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Attention Parents: Back-to-School 101

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The new school year is well underway, which means that millions of 14-year-old girls
around the country have started their freshman year of high school. If your daughter is
one of them, you may have attended a school open house and familiarized yourself with
her class schedule. Already watched Gossip Girl reruns and read up on the revamped Beverly Hills, 90210? Even better. Still, you need to do more if you really want to understand your daughter's upcoming life. If Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's announcement about her 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy tells us anything, it's that no teen is immune to the pressures and problems of adolescence, even those from high-profile political families.

High school will be a whole new world for your daughter, with new classes and teachers,
plus a changing social scene where partying, drinking, and hooking up may seem suddenly expected of her. You--her parents--can help her safely navigate all of it.

We know this world because we recently spent over two years talking with teens about
their high school experiences for our nonfiction book, Restless Virgins. Today, social pressures can be extreme, especially around sexual activity, especially for girls your
daughter's age. Some of her classmates have never been kissed, some have already had
sex, and others hook up casually, often without commitment. This year, the Centers for
Disease Control released data confirming our findings: Nearly half of teens are sexually
active; teenage condom use has decreased since 2003; one in four young women between
the ages of 14 and 19 has at least one of the most common STDs. It may be difficult to
imagine your daughter as one of these statistics, but this is high school, and even if she's
not engaging in these behaviors, her friends and classmates are.

Annie, one of the girls we interviewed, had always dreamed of having a boyfriend
who would love and respect her. But when she entered high school, guys she liked
didn't like her back, so she settled for casual hookups with Scott, who liked Annie more for her body than anything else. Still, having Scott was better than having no one at all.

Annie's parents didn't know that she snuck out of the house at night to meet
Scott. You, however, can bridge this gap. To your daughter, casual hook ups may seem
fun and empowering, and she may want to treat sex like guys do (at least stereotypically)--without commitment or intimacy. It's your job to help her ask the following question: Are these behaviors really empowering?

We think society has given your daughter some confusing messages. She has been
told since she was a little girl that she can became anything she wants--a politician like
Nancy Pelosi or an established writer like J.K. Rowling. At the same time, she has been
told she must be pretty, well-dressed, thin (not too thin), and sexy (not slutty) to
succeed.

In other words, she must be perfect, and being perfect can mean being sexually
experienced, too.

Think about it: your daughter is bombarded by pop icons like Jamie Lynn Spears,
Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan. But with Jamie Lynn's pregnancy (at 16), Paris's sex
video (filmed at 19), and Lindsay's rehab (at 20)--and considering their questionable
talents--these girls are hardly role models at all. Plus, she's growing up in a culture that's
saturated with sex and immediate gratification. To top it all off, she's about to start high
school; even if your daughter is confident, popularity matters and boys often rule.
Annie thought that casually hooking up with Scott would make her happy and
validated, but years later, she cried as she remembered how he'd used her without
committing to her. Yet there was a silver lining: Annie finally knew she deserved better.

Your daughter has many decisions to took look forward to over the next four
years, and we hope she'll make them for herself, without getting swayed by the Scotts of
the world. You can help her do that. Nearly all of the students we interviewed said they
wished their parents had talked with them more about high school life. Even if your
daughter rolls her eyes, know that she secretly wants to hear what you have to say.
"Wear a condom" and "don't drink" are obvious places to start, but be sure to discuss the
physical and emotional consequences of their actions. Most of all, listen.

Freshman year is just around the corner, so take your daughter shopping for school
supplies and help her pick out her first-day outfit. She's about to enter a new world of
high school where she'll have the chance to have it all. Just make sure she doesn't
mistake having it all for having to do it all.

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