Ep 91: Not Under My Roof!

Amy Schalet, author of Not Under My Roof reveals the cultural underpinnings of teen sexual development. Amy and I discuss how a focus on achievement may leave teens feeling unsuccessful in intimate relationships later in life--and also what parents might try to better prepare their teens for connection.

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Full show notes

Every parent wants their teen to find love one day. But maybe not while the teen is under their roof! For teens in American, being sexually active is considered a health risk. While sex at any age can come with risk of disease, infection, or unwanted pregnancy, many parents avoid talking about it, preferring to dismiss any relationships formed in high school as temporary--maybe even a distraction to our teens success!

But are these well-intentioned efforts doing more harm than good? Certainly the chances of high school relationships lasting into adulthood are rather slim, but the consequences of denying that our teens are experiencing love and experimenting with sex are severe. The teen pregnancy birth rate in the US is around 19 per 1000 births--compare that to a country like the Netherlands who have a teen pregnancy rate of around 4.5 per 1000 births. With similar access to contraception as well as comparable economic advantages, what is it America is doing wrong when it comes to teenage relationships?

Amy Schalet, author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, offers our listeners a unique perspective this week: raised by American parents in the Netherlands, Schalet shares her personal, historical, and sociological insights from researching the two countries’ opposing approaches to teenage sexuality. Interestingly enough, this issue stems back to medicine, of all places.

In the United States, adolescent sex is viewed as a health risk. And the implications of that on American culture are incredibly strong. The fear and discomfort associated with perspective influences our culture, our upbringing, and our understanding of normalcy. And American parents use it to inform their household rules too. This often means no PDA, minimal conversations around sex, and certainly no sleepovers with adolescent partners. While such is quite normal in the United States, believe it or not, Holland approaches the matter differently altogether.

In the Netherlands, family physicians view adolescent sex and teenage sexuality as part of the developmental process. This involves open conversations about love, sex, and contraception in the doctor’s office and the classroom starting at a young age. And thus, parents follow suit. Instead of viewing teenage sexuality as uncomfortable and cringy, Dutch parents are incredibly more open to it. Culturally, adolescent relationships are acknowledged, upheld, and welcomed in Dutch households. And surprisingly, they have the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy in the Western world!

But does that mean American parents should start welcoming whoever their teen chooses over for a sleepover? Perhaps not. But it is worth considering how other cultures view teenage sexuality, and how American parents can take the lessons learned into their homes.

When I asked Amy Schalet more about the differing attitudes surrounding this topic between the two countries, she noted that the main difference has to do with parental control, and parents’ understanding of their adolescents’ ability to self-regulate.

American parents often prescribe limits for their children on things in general, ranging from candy and television time to the age they’re allowed to date, or even marry someone. Dutch parents, however, tend to view their adolescents as capable of self-regulation. Instead of approaching their teen’s partners as adversaries, Dutch parents understand teenage relationships in a more nuanced way. Since love is emphasized and expected in adolescents, parents are more inclined to include their teens’ partners in the family. And instead of imposing limits on their teen’s sexual development, they trust their teen to determine when they’re ready to have a relationship, and when they’re ready to have sex. Overall, when you expect young people to fall in love and you understand how important that is in their lives, you will approach sex differently with them.

Maybe you’re not quite ready to let your teen invite their partner for a sleepover. And maybe it’ll not ever be in the cards. Each of our upbringings and cultures shape how we raise our own, and it’s definitely hard to break our expectations and depart from established household rules. Still, there’s great wisdom in other cultures that can enhance our perspectives. Amy Schalet believes if anything, American parents should at least look at the stigmas surrounding sex for boys/girls in the United States, and how Dutch culture works to alleviate them.

In her research, Schalet found that teenage women in the United States face harsh repercussions for engaging in sex: they are slut-shamed, ostracized, and seen as lesser. And teenage women, fearing such repercussions, either abstain entirely, or isolate themselves and engage in sex anyway. This is a lose-lose situation for many teen girl/parent relationships. The same can be said about teenage boys. Reduced to their hormones, teenage boys are often shamed from expressing honest love for their partner. Instead of being acknowledged and supported in their search for love, they are only allowed to be tough, hormonal teenagers who seemingly cannot control their sexual urges. This is similarly damaging, Schalet finds. When boys and girls are only allowed to express their sexuality freely as adults, they have to unlearn decades worth of stereotypes and ingrained ideas about love. The Dutch culture, though not perfect, allows both teenage boys and girls more space and agency to develop their sexuality. And maybe American parents can integrate a thing or two to make their teens feel more comfortable with their journeys.

Instead of forcing their teens to choose between sexual intimacy and an honest familial relationship, Dutch parents allow their teen to enjoy both. Interestingly enough, Schalet says, this allows Dutch parents more control. By welcoming the teen’s partner into the family, the parents are able to influence both the teen and their partner to engage in familial rituals. Household rules too are more observed this way. Meanwhile, in the United States, teens often have to disconnect from their parents in order to have a sexual life. Driving it underground in this way inevitably hurts the teen/parent relationship.Despite cultural differences, it’s interesting to note: which is healthier for our teen? How can respect and comfort be maintained together?

When adolescence is all about becoming your own person, teens often are faced with either severing ties with their parents, or not fully becoming their own person altogether. And without telling parents how to handle their teen’s sexual relationships, Shalet does beg the question: what kind of new relationship do teens have to have with their parents to become a new person? And what kind of negotiation needs to exist so they can still have authentic relationships with themselves, their partner, and their parents? Ultimately, whatever conversation and agreement the teen and the parents can have will be better than the shame and secrecy without one.

Another important topic Schalet and I covered was the cat-and-mouse game that American teenagers play with their parents, and how it affects their development. Engaging in these risky behaviors are seen as rites of passage for American teenagers, but they’re not supposed to get caught. In effect, there is a great thrill in partaking in these rituals, but there is also great separation. It’s as if being a teenager and becoming their own person relies on disconnecting from one’s parents, and laughing about it all later. This cultural experience is not mirrored in the Netherlands. In fact, growing into adolescence pivots on the idea of gezellig: cozy-togetherness.

Schalet notes how gezellig is one of the most used words in the Dutch language, and one of the highest priorities in life. Being intimate with others and enjoying your time with them is thought to be one of the best experiences we can have to the Dutch: the reason we exist. And this is directly translated into parents’ understanding of teenage sexuality. For example, if one’s Dutch mother believes her son’s relationship is gezellig, then she will be comfortable allowing his partner to stay overnight at the house. Still, some teens don’t want gezellig to apply to their partners: like all teens, there always exists some degree of rebellion! The important thing is, the conversation is ongoing, the respect is mutual, and love is encouraged. Isn’t that what we want with our teens and for our teens?

Among these fascinating topics and thought-provoking questions, Amy Schalet and I discuss:
  • Hookup culture
  • Control and connection
  • Teenage relationships and their aspirations
  • More cultural comparisons between the U.S. and the Netherlands
Learn more about Amy Schalet’s cross-cultural insights and how they can help you build a stronger relationship with your teenager today!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Amy Schalet, PhD
Amy Schalet, PhD
Amy Schalet, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex.
Ep 91: Not Under My Roof!
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