11/22/2011 04:42 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2012

Parents, Teens and Sex: An Ongoing Conversation

When the good news surfaced last week that the birth rate of teenage girls had fallen substantially -- for the third year in a row -- to its lowest level ever, three reasons came immediately to mind.

One, fewer girls are having sex and those who are, are having it less frequently, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Two, methods of contraception are improving in variety, effectiveness and availability. Three, reliable information is more widely available in schools, health clinics and online.

Allow me to offer a fourth reason: Parents are gradually, albeit with reticence, having more frequent conversations with their children about sex. And teens are listening, even as they roll their eyes or argue over their latest choice of main squeeze.

If you find this last reason difficult to believe, consider: It is impossible that births would decline 44 percent between 1991 and 2010 and parents not have something to do with that.

A new book suggests ways in which parents can be particularly useful to teens. Entitled Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex, it is written by Amy Schalet, assistant professor of sociology at U-Mass.

Schalet, who has lived in the United States and the Netherlands, studied middle-class teens and their parents in both countries from the perspective of the adolescents' rights and responsibilities.

She was intrigued by why the teen pregnancy rate in Holland was considerably lower than the U.S. rate, even when taking family income and race into account. She concluded it was, in part, because Dutch parents "normalize" sex. More frequently than American parents, they discuss with their teens how a person knows when he or she is ready for sex, how sex should be with someone you know and love (or at least like a lot), and how contraception can be acquired and used.

By age 16 or 17, she writes,

(Dutch) youth are expected to possess an internal barometer with which they can pace their sexual progression within the context of trusting and loving relationships, and discern the point at which they are ready to move toward sexual intercourse.

American parents, she says, are, by comparison, dismissive of young love. They view sexual desire as

spurred by raging hormones that are easily out of control. Thus they consider sexual acts -- usually thought of in terms of intercourse -- as undesirable and dangerous during the teenage years.

As a result, American teens tend to sneak around and may find themselves ill-prepared to have sex safely, she says.

Schalet's most provocative observation is that when Dutch teens think they're ready to have sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend, their parents, some of them reluctantly, encourage the couple to do so at home. The parent-child connection that this implies helps insure the partners will act responsibly, she says.

Her concept of the sleepover is hardly revolutionary in certain Western European countries. I encountered it some years ago when I attended a German high school. The parents of one male classmate renovated a workshop in their back yard to become a bedroom for him and his girlfriend. A female friend regularly slept with her boyfriend at her house with her mother's approval. These situations, while novel to me, were treated with indifference by our crowd.

I'm pretty sure American parents aren't ready for sleepovers. But what they apparently are starting to do -- at least some are, and we can hope more will -- is talk to their kids about sex and love beginning in childhood and listen to what the kids have to say. Schalet's book may inspire these and other parents to either widen those conversations to include sexual desire, sexual boundaries, infatuation, love, intercourse and contraception, or help their teens find another trusted source as they learn to make good decisions for themselves.