Bristol Palin Proves It: Abstinence Education Is Unrealistic

Kids. Oh, the hopes and dreams we project onto them while awaiting their birth. He’ll be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who nevertheless inherits his mother’s love of poetry. She’ll be the first female president, with her father’s innate athleticism but hopefully not his cavity-prone teeth. Our kid will be the first child to read Proust before he walks, a veritable prodigy who’ll compose sonatas on her Playskool plastic piano to rival Mozart’s. The “miracle” of birth happens in all of its bloody glory, and even as our bundles of joy inflict countless nights of sleep deprivation torture on us, we somehow hold on to those dreams.


Then they learn to talk. To walk. To do the exact opposite of what we tell them — “No, Johnny. Don’t play in the cat’s litter box; that’s not candy, honey.” For what seems like yearsm the word “no” becomes their favorite:

“C’mon, Janey, eat your green beans. They’re good for you.”

“NO! No, no, no, NO!”

Just as their vocabularies expand beyond that one infuriating word they acquire all sorts of other, non-verbal ways to communicate the very same sentiment: the eye roll, the shoulder shrug, the loud sigh in response to whatever advice, encouragement, or admonishment that just came out of their parents’ mouths.

Somewhere in between we teach them the important stuff. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t wear skirts — or jeans — that show your underwear. Don’t leave your science fair project untouched until 11 the night before it’s due. Don’t leave the gas tank on empty after you’ve borrowed your parents’ car. Don’t drink. And don’t have sex before your married.

Yet even as we teach them these important life lessons and values, we know they’re bound to fail. That’s part of growing up. The toddler who listened wide-eyed as we explained why lying is wrong will, for once, stop saying “no” long enough to reassure us with jam-stained kisses that he would never, ever lie to his parents. But when Mommy finds her favorite vase broken in the room where he was playing ball — something he knows darned well he’s not supposed to do — he’ll claim innocence. “Then who did it?” his mother will ask, and the inevitable lie will be “I don’t know.”


The 14-year-old daughter who has been told a dozen times not to ever, ever wear mommy’s Jimmy Choo shoes will, most likely, be the very one teetering off to 8th grade homeroom wearing those insanely expensive heels at her first opportunity. Then, after spilling spaghetti on them in the cafeteria — and because she remembers the time she broke Mommy’s vase and her claim of ignorance didn’t keep her out of trouble — she’ll throw away said shoes rather than risk being confronted with the evidence of her theft.

This, too, is part of parenthood: knowing in advance that our children will not always follow our instructions and that part of their maturation process involves rebelling against our strictures and learning lessons on their own — and loving them before, during, and after all that happens. Even the best of parents know that, ultimately, their children will break at least once many of the rules they set down, and that it’s unrealistic to expect otherwise.

Janey will swear to us that she has no homework and then spend the evening in her room text-messaging her BFFs on her cell phone while IMing with the cute boy from science class until, just as they sign off shortly before 11, she decides it’s now time to tackle her science fair experiment on the replication of frog DNA, which is due tomorrow morning and OhgoshMomandDadyoujusthavetohelpmefindafrogRIGHTNOW!

Tommy will return from his senior dance smelling faintly of vodka and Hi-C and, despite being utterly incapable of standing upright or speaking without a slur, he’ll swear he didn’t drink right up until the point where he barfs all over the bathroom and keeps barfing, wretchedly and with such force that we no longer have to wonder whether the chewing gum he swallowed in sixth grade will stay in his stomach until his early 20s. As we help him stumble bleary-eyed and green-skinned into his bed, which we assure him is not spinning, we realize with sadness that he not only disregarded our rules about drinking but about lying as well.


No, there’s not a parent alive who looks forward to those times when our children confirm our late night fears, when they become so headstrong and independent that they disregard our teachings, break our rules, and do the very things we wished most they’d never do. But every parent knows it’s possible — indeed some admit in the deepest corners of their hearts that it’s in fact quite likely to happen — and that it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. These little creatures to whom we gave birth do, after all, develop their own personalities and wills. The whole purpose of their childhood is to help them grow up into independent-thinking individuals able to make their own decisions, run their own lives, and eventually raise their own children.

