The Birds and the Bees: An Analysis of Advice Given to Parents through the Popular Press

By Simanski, Julia Weeks | Adolescence, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Birds and the Bees: An Analysis of Advice Given to Parents through the Popular Press

Simanski, Julia Weeks, Adolescence


There is a growing need for parents to communicate with their adolescents about sexuality, as teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. Many parents indicate that they lack information and feel uncomfortable communicating with their children about sex. The popular press regularly publishes articles on parenting issues, including how to discuss sex. In this study, 26 articles from 1984 to 1993 were reviewed, and the tone, quality of information, and advice given to parents on how to communicate were analyzed. The articles reflected current research regarding parent-child sexual communication and provided much more detailed advice about how best to approach the topic with an adolescent. However, readership seemed to be primarily white and mothers in traditional families, and little advice was offered on how to handle more difficult issues, such as contraception and AIDS. The findings suggest that the popular press could serve as an informational vehicle for educating both youth and parents about sexuality and how to have productive discussions regarding this issue.

The need for sexuality education among American youth has not diminished. According to recent statistics, 1.1 million teenagers become pregnant every year; the incidence of AIDS cases among persons aged 13 to 24 increased by seventy-five percent between 1989 and 1990; and approximately three million teens are infected with a sexually transmitted disease annually (Schroeder, 1992). Clearly, such problems have necessitated families to be more concerned about educating their children about sex.

This paper presents the results of a review of the research on the incidence and process of sexual communication between parents and adolescents. In addition, since many parents receive much of their parenting information from the media, particularly magazines, the messages being sent to parents via the popular press about parent-child sexual communication are analyzed. Finally, the implications of the information provided by the popular press and what steps can be taken to improve sexual communication within families are explored.


Studies have indicated that few parents adequately educate their children about sex. Despite their reticence, most parents express the desire to openly communicate about sex with their children. Moreover, parents feel they should be the primary providers of sexual information (Mueller & Powers, 1990). However, only about 15% of adolescents cite their parents as a major source of sexual information. Parents often feel inhibited and embarrassed when talking about sex and have also indicated that they lack accurate information (Brock & Jennings, 1993). In fact, Reinisch (1990) has contended that the average person is still poorly informed and unable to communicate fully about sexuality. Parents feel especially inadequate discussing the issue of AIDS (Croft & Asmussen, 1992).

Clearly, both teens and parents find talking about sex to be difficult (Rozema, 1986). In addition, an adolescent's sexuality may be threatening to adults, who may not have resolved their own sexuality issues. The sexual "coming of age" of a child may be perceived as a family developmental crisis (Baldwin & Baranoski, 1990). If the family is unable to deal with the crisis, high levels of anxiety may cause communication to be blocked (White & DeBlassie, 1992). Interestingly, even in homes where sex is discussed, communication diminishes as the child gets older.

Because of parental reluctance, discussion of certain sexual issues may be delayed until early adolescence. The timing is typically too late, as many teens have already turned to peers for information. Hence, the effectiveness of sex education by parents is limited (Koblinsky & Atchinson, 1982).

Not only are parents reluctant to communicate verbally with adolescents about sex, but they may also send nonverbal messages that discourage open communication.

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The Birds and the Bees: An Analysis of Advice Given to Parents through the Popular Press


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