Sex, Drugs and Raising Kids

Does a taste of champagne at a family wedding consign your son to a life of AA meetings? Will the mere mention of sex at home ensure your daughter of a future reality show appearance as a teen mom?
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"Anything in moderation," the saying goes. But does this wisdom apply to the decisions we make as parents?

The temptation exists, particularly when our kids are young, to try to shield them from anything that might be even the slightest bit upsetting, unhealthy, unpredictable or dangerous. As they grow, however, we watch as they develop minds and lives of their own, and we learn that keeping them in bubble wrap is impossible, not to mention inadvisable if we want them to develop their own sense of conscience, independence and an internal compass.

In fact, some parenting folk wisdom embraces an inoculation model, suggesting we expose children to small, controlled doses of potentially problematic experiences in the effort to better prepare them to ward off future negative outcomes on their own. Take alcohol. In a survey published in this month's Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers report that as many as 40% of mothers of third-graders agree with the general idea that letting kids have sips of alcohol at home will turn them into more responsible drinkers and leave them better equipped to resist alcohol-related peer pressure. These pro-sipping beliefs are particularly evident among more educated moms.

But while such assumptions may have intuitive appeal, data on the matter are less favorable. As the authors detail, previous research has demonstrated that kids tend to disregard household drinking norms when they're with their peers. That fifth graders whose parents allow them to try alcohol become twice as likely to report recent alcohol use in seventh grade. And that s, even when statistically controlling for a more general propensity to engage in problem behavior.

What about sex? No, obviously there isn't a similar widespread parental belief that young kids should have sex at home in order to equip them to make better decisions later in life. But we parents do make choices regarding the media sexual content our children view -- or, at the very least, our actions and rules help determine how much sexual content our children are able to consume on their own. And according to research, once again, early exposure has problematic effects later on.

Specifically, in a recent paper in Psychological Science, researchers at Dartmouth examined hundreds of top-grossing movies released over the past several years. They recorded the number of seconds of sexual content in each movie, defined as anything ranging from heavy kissing to actual intercourse. Then, in phone surveys conducted with over 1,000 adolescents, they asked respondents (who ranged in age from 12-14 at the time of the first phone call) how many of these movies they had seen.

The researchers conducted follow-up calls with the teenagers over the next several years. Once the respondents turned 18, they were asked questions regarding their own sexual behavior, ranging from the age at which they first had sex to the number of times they had casual sex without a condom.

Results indicated that the more exposure 12-14-year-olds had to media with sexual content the younger they were when they lost their virginity. Watching more movies with sexual content when young also predicted a greater number of sexual partners and an increased likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors. These patterns emerged for both boys and girls.

So what are mothers and fathers to do, return to the idea cold-turkey parenting? Does a taste of champagne at a family wedding consign your son to a life of AA meetings? Will the mere mention of sex at home ensure your daughter of a future reality show appearance as a teen mom?

Of course not.

But one moral of these studies is that simple exposure to forbidden fruit does not seem to curb later temptation. Letting your children sip alcohol isn't wise parenting; teaching them about responsible consumption -- whether of alcohol or food -- is. While shielding media-savvy adolescents from depictions of sexual activity isn't possible, talking to them about the differences between media sexual content and real-life sex is. (You can start by pointing out some of the published findings reported by the Dartmouth researchers: while 98% of the sex depicted in movies includes no reference to contraception, 89% of movie sex results in no consequences for the parties involved.)

In the end, sometimes everything in moderation is just a way to prevent ourselves from feeling bad about things we know we could do better. Parenting included. I always remember Oscar Wilde's variation on the phrase: "Everything in moderation -- including moderation."

Of course, what Oscar had in mind was probably erring on the other, less cautious side of the fence. But no reason to share that information with your kids. Hey, parents gotta draw the line somewhere.

Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's new book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Catch Sam's recent TEDx talk on the power of context below: