Markkula Center of Applied Ethics


The birds and the bees meet kindness and courage.

By Miriam Schulman

"Son", I said to my 12-year-old the other day as I was driving him to his saxophone lesson, "do you want more information on how to prevent HIV infection and teen pregnancy?"

This was probably not the "teachable moment" described in "Talking with Kids About Tough Issues," a campaign sponsored by Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation. But my son is part of the prime demographic—10- to 12- year-olds—that the accompanying survey indicates is anxious for the straight scoop, and I did not want to shirk my parental responsibilities.

You don't know true condescension until you've become the parent of a 12-year-old. One eyebrow cocked, one nostril flared, one side of the mouth curled. My son was not snotty, just pitying. "Ah, no, Mom," he answered.

To be honest, I hadn't really expected to have "the talk" on the way to a music lesson. Rather, in my usual perverse way, I wanted to test my guess that the campaign's urgency was perhaps misplaced. According to the sponsors, we parents of pre-adolescents need to discuss sex and drugs more with our kids while they still want to use us as resources. By the time they get to be teenagers, the survey suggests, they prefer to get their information from peers and books.

The idea behind the "Talking to Kids" project is "to change the national mindset about how parents should talk to their kids," Matt James, senior vice president for the Kaiser Foundation, told the San Jose Mercury News. "Sure, kids can get the straightforward information from school or books, but what they need to hear is what their parents think and value."

There's an interesting assumption behind this comment one that strikes me as at least open to question and that is: Values must be taught explicitly in reference to sex or drugs. Since my son and many others in the 10- to 12-year-old set are not yet consumed by these obsessions, wouldn't it make more sense to impart our values in reference to issues that actually come up in the course of their everyday lives?

If I try to impress upon my son that I am a person—not merely the Mommy-function who removes his dirty socks from the middle of the family room—am I not, in part, instilling the value that people are not objects to be used at will?

When my husband and I don't allow him to buy CDs with parental advisories, aren't we also conveying the message that certain attitudes toward women expressed in this music are unacceptable? Does this have no application in a sexual context?

When my husband limits the time my son spends in company with the centurions and mages of the video screen, isn't he also expressing a principle of moderation that might translate to the consumption of alcohol? When we support the boy's natural cussed tendency not to do what everyone else is doing, won't this help him as he makes decisions about drugs?

I do not wish to trivialize the problem we face as a society that judgments about these "tough issues" are being pushed onto younger and younger children, whose general experience of the world ill-prepares them for mature decision making. Nor do I mean to deny that raging hormones and peer pressure make clearheadedness about these areas particularly hard.

But I don't think kids become different people as they confront sex and drugs. Indeed, irresponsibility around these issues is often presaged by out-of-bounds behavior in other contexts. For a cautionary tale, read Bernard Lefkowitz's Our Guys (Vintage Books, 1997), the story of a group of high school athletes who gang raped a retarded classmate. From Lefkowitz's investigation, it is clear the young men had been engaging in intimidation, vandalism, and other anti-social activities for years—and no one had stopped them because they were football stars. Lefkowitz suggests that their behavior might never have escalated into rape if the adults in their community had addressed their misconduct when it was still a matter of schoolyard bullying.

As youngsters mature, adults need to help them see the connections between how they treat people on the playground and how, eventually, they will treat people in the bedroom. They need to encourage children to draw on the same self-discipline they have developed for academic or extracurricular activities when they use alcohol or "say no" to drugs. If children have been taught to respect the dignity of others, to consider the consequences of their actions, to be kind and courageous this strikes me as our best chance to see responsible behavior in all contexts, including the tough ones.

Miriam Schulman is the editor of Issues in Ethics.