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Is it a mixed message when we give out condoms in schools?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  April 22, 2012 07:46 AM

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Recently it was in the news that the Springfield public schools have decided to make condoms available for their students -- and not just high school students, but middle school students. I went on New England Cable News to talk about it, and have been having many interesting conversations with people since.

While lots of parents are supportive of the idea -- Springfield has the fourth highest teen birth rate in the state, and half of their ninth graders report having sex -- others have told me they think it's a bad idea. Isn't it sending a mixed message, they say, when we tell them not to have sex -- and then give them condoms?

Giving out condoms is a mixed message, I think, if the only thing you say to your child is: don't have sex. But our kids need us to say so much more than that.

Don't get me wrong. I am all for abstinence. I tell my children and my patients this all the time: please, please, wait. Save yourself for the right person and the right time. Sex can give you infections and get you pregnant. And it makes things really complicated, both emotionally and socially.

But that's the thing: it's complicated. We may want to pretend that our children aren't sexual beings, but they are. From an early age, from when they are little and put their hands in their diapers or play "doctor" as preschoolers (both of which are usually completely normal, in case either worried you) to those fifth grade crushes to the back seat stuff in high school ... our children, like all of us, are hard-wired to have sexual feelings.

The mistake too many parents make is that they don't talk about those feelings. They talk (if they talk at all) about puberty and periods and the mechanics of sex and about infections (and sometimes about contraception), but they don't talk about feelings -- because it feels weird and uncomfortable, mostly. But feelings are a big part of what is going on with our kids.

Like ... how the changes in their body make them feel. Or all the sexualization in the media, and how that affects how they look at their own body and think about sex. The role of peer pressure, and how they feel about what their friends might be doing. Or how they feel about sexual identity, or the role of sex in their relationships. All young people deal with these feelings, at some point and in some way.

If they don't talk to you, they are going to talk to their friends -- or to nobody. These are big issues to only talk to another kid about -- or to sort through alone. And these things have everything to do with whether they make good and healthy decisions about sex.

There are also certain realities we need to face. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Study, a survey done every two years by the Centers for Disease Control, nationwide 46 percent of high-schoolers have had sex, ranging from 31 percent of ninth graders to 62 percent of 12th graders. And, even more alarming, 6 percent report having had sex before age 13. I'm betting that lots, if not most, of the parents of these kids are unaware of what's going on -- and I'm betting that lots, if not most, of them are good parents. 

We can talk all we want about abstinence and why it's best, but that doesn't mean that every child will listen, and there's nothing we can do about the fact that sometimes life takes unexpected turns. If we are serious about preventing pregnancy and infection, we need to be sure that teens have information about and access to contraception, including condoms.

The point of teaching abstinence isn't that sex is evil, because it's not. Sex is part of life, hopefully a good part of life. The point of teaching abstinence is that you want your kids to value and respect themselves and others, and to be safe and healthy with the best chance for a good future.  So talk to them about that. Talk about feelings and how to handle them. Talk to them about respecting and valuing their bodies, and how that plays out in our modern, sexualized society. Talk to them about being safe and healthy -- make sure they know all the ways to do that, not just abstinence, so that they go out into the world equipped with all the information they might need. Talk to them about their future, and how an unplanned pregnancy has a way of making it harder to follow their dreams.

If you do all this, you will give them what they need to make good decisions. Even more, you will give them the message, loud and clear, that you love them and want the best for them. Whether there are condoms available at school won't -- can't -- change that message.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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