Americans love Mother’s Day. We love it so much that we’re collectively shelling out about $19 billion this year on gifts, special meals, and cards. But when it comes to educating our kids about how most women become mothers, we’re much less conscientious. Too many of our children aren’t learning about the connection between sex and parenthood before it’s too late. That means they lack the tools that help them avoid pregnancy until they are ready to be parents.
The evidence of this struggle is clear. Although the teen birth rate recently fell to a record low, 750,000 American teens still get pregnant every year. In fact, U.S. teens are much more likely to become pregnant than teens in other countries with more comprehensive sex education and broader access to birth control. Our teen pregnancy rate remains high despite the fact that the vast majority of parents talk with their kids about topics related to sex. Unfortunately, far fewer parents are covering topics such as how to say no to sex and how to use birth control — two key ways that teens can avoid unintended pregnancies.
Parents consistently say they would like help from schools. In fact, multiple studies have shown that parents overwhelmingly support school-based comprehensive sex education that includes information on contraception. A 2011 Planned Parenthood poll found, for example, that 90 percent of parents think high school sex education classes should address birth control and 75 percent believe it should be covered in middle school.
Unfortunately, legislators in several states are going the opposite direction. Tennessee, North Dakota, and Wisconsin lawmakers have all recently passed sex education measures requiring school programs to withhold critical sexual health information. This legislation requires schools to emphasize abstinence and prevents teaching balanced information about birth control. The Tennessee bill could allow schools or teachers to be sued for “encouraging” or “condoning” nonspecific “gateway sexual behavior.” More than a few critics and reporters have speculated that handholding or kissing could fall into that category.
On the federal level, conservative lawmakers have continued to oppose funding for proven sex education programs. Hundreds of studies have shown that programs that emphasize both abstinence and birth control are more likely to help young people delay sex and avoid pregnancy than programs that teach abstinence alone. In fact, there’s so much evidence for this approach that the federal government now designates funding for programs that replicate it. Still, even with the proven success of comprehensive sex education, conservative lawmakers in Congress — who say they oppose wasteful spending — snuck $50 million per year through 2014 into the Affordable Care Act to fund unproven abstinence-only education.
The lawmakers who push abstinence-only education say teens are less likely to have sex and become pregnant if schools emphasize the dangers of sex outside of marriage and restrict teaching about contraception. But they’re out of step with what parents want, as well as with all of the evidence about what actually works to help young people delay sex and protect themselves when they become sexually active.
As the mother of a 13-year-old son, I know firsthand the rewards and challenges of parenting. It’s a commitment that no one should enter into lightly or unprepared. That’s why we parents want our kids to delay having babies until they are ready for the responsibilities parenthood requires. As a sexuality educator, I frequently hear from parents who want their kids to have access to useful information about sex and sexuality at school and not just at home.
That’s why this Mother’s Day, moms across the country would welcome the gift of effective school-based sex education. Believe me, a well-prepared kid beats a sappy Mother’s Day card any day.