06/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sisterhood of the Maternity Pants

Is it mere coincidence that Jamie Lynn Spears, the 17-year-old actor and sister of Britney, had her baby on Thursday, just one day after Time magazine reported a "pregnancy boom" at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts? Some might say that coincidence is God's way of getting our attention. There certainly is a common thread in these stories that we should think hard about and address.

Now, I am not among those who will quickly condemn Jamie Lynn or any of the pregnant young women in Gloucester. I am not among those will dismiss all of this as yet another product of a sinful culture, further evidence of the decline of morality. Nevertheless, it is difficult for this minister and sexologist not to wonder along with many, "What were they thinking?"

Time reports that as many as 17 young women in Gloucester had formed a pact to get pregnant together and support each other when they have babies. It seems that all were having sex with men in their twenties who were not their boyfriends. Surely in today's world, somewhere along the line, these young women had to know that unprotected sex was not a good idea that having a child as a teenager would change their lives forever. It's easy to be glib and assume they weren't thinking about the consequences or their futures.

Or perhaps they were. If what we know from national research holds true in Gloucester, these girls probably came from homes where there was little discussion about sexuality. I'm guessing some of these girls came from homes with too little supervision and a permissive atmosphere, where they learned that teen sex wasn't such a big deal. Conversely, some may have come from homes that were too strict, where they felt disconnected from their own family and sought to create their own. No doubt they were thinking like early adolescents: concentrating on what would be fun about new babies, baby showers, extra attention, and someone who would love them unconditionally. The need for love may be their most immediate and urgent need.

Perhaps no one ever told them that the possibilities for their longer-term futures -- including love, family, education and prosperity -- are much greater if only they would delay motherhood until their twenties or later. Sadly, though, as one of their classmates said, these young women chose pregnancy because "no one's offered them a better option." Perhaps their parents did not understand the importance of talking with their children about sexuality, offering their values, and helping them understand how to set sexual limits.

How might we as a society respond to these stories? I hope our first response is one of compassion, not judgment. For the young women in Gloucester, I hope the community will be there to help them and their children. It is time for the school board in Gloucester to stop arguing about contraceptive services at the school health clinics, and assure that the school offers sexuality education that includes not only abstinence and contraception, but help in making healthy sexual decisions and preparing for the future.

For the rest of us, the message in these stories is that we must be prepared -- as parents, educators and clergy -- to talk openly and honestly about sexuality with our 'tween and teen children. We must explicitly share our values about when sexual intercourse is appropriate (after high school, in a committed relationship, when engaged, only after marriage, whatever your values may be).

The research on this is clear -- when parents talk explicitly about sexuality, share their values, set limits on dating behavior, and offer unconditional love, teenagers respond. They either delay sexual activity altogether, or they use contraception when they do become sexually active. (I have written more about this in my books Beyond the Big Talk and What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know.)

My advice to parents is simply this: Start tonight's dinner conversation by asking your teens if they have heard about Ms. Spears and the "pregnancy pact." Ask them what they think. Listen. Share your values and hopes for them. Tell them you love them and are there for them, and that their lives will be easier, better, if they wait to become parents until they are adults.

It's not a complicated discussion. We'll be having it at my dinner table tonight. I hope millions of American families will be doing the same.