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Sleepovers: A Case Study for Respecting Teens

Summer is over and a new school year has begun! In preparing for the start of this year, we at Health Connected sat down and came up with some resolutions. Last week, we shared our third #SchoolYrResolution: "Respect teens' ability to make decisions about their own health." This resolution is central to our organization’s mission to help young people feel confident and supported to make informed decisions about their own sexual health. Although this is not a new statement for us, the beginning of a new school year is a great time to reflect on why this is so important in our society.

There are some countries, one in particular, that have sexual health outcomes far better than ours in the United States, in part because of their ability to respect teens' decision making. Yep, I'm talking about the good ol' Netherlands. For those working in the sexual health education field, it isn't news that the Netherlands has far fewer teen pregnancies, births, and abortions than the U.S.; and sexually active Dutch teens are far more likely than American teens to use condoms and birth control. A significant factor in this health outcome is better sexual health education in schools. However, another factor that is equally critical is the different approach many Dutch parents take toward adolescent sexuality, the way they communicate their views about sexuality to their children and their trust in their adolescents to make appropriate decisions about their sexual health.

Let's take a look at one activity that many parents of teenagers are familiar with: sleepovers. Interestingly, there are wide-ranging views and rules that depend not only on the parent you ask, but, more significantly, depend on what country they are from.

Unlike most girls at age 13, I played on an all-boys baseball team. Although my parents knew all of my teammates and their parents, I distinctly remember being the only one not allowed to go to the end-of-the-year parent-supervised sleepover party. However, my younger brother was allowed to go because he was a boy. As upset as I was, looking back now, I can see how maybe it was more an issue of age and maturity, but even as I grew older my parents were still against me sleeping over at any male's house, especially a boyfriend. I personally believed I had the tools I needed to be safe and didn't see a different between a sleepover with a girl versus a boy, but to my parents, along with many other American parents, this would never fly.

Most parents are okay with their child having sleepovers with same-gendered friends, but when parents were asked if they would let their teenager spend the night with their romantic partner in their own home, how did they respond? Not surprisingly, a majority of American parents polled answered along the lines of "absolutely not." However, in the Netherlands, most parents said that, under the right circumstances, they would let their teen spend the night with their steady boyfriend or girlfriend. So where does this difference come from?

Dutch youths know they can ask permission to have their partners spend the night in their bedrooms, and most parents will say yes. In the book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex, author Amy Schalet says that this "vigilant leniency" allows teens to explore adult behaviors within distinct parameters. However, in America, parents worry about raging hormones that, left uncontrolled, will wreak havoc in a young person's life. Because these opposite-gendered teen sleepovers in the U.S. family home are so taboo, it can lead to teens sneaking around to engage in sexual activity and "getting caught," which can cause conflict in the parent-child relationship and get in the way of future parent-child communication about sexual health. Being scared to have honest conversations about sex with their parents makes teens less likely to ask for help or information on being safe, which can lead to more negative outcomes, such as higher rates of STIs and unplanned pregnancies.

As a health educator, I know comprehensive sexual education in school is critical to give teens accurate medical information, but I also know that information provided in school is far from the only factor that informs teen's decisions about their sexual health. Another critical factor is whether adults, especially parents, respect teens' autonomy when it comes to sex. For the Dutch, sexual development and exploration is treated as a normal part of human development. What may surprise many American parents is that even in this context, Dutch parents are far more likely to talk with their children about waiting to have sex, what a healthy relationship looks like, and what contraceptive to use if and when sexual activity begins. One valuable lesson we can take from the Dutch is to acknowledge teenagers as individuals who can make safe choices about their own health. By trusting them to self-reflect on the information they have been given in school and use it in everyday decision-making, we can foster better relationships with our teens and start moving towards a more healthy culture when it comes to adolescent sexual health.

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