By 'Today' anchor
NBC News
updated 1/26/2005 8:03:29 PM ET 2005-01-27T01:03:29

You want to talk to your kids about baseball, music, what they had for lunch? No problem. But sex, now that's a different story. Sometimes what they're doing, and what you think they're doing doesn't always add up. So how do you get the nerve to find out what's really going on and how do you make sure you have more than just one conversation? We don't have all the answers, but we do have some advice.

At the heart of all parents' concerns about teens and sex, is something instinctual and fierce: the desire to protect their children.

Katie Couric: “What are you worried about?”

Group: “Disease, AIDS, STDs pregnancy… Just getting hurt.”

For perspective and guidance, we turned to Neil Bernstein, a clinical psychologist and Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician. Both have written books based on some 20 years experience with teens.

Dr. Meg Meeker: “We are training our American young woman to believe if they are not sexually active or promiscuous, they are really nothing. And those messages are very, very strong. They feel they do not have a choice about being sexually active. So the only way out for them, if you will, is to give oral sex to a guy. Because they believe they can remain a virgin and that they can stay disease free.”

Couric: “Can you get STDs and AIDS as easily through oral sex as you can through intercourse?”

Meeker: “Some infections are easier to get through oral sex. Some -- like HIV -- are harder to get through oral sex. Herpes, for instance, is very easy to get through oral sex.”

Most everyone agrees kids should be encouraged to delay sexual activity for as long as possible. But there's no magic age when someone is physically and emotionally ready. It's intensely personal.

Meeker: “That's not my job to decide. That's really more between you and your child, because there are faith issues, there are moral issues, there are a lot of issues.”

Dr. Neil Bernstein: “We do know that kids who are not sufficiently mature, and kids whose self-esteem isn't developed and kids who are very vulnerable, are most often sorry and it has a very negative impact on them.”

They say casual sex can be especially harmful. If girls feel used and degraded, boys can end up depressed and numb to deeper feelings. 

Couric:  “What kind of impact does this have on a boy's character who is complicit and encouraging this kind of behavior.”

Bernstein: “It discounts emotional intimacy. Not just when the boy is 15, 16 as they get older. That's a very powerful negative effect.”

Danny's dad: “How do you discourage that sort of dehumanization of what should be very much a human behavior?”

Bernstein: “We have to convey to our youth, particularly boys. What it means. That sex is an act of love between two consenting, mature people. Secondly, you have to be able to think through what happens if you get your girlfriend pregnant, or if you contract a std from someone you don't know very well. What's the responsible thing? How do you handle it? They have to think out loud.”

Bernstein says those kinds of conversations are easier if you spend at least 10 minutes a day talking to your child about other things, from the time they are young.

Bernstein: “Parents who try to just have sex talks, fail miserably. People who enter their child's world from early on and communicate about everything going on in their life -- how difficult peer pressure is, how hard it is to go through early adolescence and feel like that pimple on your face is a crater, and all of those things, it becomes much easier to talk about sex.

Sex talks take planning. Our experts encourage parents to think about what you want to say. Choose a time when you have your child's attention. Start with a compliment. Make eye contact, don't interrupt, and don't always disagree.

Meeker: “Ask your kids a lot of questions and be quiet. Listen. Do more listening during the teen years than you do talking.”

They advise forget trying to be cool. Be honest. Share your own mistakes and embarrassing moments. Tell your child how you truly feel about him or her being sexually active.

Couric: “How do we keep an open relationship with our children and let them know there are certain behaviors that are unacceptable? That seems to be a hard balance to me.”

Bernstein: “You have to grant your kids immunity every now and then and say, tell me what you're doing. I promise you I won't punish you for it. I would rather know what's going on out there than hear it from someone else when it's too late.”

Ultimately, it seems, parents' actions speak the loudest. Kids who grow up around loving, respectful relationships are more likely to form them. What does this mean for single parents?

Couric: “Because Michael's a single dad, Kameron's mom is a single mom and Sable's mom is a single mom. I'm a single mom.”

Bernstein: “Fifty percent of adolescent parents are single parents. I would overemphasize living the life that you're preaching. That even if you're single and dating multiple women, that you treat them respectfully.

Garon's dad: “Lead by example.”

Bernstein: “And discretion is what we're talking about. The most powerful tool you have to influence your children is the way you live your own life.”

Parents often wish they could slow down time and, truth be told, there are days when teens wish they could, too.

Couric: “Do you ever feel like you're growing up too fast? Or you're in too deep. or you've done stuff maybe just too early in your life? Does anybody ever feel that way? Amie, you said yes.”

Amie: “The transition from middle school to high school was crazy. Everything is drinking and sex. I would be completely happy just staying where I was. But you know, you have to move on. It's like life makes you grow up faster than you want to. And it's not boys, it's just that life gets harder. It gets more complicated. And if you don't participate in it, you'll be left out.

The desire to embrace life, to be oneself, to be accepted, to be loved. By the end of the weekend, that's what 20 kids from across America had revealed about teens and sex. It's so simple. And so complicated. Since the dawn of time, no one has been able to figure it out completely, but everyone agrees it's worth trying.

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