When Sarah Watts’s 16-year-old daughter Alicia asked if her boyfriend of three months could stay the night, she wasn’t outraged or upset. Instead, she responded in a way that would horrify many parents — she went out and bought Alicia a double bed so she could sleep with boyfriend Matt in comfort.
Now 17-years-old, Alicia and Matt, an 18-year-old photography college student, spend many nights together under Sarah’s roof.
The arrangement is a far cry from the way Sarah, 46, was raised.
“My father was very authoritarian and would never have let my boyfriends stay over,” Sarah. “But, like it or not, teenagers will have sex, and my father’s attitude meant I took all kinds of risks without my parents knowing — drinking too much and being rather cavalier about contraception. In hindsight, I think I was rebelling against being told what to do and my parents not giving me the respect I felt I deserved as an emerging adult.”
Sarah continues, “I want to know where my daughter is at night and who she’s with. Letting her boyfriend stay is the best way of ensuring her safety.”
According to a new book, ‘Not Under My Roof,’ Sarah’s approach is a very sensible one.
Author Amy Schalet argues that the reason the teenage pregnancy rate in the United States is 8 times higher than the Netherlands is because Dutch parents adopt a far more liberal approach to adolescent sex, with two-thirds of those in Holland allowing their teenagers’ partners to sleep over.
“In Dutch families there is an expectation that sex should take place in steady relationships in which both teens are in love,” says author Amy Schalet. “Dutch parents don’t want teenage sex to be a secret. They want to stay connected with their teens and be able to exercise influence and provide support. It’s better to have an open relationship with your children and discuss things, rather than lay down the law about what they can and can’t do.”
Sarah justifies her decision by saying her daughter is mature.
“Alicia is sensible, she doesn’t smoke or get drunk. But when she started going out with Matt, I knew I had a responsibility to talk to her about safe sex,” says Sarah. “It was awkward because she didn’t really want to talk to me about it, and tried to brush it off, saying things like, ‘I’m not stupid. I’m not going to get pregnant.’”
Sarah has been divorced from Alicia’s father for 6 years and has an older daughter, Anna, 20, who moved out two years ago to live with her boyfriend. She has a close relationship with both daughters and would hate to think that they couldn’t confide in her.
“It’s better to have an open relationship with your children and discuss things, rather than lay down the law about what they can and can’t do,” says Sarah. “I know from experience that, whatever parents say, teenagers will have sex anyway, and I try not to think about what Alicia might be doing when Matt stays. What I wouldn’t want is her going out and meeting strange men or having unprotected sex.”
David Spellman, a consultant clinical psychologist working with teenagers and families, believes mothers like Sarah are misguided if they think all teenagers are eager to have sex.
“Not all 16-year-olds are the same. The rates of maturity and development can vary enormously,” he says.
“I can understand parents wanting to know where their teenagers are, but I don’t think it’s a convincing argument for allowing partners to sleep over. It’s not right to assume that teenagers will have sex whether you allow it under your roof or not. Not all teenagers want to have sex early, so there might be a danger in making it too easy; it could encourage sex to happen sooner than it otherwise would.”
Meanwhile, those who work with young people argue that teenagers feeling comfortable enough to be open with their parents about sexual matters is a key weapon in the battle to reduce sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy in this age group.
David Spellman reiterates that although some teenagers may push boundaries, they still rely on their parents to make the right decisions for them.
“Of course when parents say ‘No’ their children will complain. But on some level, they also know they are being looked out for. As parents we need to have the courage sometimes to take a position and let our children know we are not OK with certain things.”