My son Enrique slammed his backpack on the floor as he walked in the door from school one day in January. When I asked what was going on, he snapped, "You can't tell me I can't date Tom!"
Enrique was 14. He had come out at school a few months beforehand and had been speed-dating middle school boys that fall. "Dating" mostly meant texting or going to a movie. The turnover of boyfriends seemed innocent, and I was amazed that Enrique could be openly gay in middle school.
But Tom was different: he was in high school, and 17. I had received a text earlier that day from Carlos, a friend of the family and a big brother figure to Enrique, telling me that Enrique was "messing around" with Tom. Apparently they had "made out" in a local park. Carlos told Enrique that Tom was too old for him, and that he was "not allowed" to date Tom. Enrique assumed that his dads (my partner and I) would agree with Carlos' verdict.
Here I was, faced with an angry son, wanting to find his way to intimacy, acting cocky and choosing the local park. I was afraid for his safety and the safety of the other boy -- a young gay man had been attacked and killed in that park several years before. How was I supposed to find the right solution to such a volatile situation?
I thought about the research of my friend and colleague Amy Schalet, whose studies of parents' attitudes about teen sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands are well known. Her new book, Not Under My Roof, draws this work together, pointing to the unfortunate ironies of U.S. parents' assumptions about teen sexuality: that teens are unable to control their raging hormones or fall in love, and that parents should draw a firm line against teen sex, which often results in conflict between parents and teens. These ironies contribute to the sexual health crisis among U.S. teens compared to teens in other countries. In the Netherlands, parents aim to get to know their children's boyfriends and girlfriends. Teens are most likely to have sex for the first time after spending several nights with their partner in their bed at home. To most American parents, this approach probably sounds outrageous. But for my partner and me, getting to know who our son was dating was our top priority.
To find out what was going on with Enrique, we called a family meeting. We sat with our son as he fumed at us, his arms crossed in defiance. Enrique told us that he went to the park with Tom, and that they had made out. He rolled his eyes at our concern for his judgment and safety, and our concern that this behavior was different from his other relationships -- and very risky. Enrique was unmoved. He told us that Carlos said he could not date Tom, and that we couldn't stop him.
I replied, "What makes you think we agree with Carlos? If Tom makes you happy, and you can make good choices, why would we not want you to date him? If he is kind to you, why wouldn't we let you date him?"
Enrique replied: "What if I want to be alone with him? You can't tell me I can't have sex with him."
Enrique is used to my attempts to bring up research on adolescence in conversation with him, and I am used to seeing his eyes roll in response. But I told him about Schalet's research. We told him, "Bring Tom over. Have dinner with us. Watch some television. Hold his hand. Get to know him. And after that, if you want to kiss him, fine. And after the third or fourth time you are together, and you still like him, you can be alone in your room."
Enrique was shocked. And I think the wind was taken out of his sails -- he was not expecting permission, even if it did come with some parental scaffolding.
We had similar discussions the next few evenings. It turned out that Tom wasn't so great after all. And to our surprise, the speed-dating ended and hasn't resumed. Enrique is 16 now, and says he's "waiting."
As a scholar of adolescence, I know what the research says about the well-being of American teens; as a parent, I'm primarily concerned about the well-being of one particular teen: my son. The "not under my roof" response is deeply misguided and is likely to raise the very risks that it seeks to prevent. In Not Under My Roof, Schalet argues that we must overcome our knee-jerk, fear-based reactions to teen sexuality so that we can stay connected to our children and help guide them. Her new book helps us do that.