'm not saying that he's not sexually active, I'm not saying that he is, but I'm just saying that he and his friends feel very strongly that their lives would be over. Their opportunities would end if their girlfriend got pregnant, and they would not be too happy about getting an STD, either. So I think that it's a big difference, though, among...
LUDDEN: I mean, pregnancy, everybody talks about the condom and pregnancy prevention, but are they as aware of STDs?
IVEY: I think they're at least aware of AIDS just because it's talked about so much. I'm not sure they're as aware of some of the other things. And chlamydia is a conversation I've had with my 19-year-old because there aren't any symptoms. I mean, the person can have it, they don't know they have it, they're passing it around like crazy, and then you end up infertile.
LUDDEN: Very severe consequences - potential - later in life, yeah.
IVEY: Yeah, and I think - you know, it's one thing if you get something that makes you itchy and burn and all of that. You're going to go to a doctor, but something that has no symptoms, that's kind of scary, so...
LUDDEN: I'm curious if any of your kids have gotten misinformation.
TUCKER: I won't say misinformation, but one thing I am looking at, too, now, is the same-sex relationships that a lot of the kids are having. A lot of them are turning to that and experimenting with that and thinking they can't catch anything. That's what I'm worried about because there's misinformation on that.
IVEY: And to follow up on what Dani's saying, it's not just vaginal sex, it's anal sex, it's oral sex. There's a lot of kind of sex going on, and parents need to talk to their kids about all kinds and not just act like it's, you know, heterosexual, vaginal sex that's the danger.
LUDDEN: That really does sound like a hard conversation, though.
TUCKER: It is, but it's one you have to have, so you know what I mean?
IVEY: I don't know, I kind of enjoy these things. I love driving my kids crazy.
LUDDEN: Jolene Ivey and Danette Tucker are regular guests for TELL ME MORE's parenting segment. They joined me here in our Washington studios. Thank you so much.
IVEY: Thanks, Jennifer.
TUCKER: Thank you.
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LUDDEN: And we want to hear from you. Do you think schools should be able to test children for sexually transmitted diseases without parental consent? And outside of schools, what kinds of conversations, if any, are you having with your children about sex? To tell us more, call our comment line at 202-842- 3522. The number again: 202-842-3522. Or visit us online at the TELL ME MORE page on the new npr.org and blog it out.
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LUDDEN: And that's our program for today. I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.