Parents are the first teachers. They have strong influence because of the special parent-child bond and the fact that they spend more time with their child than any single teacher.
Parents teach values through their words and actions. Ideally, they foster and encourage curiosity. They teach special skills like baking cookies or catching a baseball, and enrich their children's lives with their own love of gardening or reading.
Most parents do this automatically, remembering their own parents as teachers. Or they pick ideas up from other parents, parenting books, or the Internet.
One area many, if not most, parents need help with is "the talk."
In days of old the topic of sex was avoided until first menses when mother taught her daughter about sanitary napkins and warned her that because she could now get pregnant, she darn well better be a good girl. At obvious signs of puberty in a son, the father explained what being a man meant, usually focusing on venereal diseases.
It's a new world out there. Talking with children about sex must start much earlier and be initiated by the parent if the child does not ask about where babies come from. See www.parentkidsright.com/html/sexed.html .
The goals of sexuality education at home? Teach your child you are an "askable parent." Talk about the risks of early pregnancy and venereal diseases. Get across this dichotomy: Sex is pleasurable, especially in a committed relationship when you are a grown-up, but sex in the teen years can actually destroy your life. Before your child is a teen talk to both sons and daughters about rape and be sure they realize how hideous a violation it is. Today's youth must also learn about "video rape"- posting pictures on the Internet that the victim would not want posted.
And, alas, the talk must expand to include other topics that teach the child about how to avoid the dangers of growing up in today's world. These topics include alcohol, drugs, tobacco and distracted driving.
One quarter of those between 12 and 20 reported drinking within the previous month. Parents or other adults supplied booze to more than 25 percent of underage drinkers. MADD research finds that children and adolescents who drink do worse at school, are more apt to get pregnant or cause a pregnancy, and more likely to become alcoholic. The good news is that frank, ongoing conversations with caring parents can prevent or reverse early drinking. The bad news is that 30 percent of homicides and 14 percent of suicides in underage youths are alcohol- related, and 9 percent of teen alcohol fatalities are due to alcohol poisoning, which means ingesting a helluva lot.
Drug use continues to be a problem in teens. Marijuana leads the list, but the scary thing is that teens increasingly obtain and abuse prescription drugs; 24 percent of teens admit to this, a 33 percent increase since 2008. Twenty-seven percent of teens queried believe taking a prescription drug to get high is safer than using street drugs, and so do one out of six parents.
Painkillers lead the pack, but abuse of Ritalin and other drugs used to treat ADHD abuse is becoming more common.
Sad: Close to one-third of parents agree with the statement that Ritalin can improve school performance even in non-ADHD kids. Sadder: Twenty percent of parents said they gave prescription medicine to their teen though the prescription was not written for the teen. Saddest: Prescription drugs obtained illegally or found in Mom and Dad's medicine cabinet kill more teens than heroin and cocaine.
Rates of teen smoking have decreased to an all-time low. But cigarette smoking is associated with poor school performance and illegal drug use. And tobacco is an addictive substance with dire downstream effects like lung cancer and emphysema.
Don't smoke or expose children to smoke, and emphasize not only the dangers of cigarettes but how smoking yellows the teeth and gives you bad breath.
Learning to drive and getting a driver's license are rites of passage for virtually all American teens. And teens are doing something right, as fatalities related to teen driving have dropped. But nearly half of teen drivers do not wear seat belts and one-third text or email while driving. Parents: Always buckle up yourself and refrain from texting while driving. This not only models responsible behavior but helps keep you alive to parent your kids.
In addition to starting "the talk" early and including all these topics, dialogue about these dangers must be ongoing. And long before the talk, parents should start teaching young children the three "R's." These are respect for self and others (and the planet), responsibility for oneself and one's actions, and the ability to reason so the child learns how to think through decisions. (www.parentkidsright.com/html/pt2.html)
Children who have mastered the three R's can reason how to avoid peer pressure, grasp the anguish that an accident due to a stupid choice will cause, and understand they and only they are responsible for a stupid decision.
But learning this takes time, time to have many dialogues with informed parents who not only answer questions but also initiate the right kind of discussions.
Don't preach. Instead, talk together, which means involving your children by asking them questions and answering their questions.
Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com for a professional, personal, and private answer to your questions.