Is it an absolute given that parents of teenagers should object to their children's sex lives? In American culture, the answer is largely assumed to be that it is. The range of acceptable responses from parents to the news that their high-school-age children are sexually active is to rage angrily and forbid it or, at best, reluctantly provide contraception while emphasizing that you wish they wouldn't have sex. But what would happen if parents embraced another possibility and actually accepted their teenagers' sex lives, even going so far as to allow teenagers to have their boyfriend or girlfriend sleep over? After all, sleepovers will begin pretty much the second they walk out your door, so what's the harm in letting it start a little earlier?
These are the questions that Henry Alford addressed in the New York Times late last week, in a piece about how a handful of American parents are experimenting with giving respect to teenage relationships. He interviewed a couple of parents who allow sleepovers—and in one case, cohabitation—and found that they felt quite positive about the results. Parents reported that the experience taught their children values like responsibility and even that it subtly encouraged monogamy. Writing of one mother who allowed her high school senior's boyfriend to move in for a year, Alford notes:
But the greater dividend of his stay was that it gave Ms. Collins’s three younger adolescent children a view of committed love that far surpassed most of what they had seen from adults. Ms. Collins said, “I hope they won’t settle for less.”
Of course, there's no reason to stab around in the dark, just guessing at whether allowing teenage sleepovers is some kind of sign of the apocalypse or just a way for families to handle teenage sexuality in a responsible, realistic fashion. Sleepovers have been normalized in the Netherlands for decades now, and as social scientist Amy Schalet's research suggests, the results have been generally positive. By demonstrating acceptance and respect for their kids' relationships, Dutch parents, on average, enjoy more communication with their kids about sex and relationships than American parents do, which in turn means the kids are more likely to get the health care and education they need to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Oh, and the teenage pregnancy rate in the Netherlands is nearly four times lower than ours.
Schalet also discovered that the Dutch way helped minimize negative stereotyping about gender, love, and sexuality. In the U.S., there's a tendency to see sex as a battle between boys and girls, with parents falling for "the stereotype that all boys want the same thing, and all girls want love and cuddling." But because Dutch parents respect teenage relationships, they have a more holistic view, understanding that most young people of any gender want a combination of both.
Allowing sleepovers in not a license for licentiousness. If anything, the practice even tends to reinforce the idea that sex is about relationships, whereas sneaking around lays the groundwork for the hookup culture that has caused so much hand-wringing of late. Parents actually have the power to lay the groundwork for more responsible behavior about sexual health and relationship management while making sex a little less illicit. Might not be such a terrible idea.