Now, everyone has great theories about kids until they get married, and as someone who does not have children, I am probably not allowed to have opinions. I understand this. Yet my reflections on my own youth, my work as a nanny, and my work with youth groups makes me think I have some good insight, mostly because I've watched amazing family units and how the parents act, and some pretty horrible ones. Jumping off from there, I had a conversation today with a parent (whom I love) that went like this:
Me: I see your teen son has a girlfriend now. How do you feel about that?
Parent: She's a great girl. It's nerve-wracking because they're getting serious, but a while ago I talked to him. He said they're not having sex.
Me: Well heck that's a start! Good.
Parent: Yea, well, she's over a lot and they spend a lot of time in his room, so...
Me: Door closed?
Parent: It has to be cracked, but our other kids are always around, so I hope that's a deterrant. I mean, she hangs out at our house till 1am sometimes. I'd rather they be at our house than at a party, but I don't know what happens after I go to bed. I mean, if they want to do it, I can't stop them.
WARNING: from here on out I talk about sex a good bit. I'm not shy and I hope you aren't either.
Lets pause for a teachable moment. As the product of a liberal secular household, I heard this all the time. My parents philosophy was that since they couldn't stop us from having sex, they would give us the tools to have it "safely": condoms, the pill, and a bed that wasn't infested with bed bugs. Yet this parent isn't secular - their family is Catholic! So should the secular parent and the Catholic parent be overlapping on sex education? Definitely not.
The reason is of course because sex is not just a biological itch being scratched. Sex is the way that married persons consummate the Sacrament of marriage; it is a sign of the goodness of God, and a very real vehicle for understanding God. As John Paul II masterfully explained, there is a theology of the body: our very bodies and the way they are made and interact reveals to us something about God. Sex isn't coincidence and it's not just about reproduction or pleasure; it's about ourselves as beings created in the image of our Creator! This also means that "sex" doesn't just refer to intercourse; being sexual isn't just about putting Part A into Part B. Since one loves with the whole person, making love also includes the entire person, not just a person's nether regions.
Within the context, we still know that being abstinent before marriage is difficult. It's always been difficult, but maybe it's a bit more difficult now, when a lot of the stigma is gone and it feels like "everyone is doing it." Also, it's just harder as a teenager, because one is new to romantic feelings, sexual feelings, and the opposite sex. Because having sex is something adults do and children do not, there is an innate attraction to having sex as a way to become "free" or to "grow up" and this is especially attractive to teenagers, who are eager for their misunderstood independence. Yet, as parents or adult persons in positions of authority, we know that sex is actually a very intense experience of giving ones whole self to another person. This experience is so intense that God designed it to be contained within marriage, because only a permanent indestructible earthly union could withstand the emotions and depth of true sexual union. That means that any unmarried teen is by definition not ready for sex; their choice to engage is sex is usually attended by half-truths and confusion. They must be guided, gently but firmly, away from a path that could hurt them.
Yet a lot of teens think that if they're not actually "doing it," they're okay. But oral sex and other versions of "fooling around" also involve the human person in activity that is essentially degrading outside the context of marriage. Besides breaking down a person's resistance to premarital sex, it also teaches them that their body is just bits and pieces that can be broken off for pleasure: "if I can't access your pants, your mouth or hand will do just fine. What matters is the pleasure I'm getting out of this." Leaving aside the risk of STDs, STIs, cancer, and pregnancy that can still occur from all of this, this leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the gift of our sexuality and the sacredness of our bodies. Our sexuality isn't "just" for pleasure; it's a finite sign of an infinite God, meant to point us, prepare us! to and for an eternity of bliss in Heaven - a bliss that will consist in constantly giving all we are, and receiving all of the Other, without holding back, forever! That truth and reality is so much greater than the desperate graspings at intimacy that so often occur in a person's teens years; that is what we want to preserve them for, and the vast wasteland of sin is what we want to protect them from.
That is why the adults have to give their children the opportunity to be virtuous. Sidebar: I took a great dog training course one time that taught me that I cannot get angry at my dog when I give him opportunities to misbehave and he takes them; that is foolish. I don't get mad at my dog for eating a steak I put on the floor, for instance. Back to teens: in this small way, raising children is similar. If we are ask our teens to be abstinent and tell them what not to do, but then give them alone time in a dimly lit room in the middle of the night with no place to sit but the bed and nothing to do but "watch movies," we are not giving them to opportunity to be virtuous. We are setting them up to fail. As much as children and teens rail against limitations, they need them and it is a parents duty to set them up. It is a parents duty to say, "I am helping you to be the best version of yourself."