forum column july 2010: science educates ‘the talk’

Parenting Perspectives: Science Educates ‘The Talk’

By Roxane B. Salonen, The Forum

While at a family-friendly eatery with my preteen daughters recently, I was taken aback as two teen girls in a nearby booth began freely discussing intimate details of their dating lives.

Hoping my daughters wouldn’t hear, I watched in dismay as they began to tune in, eyes widening.

Let’s just say some of the appetizers went untouched.

My conflicted feelings were as much for the older girls, who I couldn’t help but feel have been unknowingly deceived by our culture’s “if it feels good, do it” mentality, a message set in motion 40 years ago that has wreaked havoc on our youth.

Back when I was learning about sexually transmitted diseases, it seemed like only a few existed. Now, despite “safer sex,” the list has grown to 25 different varieties. And it seems like the number of infected people is growing.

According to the American Social Health Association, 750,000 Americans carry human papillomavirus and 4 million people have contracted chlamydia. Two-thirds of all STDs occur in ages 25 or younger.

Girls under 20 have been hardest hit, due in large part to an immature cervix especially vulnerable to STDs because of its thinner transformation zone, an area that thickens and offers more protection against disease as a female matures.

I’d learned all this the same week of the aforementioned restaurant encounter through the work of Miriam Grossman, M.D.

In her two books, Unprotected (2007) and You’re Teaching My Child What? (2009), Grossman, a campus psychiatrist, offers strong scientific evidence against the ability of young people to make smart sexual choices without guidance.

Many have been prevented from hearing the evidence, Grossman says, because of a prevailing sex-education agenda that advocates sexual intimacy at whatever age the person (child) deems right.

Grossman cites Columbia University’s reputable “Go Ask Alice” website as one place that offers advice on sexuality that can put teens in harm’s way.

Sources like this, she says, fail to introduce facts about such things as oxytocin, a powerful hormone that stimulates mother-child bonding but also can be triggered by a kiss or even a hug just 20 seconds in duration.

Oxytocin acts on the brain’s reward center, she explains, sending the message, “Now I’m with someone special. I can relax and trust.”

Helpful as oxytocin is at the right moment, it can hamper judgment when ill-timed.

Add to that what we’ve discovered through neuroscience about the frontal lobe, the reasoning part of our brain, and its relative ineptness in adolescence. Teens are much more apt to act on emotion rather than sound judgment. Just ask your auto rental company.

Girls, who possess higher amounts of oxytocin, are especially vulnerable to being smitten by a testosterone-flooded young man who might be uninterested in sticking around when an STD or pregnancy occurs.

Though some might be tempted to view Grossman’s revelations as faith-based fear tactics, compelling biological facts cannot be ignored by anyone acting on behalf of our youth.

But facts aside, Grossman says organizations like the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States and Planned Parenthood consistently tell teens to listen to their own hearts on the matter.

Some good news comes from a poll Grossman cites that points to teens being highly influenced by parents in their decision to delay sexual activity.

Our children are listening to us, after all.

As luck would have it, I’d just shared some facts about oxytocin with my girls in the minivan before our arrival at the restaurant with the chatty teen girls. So instead of feeling powerless in that situation, I was able to give them a real-life example of why my daughters ought to be particularly mindful of their choices in this regard.

I’ll admit, a part of me wanted to gather up those girls in the next booth and share with them – in a gentle way – what I’ve learned, to help them feel cherished and empowered enough to reconsider their dangerous choices.

The best I can do is keep talking to my own kids and sharing information with other parents. Armed with scientific facts, fully developed frontal lobes and love, we can lead our children toward happiness and health.

Roxane B. Salonen works as a freelance writer and children’s author in Fargo, where she and her husband, Troy, are the parents of five children.