Mathmatica Policy Research Inc. was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to initiate a long-term study of the effects of abstinence-only education programs. The first findings were published this year with striking results (PDF). The study found that teens in abstinence programs were just as likely to engage in the same risky behaviors at the same rates as teens not enrolled in them. For example, only 49 percent of teens in these programs remained abstinent. Forty-nine percent of teens not enrolled in these programs remained abstinent. Of those who didn’t, 16 percent had one partner, 11 percent had two partners, and 8 percent had three partners. These numbers exactly match the numbers for teens not in abstinence programs.
This study shines some light on a problem that our nation regards as being very serious. If confronting risky behaviors by calling for abstinence produces such poor results, how do we know what is actually best for our youth?
Answering this question can be tricky because you first must define what ‘best’ means. For now, let’s assume that ‘best’ means that should our teens engage in risky behaviors, they are educated enough to ensure their safety. Then we have to identify what behaviors they are taking that would be putting them in danger, and compare these results with things that we might actually be able to influence.
For example, we now know that there is no difference between the actions taken by teens in abstinence programs vs. teens not in these programs in almost every area from abstinence to protection. Whether this is because the programs are bad, or it is the fault of the students, we don’t really know. So abstinence may still be a worthy cause to promote because it appeals to the ideals and morals that some teens hold, but obviously not to others. What may be best for our teens is for adults to realize that some teens are going to engage in adult activities. Adults should attempt to instill morals and values in teens, but leave teens with a fall back position so that they can have the knowledge they need to at least protect themselves.
Another perspective from which to approach the problem is to identify the things that adults are trying to prevent that seem to be violations of traditional morality. Traditional morality suggests this is indecent, lewd, or dangerous behavior. However, contemporary reality suggests that teens will indulge in this behavior even when we attempt to instill traditional values. Perhaps the better idea would be to accept the contemporary reality no matter how much we do not like to hear about it, and minimize the dangers of risky behaviors by teaching teens how to protect themselves.
We know for sure that these programs have not produced the results that we would like to see. This is why it’s important for parents to take responsibility and talk with their teens about what the parents see as important, rather than just what teens hear from society or institutions. Parents don’t really know what society or schools are telling their teens about various behaviors. I would also recommend that no matter what you think is important, realize that your child’s safety is paramount. This goes for all behaviors ranging from sex to drugs, crime or alcohol. So in your conversations be honest. Treat your teens like people. Show them you care. Talk about their options, especially those that you feel are important. Try not to get mad when teens are honest as they are not likely to be honest again if you do. Give teens the knowledge they need to protect themselves. Caring involvement in their lives is often all it takes for teens to make the best choices, or at least be safe when they don’t.