When I, a parent of a 17-year-old daughter due to graduate from high school this May, originally read about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy during the presidential campaign, I shared the same sense of indignant outrage expressed by many upon hearing the news. Why on earth is a girl that age having sex, particularly when she was raised by a mother who staunchly supports abstinence-only education? Didn’t she listen?

Yes, I’ll admit my first reaction upon learning of a pregnant teenage girl is to think that it really should be that simple: telling one’s child “don’t have sex until you’re married” should be enough. Never mind the whole virginity pledge thing; explaining the risk of STDs, AIDs and teenage pregnancy should be sufficient rationale. And, just in case it isn’t, then the threat of an angry parent with “a 12-gauge double-aught buckshot” should be enough incentive for teens to “keep their britches on.” And yet, obviously, it isn’t. The Bristol Palins and Jamie Lynn Spears are proof enough that “just say no” doesn’t always sink in.


After giving birth in late December, Bristol Palin went on CNN to talk about how the daughter of an abstinence-only supporter became an unwed teenage mother. No, she told Greta Van Susteren, it wasn’t that she was lazy about contraception, nor did she have religious or personal objections to its use. She got pregnant because she had sex, and she had sex because that’s what she decided to do. Or, in her own words, because her parents’ instructions to abstain from having sex is “not realistic at all.”

Sure, we can warn teens about the dangers of unmarried sex. We can point to Bristol Palin and say, “Look, even she’s acknowledged that getting knocked up isn’t fun or glamorous” no matter what the Gloucester 17 girls thought it would be. We can grab sticky tape, as Eric Love of the East Texas Abstinence Program did, and use it as a metaphor for what teenage sex will do to their future marriage:

To make the point, Mr. Love grabbed a tape dispenser and snapped off two fresh pieces. He slapped them to his filing cabinet and the floor; they trapped dirt, lint, a small metal bolt. “Now when it comes time for them to get married, the marriage pulls apart so easily,” he said, trying to unite the grimy strips. “Why? Because they gave the stickiness away.

Such object lessons sound persuasive, even witty, in the confines of a classroom where students already know that nodding and pretending to agree makes the lecture shorter and the day go faster. But beyond school doors waits a world which proves how simplistic — and futile — our talk is. The lessons to be drawn from two pieces of lint-covered tape are drowned out by what teens see enacted on The O.C. or The Hills, television shows that are part of the teenage media diet linked with teen pregnancy.


We, as parents, can pat ourselves on the back for cleverly demonstrating the perils of putting out, or we can pay attention to the reality of our teenagers’ lives:

  • Nearly half (46%) of all 15-19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once.
  • By the time they reach age 19, seven in 10 teens have engaged in sexual intercourse.

That’s the irony behind the abstinence-only approach: Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears, the Gloucester 17 … they’re all part of that shocking 46 percent of 15-19-year-olds who are having sex even as they’re receiving abstinence-only education under an unprecedented $176 million in federal funding.

If there is one lesson that we, as parents, should learn from our children it’s that despite our best intentions, despite our instructions and admonishments, they aren’t always going to obey. We begin learning this when they’re toddlers who, after being told to stay out of the cookie jar so they don’t spoil their dinner, head straight for it the instant Mommy or Daddy’s back is turned. We are reminded of it when we tell them not to use foul language, then find ourselves in the principal’s office, red-faced and embarrassed, because our kid was caught scrawling vulgar epithets on a bathroom wall about another kid at school.

Kids screw up. That’s part of being kids. And a sad fact in today’s world is that, despite whatever we tell them, kids are also screwing around.


Telling a teenager that abstinence is the only acceptable approach denies the reality of the world they’re living in, just as it denies the reality of our own experience: children don’t always listen.  The only thing that an abstinence-only approach gives us is the cold comfort of reminding ourselves we taught them better.

Except, obviously, we did not.


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