I have to admit, the condoms on the dining room table were a little surprising. The packing list the college sent us suggested a first aid kit, along with extra-long sheets, a power strip and a desk lamp. It makes sense – without parents there to offer antibiotic ointment, bandages, and ibuprofen, our children must care for their own cuts and bruises and salve the ill-effects of their sleep deprivation. And so my son and husband went to the pharmacy and returned home with supplies, including that giant box of condoms.
You might be wondering, what kind of parents are we?
We are the parents who helped our sons’ elementary school draw on a nationally-recognized curriculum to develop a comprehensive, age-appropriate gender and sexuality education program. We are the parents who have always told both of our sons that when they feel ready to have sex with someone they care about, they should do it at home; we've read the research that shows that the “sleep over” can promote healthy sexual and social development. I taught sex education long before we had adolescents of our own, and my husband, John Santelli, has testified before Congress and written widely about the harm wrought by abstinence-only until marriage programs. I’m sure that there are many ways that we have failed our children (and, because they are adolescents, I’m sure that if you ask them they will gladly provide examples), but on this count we’ve done OK. Years ago, when we were talking about the client 9 sex scandal over dinner, our five-year-old’s contribution was that he hoped that Spitzer had used a condom and that anyway it was disgusting to have sex with someone you didn’t love.
Like most parenting columns, this one may cause anxiety – is this just one more way you’ve failed your children? But it’s not too late. Even if the most you managed was an awkward review of the basics of human reproduction or a set of cautions about the danger of sexual assault, there’s still time. A care package filled with condoms ensures that they have them when they need them – which, evidence suggests, makes condom use more likely. College students may have access to free condoms, but the health center will not be open at midnight. More importantly, condoms in the institutionally-sponsored fish bowl on the health center desk don’t have the same meaning as the ones you send. Yours say: ‘I see you growing up. I want you to be safe. I want you to have love and pleasure and intimacy – if you’re really lucky, all three at the same time.’
Go all out and add a note – what do you think they should look for, or think about, in choosing a partner? Under what conditions do you believe sex is OK? Through the jokes you laugh at, your reactions to the news, and your comments about their friends, you have probably already conveyed a lot to your ever-observant children. Parents play an important role in shaping children’s values and knowledge about sexuality, so you might as well be explicit rather than hoping that they’ll have read between the lines.
Part of raising a child is helping them develop physical autonomy. We held their hands during those tentative first steps, taught them to wipe their own bottoms, and ran alongside when the training wheels came off. We spent what felt like a million hours nagging them to brush their teeth, and an equal amount of time exhorting them to floss. Now that we’ve done all we can about oral health, these early-adult conversations about sexual health are the final step in teaching them to care for their bodies.
More than likely, your college-aged child is having sex: the average age at first sex is around 17 for adolescents in the US, and by age 20 almost 70% of adolescents have had intercourse. The good news is that they’re being safer than you might think. Data from the CDC for 2006-2010 show that about three quarters of adolescent men and women used a condom the first time they had intercourse, and rates of condom and other contraceptive use have risen steadily since the 1980s. College students are having less sex than the hysteria about hookup culture suggests: a nationwide survey found that more than 40% of college students had had only one sexual partner in the past twelve months, and the number of sexual partners since age 18, frequency of sex, or number of partners in the past year has not changed since the late 1980s. But before you tune out and think that the kids are alright, know this: nearly half of the US’s 20 million sexually-transmitted infections every year occur among people between 15 and 24; the US teen birth rate is almost five times France's rate, and seven times that of the Netherlands, and the CDC reports that “youth aged of 13 and 24 account for more than one in five new HIV diagnoses in 2014”. So your kids do need to hear from you.
To be sure, not all sex involves penises. If your child is a lesbian, condoms send the wrong message. If your child was born a boy and has transitioned to being a woman, that box of condoms will feel like hate mail. (And if you have a lesbian or trans kid, and haven’t made sure that they know that you love them regardless of gender or sexuality, then it’s truly a matter of life and death that you do so.) Ultimately, if this suggestion is wrong for your family, then ignore it. I might be an expert on sexual health, but the best parenting advice I ever got was that each of us is the expert on our own kids. And it’s a great skill for parents to be able to say ‘thanks for your input’ in a way that makes clear that what we really mean is ‘go piss off’.
I’m thinking about care packages because it’s hard getting used to the fact that this body that emerged from mine is now so far away. After years of dragging myself out of bed for 6 am smoothies, I have no control over whether he even eats breakfast, much less how he socializes, how much he sleeps, or with whom. At drop-off weekend I gave in to the logo-gear frenzy, and in the airport on the way home, I shared a knowing glance, a nod, and one or two brief chats with other maroon-clad, tear-stained parents – all of us taking some comfort at incorporating ourselves, at least sartorially, as tribe members of these institutions to which we'd sent our beloved and newly-independent children.
That independence only goes so far: as my son and I cruised the aisles of Bed, Bath and Beyond one final time, he told me he’d forgotten his toothbrush at home and asked me to buy him a new one. I did think, for a moment, that not brushing his teeth might be the best way to ensure that he ended up never needing those condoms, but we threw one in the cart, and we checked out. Then, after I helped him make his bed, put away his shoes, and assemble the pieces of his new life, I flew home, hoping that we’d given him all that he needed. And, in case we’d left anything out, thinking about that first care package.