New “Let’s Talk Month” Poll Reminds Us That Sex Ed Begins With Parents

A new poll in honor of "Let's Talk Month," finds that parents are talking to their kids about sex but many are avoiding important topics, including birth control. If we are going to put a dent in teen pregnancy and STD rates, we have to talk about it all. 

In an age when there seems to be disagreement about almost everything, parents widely agree on one issue: keeping our kids safe and healthy is crucial, and that includes protecting their sexual health.

Each year nearly 750,000 teens in the United States become pregnant, and though 15- to 24-year-olds represent only one-quarter of all sexually active people, they account for nearly half of the new cases of STDs each year.  So what can parents do to keep their children from joining those daunting statistics?  Believe it or not, talking openly and honestly with young people about sex is a powerful defense against the lack of information and support that typically leads kids to make poor decision about their sexual health.

The good news is, an overwhelming majority of parents are already talking with their kids, according to Let’s Talk: Are Parents Tackling Crucial Conversations About Sex? a new poll commissioned by Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health (CLAFH) at the Sliver School of Social Work at NYU.  The poll, which queried 1,111 nationally-representative parents of 10- to 18-year-olds, found that parents are talking to their adolescents about a wide range of sexuality-related topics, including relationships and their own values about when sex should or should not take place. And, contrary to stereotypes, the poll also found that fathers are taking almost as active a role in talking with their children about sexual health as mothers. 

The findings have been released in conjunction with October’s Let’s Talk Month, an annual awareness campaign focused on encouraging and helping parents communicate with their kids about issues related to sexuality.

Unfortunately, the survey found that far fewer parents are talking with their kids about some of the tougher, more complicated topics; the topics that could actually arm kids with the know-how and support needed for preventing pregnancy and STDs.  For example, more than a quarter of those parents who are talking said they hadn’t discussed with their kids how to say no to sex.  And, only 60 percent of parents are talking to their teenagers about birth control, even though a full 94 percent believe they are influential in whether or not their kids use condoms or other forms of birth control if they have sex.

So what’s stopping the conversations?  For some parents, it’s discomfort — 57 percent of parents polled said they feel only somewhat comfortable or very uncomfortable talking with their kids about sex.  For others it’s the belief that talking with young people about sex is a one-shot deal.  However, like every other important decision kids will eventually make, when it comes to their sexuality, young people are only able to exercise critical thinking when they are supported by a wealth of accurate information collected over time.  

And while many people believe otherwise, teens themselves say that their parents are the most valued contributors to their knowledge about sex and sexual health.  What’s more, many teens say it would be easier for them to make responsible decisions if they could have more open conversations with their parents. Research also shows that teens who have effective conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners, and use condoms and other birth control if they do have sex.

Clearly, tackling the hard topics is a priority if we’re going to make a serious dent in teen pregnancy and STD rates.  Parents must push discomfort and other hesitations aside to begin having these crucial conversations with their kids, and sex educators must support parents in these conversations.  That’s why PPFA and CLAFH advocate every day for comprehensive sex education to be a part of school curricula.  And, according to the Let’s Talk poll, parents agree.  In fact, more than 90 percent of parents said comprehensive sex education that includes information about birth control should be part of high school curricula, and 75 percent believe such information should be a part of middle school curricula.  Still, only 10 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education that includes information about birth control.

So, the fight continues for sex education that empowers our kids to make informed decisions about their sexual health.  In the meantime, parents can help improve their kids’ odds by starting conversations about sexuality when their kids are young, and continuing to have them frequently.  

Finally, listening is as important as talking.  It’s important that teens know their parent’s views, but it’s equally important that teens feel that they can ask questions, and talk about what they may be going through. 

We should make time this October to have a conversation about these critical topics with our teens — all of our families will benefit.