When she was younger, one of your daughter’s best friends was a boy, and you thought nothing of the two of them playing in her bedroom. Now that she’s in grade nine, there’s this new boy whom she calls her boyfriend.
They bounce through the door, head straight for her bedroom and close the door. What should you do?
Helen Jacobs,* mom to three girls, four, 14 and 16, has an open-door policy when it comes to boys in her daughters’ bedrooms. “I tell them, we won’t bug you as long as the door is open.”
For Jacobs, it’s partly a propriety issue. “I tell my older daughters, ‘You have a younger sister, and we need to think about the example you’re setting for her.’” Her older girls are pretty much OK with the rules, though one countered with “If you trust me, why can’t I have my door closed?”
Jacobs, who’s always talked openly with her kids about relationships and sex, was frank: “One thing can lead to another and if the door is shut, you’re more likely to push those limits.”
Debra Haffner has written three books on raising sexually healthy kids, including What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know. She says it’s only OK to let kids who have a romantic interest in each other spend time behind closed doors if you’re all right with the fact that having sex is a distinct possibility. If you’re not comfortable with this, then her advice is to be clear that bedrooms are off limits. Haffner says the issue isn’t about trust; it’s about keeping kids safe from sexual experiences they’re not mature enough to handle.
“As parents, we really need to teen-proof our houses in the same way we babyproofed,” says Haffner, mom of two and director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing in Westport, Conn. We do that by setting limits (with clear consequences), monitoring and supervising. Teen brains are undergoing continuing development, she explains, which means their owners may not be good at thinking through actions and consequences. Talking frankly about safer sex, birth control and the power of sexual intimacy is essential.
* Name changed by request.
Communicate your values
Saying no to your child sequestering in the bedroom with his girlfriend also communicates your values: You’re saying, “This is what I hope for you, and this is why.” It requires frank discussion, says Haffner. And even though you might feel as if you’re talking to a stone, the research shows that parents really do influence kids’ sexual decision making. “Young people who get the message their parents are unconcerned about sexual activity have sex earlier, while explicit waiting messages help teens delay,” says Haffner.
Of course, making the bedroom off limits shouldn’t send a message that your child’s friends aren’t welcome. One way to keep kids safe is to make sure home is a place where there are boundaries but also hospitality — where they can use the stereo in the living room or watch movies in the den — and where there is a frozen pizza just waiting to go into the oven.