“Mom, they’re asleep in the same bed!” My 23-year-old brother, eight years my senior, had come home from college in the middle of the night to get some maternal succor after seeing his girlfriend kissing another guy. His romantic crisis happened to coincide with a night that my 16-year-old boyfriend and I had a “sleepover,” with my boyfriend camping out in my brother’s former bedroom, now our guest room. When my brother went in to occupy his room’s second bed, he found me asleep in bed with my boyfriend, instead of in my own bedroom.
Alarmed, he woke up my parents. “I trust Carol to do what is right for her,” my mother responded. My father rolled over between sleep cycles to mutter: “She’s in there with no contradiction.”
I was 15.
Now that I have a daughter who is pushing 14, who still calls me Mommy and requests to be “put to bed,” I find myself regarding this once amusing tale from my youth with increasing consternation. Henry Alford’s New York Times column about the etiquette and ethics of allowing teen children who have girlfriends or boyfriends to sleep together (or some don’t-ask/don’t-tell version my parents ascribed to) reignited a debate that has swung back and forth since the 1960s. How should parents respond to their teen’s sexual relationships? What’s kosher? What’s out of bounds? And what do you allow under your own roof?
For many parents, this is a no-brainer. Religious or moral guidelines lay down a clear line: no sex until after marriage. Or for parents who don’t want to disown their children, no sex under our roof until after marriage. Or for parents who don’t want to condone teen sex but don’t adhere to marital litmus tests, no sex until you move out of our house… and so the variations continue with each family sorting out their own set of spoken and, just as often, unspoken, rules.
Alford explored the trend among some families where parents go out of their way to make their children’s flames feel especially welcome — one woman went so far as to buy her daughter and her boyfriend a new bed. Angelina Jolie has recounted how her own mother allowed her at the age of 14 to live with her boyfriend “as man and wife,” which Alford deems far too young, as opposed to 16 when he argues kids in a committed relationship should reasonably be allowed to spend the night under the parental roof as long as they do so with consideration, discretion, and help out with household chores.
In the Huffington Post, Soraya Chemaly also weighs in on the “sex is awesome” side of the debate, citing the comparative study of Dutch and American families around this issue where Dutch children end up having closer relationships with their parents and bringing their boyfriends/girlfriends home versus the American teens who also have sex, but end up keeping it a secret from their families and creating more boundaries. Chemaly encapsulates this argument with a rhetorical question: “Why would you create a situation where your children are forced to hide, sneak around, be dishonest, be uncomfortable, take unnecessary risks and make uninformed decisions about their physical and emotional health?”
This was my mother’s position. After raising my older brothers with more old-school 1950s rules (and it not working in the sense that they engaged in risky activities like drinking, drugs, sex with inappropriate partners, and one even moving out before he was really ready), with me she cleaved by the Alfie Kohn school of parenting: focusing on internal motivation, building personal responsibility, and nurturing a sense of inviolable trust between us. As a serious student who regarded risky activities like drinking, drugs, smoking, and driving carelessly with abject horror, I needed little behavioral management. At least, that’s my version of events: my mother’s version was that I was remarkably strong-willed from a young age and so she had to learn to cultivate my cooperation rather than my obedience.
Now as a parent, I realize I haven’t nailed down my attitudes on teen romance and sexual activity, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be following in my mother’s permissive footsteps. It’s not that anything really negative came of my early (and sanctioned) romance. I was cautious with birth control and developed deep emotional ties before engaging in so much as a kiss. After this first relationship, which lasted two years, I decided I was too young to be having sex and drew stricter lines with future boyfriends.
If I hew to more old-fashioned mores with my two daughters, it will be an attempt to allow them to be children for a little bit longer, to not have to make so many decisions about things they shouldn’t have to worry about. Call me an educational prude. Given the global reality, our teens need to focus, focus, focus. Romance and sex — like drinking and drugs (and, to a lesser extent, teen social drama, excessive screen time, obsession with fashion or sports or pop culture) — is a huge distraction from where kids should be pouring all of their powers of concentration, and what children in high-performing countries around the world do focus on: their education.
In the olden days (before it became clear that America was lagging behind a lot of other countries in preparing its high school students), American high school was considered the time when individuals were expected to explore romance, mad social fun, and yes, even sexuality. But I think that antiquated thinking is passé. In countries where high school students regularly outperform the U.S. (and not just cutthroat cultures like South Korea, but liberal meccas like Finland), high school students focus on school first — not social life, sports, or jobs.
Now I wonder if even parents who want to teach their children that “sex is awesome” shouldn’t rethink their sex-under-my-roof guidelines. Now that getting into college requires more hoops, higher standards, and more rigorous classes, it’s my job to help my daughters keep their line of sight clear towards distant aspirations not immediate (and possibly perilous) pleasures. It may not make me as popular as the mother who folds down her daughter’s pre-conjugal bed sheets, but someday I’m betting they’ll thank me.