All the media hype surrounding the pregnancy of 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears (yes, she's Britney's sister) has presented parents with the perfect conversation-starter for that oh-so-awkward topic: sex. It's an opportunity not to be missed, because parents have a lot more influence than they may realize when it comes to delaying kids' sexual activity, improving their contraceptive use, and preventing teen pregnancy and parenthood. "Recent surveys indicate that parents still matter more than peers and popular culture," says Bill Alpert, deputy director at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "How they behave and how they interact with their kids can make a huge difference." He recommends these tips for what to say after getting past the I-can't-believe-she's-pregnant opener:
1. Be certain of your own values and attitudes. Being clear in your mind about how you feel about casual hookups, contraception, and abstinence until marriage can help you communicate moral guidelines to your child. Think about your own sexual experiences and how they influence your current beliefs.
2. Watch movies and TV shows alongside your kids. Teenage pregnancy and sex occur frequently on TV and in movies, like the current hit Juno. "Parents can use this as a great way to discuss whatever's being portrayed," says Alpert. And with the Web, it's a good idea to surf where they surf.
3. Be a good listener. What does your child think about Jamie Lynn? Would she have made the same choice as the pregnant teen in the Juno movie? Showing that you respect your child's opinion will help foster her respect for yours.
4. Discourage early, frequent, and steady dating. This is not a one-time conversation you should have when your son turns 16 and wants to have sleepovers with his girlfriend. "A lot of parents think this can wait until high school, but it really shouldn't," says Alpert. Parents should lay the groundwork for dating rules when their child is, say, 10 or 11—that is, before it even becomes an issue. Make it clear, if it's the case, that you don't approve of dating before age __ (fill in the blank).
5. Help your kids plan for a bright future. Your child's chances of delaying sex, pregnancy, and parenthood increase if the future holds promise. Setting meaningful goals beyond high school, showing how much you value education, and encouraging involvement in community service can help your child avoid Jamie Lynn's predicament.