The New York Times regularly churns out columns celebrating progressive ideas about parenting, and The Scrapbook just as regularly marvels at the willingness of Times readers to consume their terrible advice. (For a classic of the genre, we refer you to a feature this past April on the trend in “elimination communication,” or diaper-free parenting. Per the Times, parents in trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods “exchange tips like how to get a baby to urinate on the street between parked cars.”)
But when it comes to advice that might actually mess up or even endanger your child’s life, we’re relieved to learn that even the writers for the Times draw the line somewhere. In an August 9 column, “Sex in a Teenager’s Room?” Henry Alford makes the case for setting some firm boundaries:
It started two summers ago when I read that Angelina Jolie told the British tabloid the Sun that her mother allowed the 14-year-old Miss Jolie to live with her boyfriend in her mother’s home “like a married couple.” I winced slightly. If I had, say, a 16-year-old who was having protected sex in a committed relationship, I would happily allow him to sleep with his partner in my house. But at 14?
The thought of letting 14-year-old children cohabit makes us wince more than “slightly.” It is also mystifying what grand physical and psychological transformation would happen in the next two years that would suddenly prepare teenagers to shack up under their parents’ roof. Further, the idea that parental supervision is either appropriate or even possible in these circumstances raises any number of questions.
Alford seems quite certain that his children will use condoms, presumably because teenagers never lie to their parents about risky behavior they might have engaged in. And although rebelling against your parents is a perfectly normal impulse at that age, Alford is strangely untroubled by the thought that sanctioning otherwise reckless acts might cause them to seek out ever more outré thrills.
Of course, the column sparked a lot of discussion online. Alford’s proposal to sanction teenage sex was immediately embraced by blogger Amanda Marcotte. Writing in USA Today, she argues that parental supervision of teenage sex will ameliorate the problems of our “hook-up” culture and encourage more familial stability, that is provided you don’t have a reliable definition of what a family is in the first place or acknowledge that sex in marital relationships is foundational to healthy families:
The evidence suggests that it’s a good thing. Researchers Wendy Manning and Jessica Cohen of Bowling Green State University found that as teenage cohabitation rates rose, teenage marriage rates declined. While it is true that some of the teenage cohabitants gave birth, getting married in your teens is still the surer route to having a baby very young. Yes, teenagers who cohabitate were more likely to have unstable situations with their family of origin, but they were still using cohabitation the way adults in their 20s do, as a way to save money and spend time with a partner without having to commit to a marriage before they felt ready.
We hate to break it to Marcotte, but plenty of Americans marry as 18- and 19-year-olds. So it shouldn’t be surprising that marriage would be a catalyst for producing children. That’s how it’s supposed to work. She also dismisses the fact that teens who cohabit tend to be the product of troubled families, because, well, they’re just going to keep cohabiting into their twenties anyway. Rather than parse this circular reasoning, we might humbly suggest that it appears that teenagers who were allowed to cohabit were taught that sex could be divorced from commitment at an early age, and unsurprisingly, that lesson ended up shaping their lives as dysfunctional adults. The evidence does not suggest cohabitation is a “good thing”—far from it.