When it comes to teen-agers and sex, good parenting makes a big difference. For all the debate over sex education in schools, the evidence so far suggests that parents play a stronger role than school-based educational programs in encouraging sexual abstinence and preventing teen pregnancies.
Studies show that close parent-child relationships, close parental supervision and strong religious or moral values all reduce the chances that a teen-ager will have sex or become pregnant.
But many parents find it hard to talk to their kids about sex. Some worry that if they urge their adolescent not to have intercourse, yet also bring up condoms and contraception, they'll be sending a mixed message.
"It's hard for parents to tread the line of, `When am I pushing sex?' " said University of Maryland pediatrics professor Bonita F. Stanton. "It's a tough one."
The best way to make parent-child discussions about sex comfortable is not to treat the topic as unusual, said Douglas Kirby, a senior research scientist at California's ETR Associates and an expert on sex education. Age-appropriate conversations about sex, love and relationships should start in childhood and continue throughout adolescence.
"You don't have a single conversation but multiple conversations," Kirby said. "Sex should be like lots of other topics -- you discuss it for 20 seconds, then move on. You don't wait for kids to ask you questions, because they will get the message that this is something you don't talk about."
Sexuality educator Debra W. Haffner agreed with that approach. "If you want to talk to your teen-ager, you'd better be talking to your 4 year old," she said. "For some kids, you will wait your whole life for them to ask a question. We don't wait for our children to ask to teach them how to cross the street."
Parents should listen to their child, but not hesitate to express their own values, Kirby suggests. "It's a good idea for parents to express their values about when and under what conditions young people should engage in sex -- and to express their views about contraception," he said.
One easy way to initiate a conversation about love, sex and values is to discuss the characters in a movie or television show. Haffner allows her 12-year-old daughter to watch the evening soap opera "Dawson's Creek," but only if Haffner watches it with her. After each episode, they discuss the characters' relationships and behavior. She said her daughter doesn't usually find much to emulate.
Haffner said fear of giving mixed messages shouldn't deter parents. "We give mixed messages all the time," she said. For example, parents often tell their teen-agers they shouldn't drink, but also warn them that if they do drink, not to drive.
"It's important to communicate your family's values" about sex to your children, Haffner said. "The next part of the message is, `If you are starting to think about having intercourse, I hope you will come and talk to me.' "
The third part should be, "It is critical that if you have intercourse, that you protect yourself by using contraception and condoms," she added.
Many parents complain that teens think they know all about sex already. But that's not what teen-agers think, a new survey suggests. In a nationally representative survey conducted in April for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, only 6 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 thought they knew as much or more than their parents about sex and relationships. Topics that the teen-agers wished their parents would talk more about included sexually transmitted diseases and birth control, how to manage dating and relationships, and knowing how and when to say "no."
The National Campaign offers advice for parents of teens, as well as a list of resources. Among the campaign's tips: