Not my teen

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Researcher says parents believe other teens have sex, but not theirs

Carole Bullard considers herself open-minded when it comes to dealing with the sexuality of her teen son and her almost teenage one.

She and her husband, Roger, have age-appropriate talks with their sons, ages 17 and 12. And though she believes the older boy and his girlfriend have not had sex, she's realistic that they might.

RALEIGH, N.C. -

Carole Bullard considers herself open-minded when it comes to dealing with the sexuality of her teen son and her almost teenage one.

She and her husband, Roger, have age-appropriate talks with their sons, ages 17 and 12. And though she believes the older boy and his girlfriend have not had sex, she's realistic that they might.

"Do I want them having sex? No," said Bullard, 42, of Cary. "I've told them I'm not going to be a grandparent until I'm 60."

At least the Bullards are aware that their children are interested in sex. The research of Sinikka Elliott indicates they may be an anomaly. The assistant sociology professor at North Carolina State University says she's found that parents believe other teens are having sex - and lots of it.

But their sweet, fresh-faced babies? No way. Especially the boys.

"With boys, I found that parents described their own sons as young, naive, immature," said Elliott. "What I think they were doing was illustrating to me they're not really like these other boys."

As for daughters, the whole "good girl/bad girl" stereotype was handy. "My daughter's not like that," the parents told Elliott. "But I do know there are girls out there who are like that."

In other words, the parents hold seemingly contradictory thoughts about teens and sex: everyone else's kids are hypersexual, but theirs are way too innocent to even be interested.

For example, Elliott interviewed one mother who had, in the past few years, caught her 16-year-old son smoking dope, drinking alcohol and watching porn and told Elliott that she believes her son is a virgin.

Along the way, she said, the parents perpetuate stereotypes of girls as aggressively looking to trap a boy, and boys who are "out for one thing."

Elliott, who interviewed 47 parents in Austin, Texas, then another 18 fathers in the Raleigh area, is a qualitative researcher, meaning she interviews a few people in-depth. That means her research doesn't necessarily represent a wide cross-section of parents, so she can't conclude that most parents share the perceptions of the ones she interviewed.

"I don't think all parents are thinking this way, but I think this group of parents is thinking this way," she says, calling the issue worth further study. "And I think it can tell us something important about how we're treating daily life and talking about teenagers and sex within society itself."

Elliott wrote an article based on her research for the May issue of the journal Symbolic Interaction and has another in the August issue of the journal Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning. And New York University Press next year will publish her book titled "Not My Kid: Parents and Teen Sexuality."

Bullard's husband, Roger, 43, says he doesn't have a problem thinking about his sons as sexual beings, although he thinks his wife does "because it's her babies having sex with somebody. ... I don't have a problem with it. My problem is I want them to do it at the right time or do it later in life."

Despite the family's many frank discussions - Carole Bullard says she and Roger "have more blunt conversations with them than they would prefer" - she's not sure her oldest son will tell her when he has sex for the first time.

"What kids will share nowadays and what they want to keep private is bizarre," she says. "They'll put anything out on Facebook or Twitter. But when it comes to having an intimate conversation with their parents, it just grosses them out."

Writer Betsy Flagler of Davidson, whose syndicated parenting column appears in 30 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, says she's not surprised parents aren't dealing with teen sexuality.

"Teenagers are so easily embarrassed by their parents," Flagler says. "To keep the peace, parents tiptoe around everything from eating habits to Facebook friends. So naturally they're in denial about how early their kids are engaging in sex. The mindset, at least in the South, is: if you don't talk about it with your kids and your friends, it's not happening. Everything is fine, just fine."

While she hasn't researched this part, Elliott also speculates teens are complicit in their parents' head-in-the-sand mentality. As part of the research, she asked parents what they had told their children about dating, puberty, and sex and sexuality.

"And basically, the parents would say, we have tried to talk with him or her, but the teen says, 'Eww ... Mom, I don't need to hear this information. I'm not doing anything,"' she said. "So I think that the teenagers are actively presenting themselves to their parents as asexual."

Elliott, the mother of a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, isn't judging these parents - instead, she's empathizing. "We talk a lot about sex in my household," she says. "But I think I'm still ambivalent about them having sex. I think it's hard not to be as a parent in this culture."

Although she will draw conclusions about what parents are teaching children about sex, Elliott isn't ready to say what they should teach their children. She's not that kind of researcher, and she's not that kind of parent.

"I don't feel confident enough to say, 'This is what we must do,"' she says. "I think that what I found might spark a dialogue that makes parents, educators and policymakers go, why are we thinking about teens and sex in such negative ways? We're giving parents and teenagers a real fatalistic view about any kind of teen sexual activity."

Organizations: North Carolina State University, New York University Press, Bullard's

Geographic location: RALEIGH, N.C., Cary, Austin, Texas Raleigh U.S. Canada

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