A Hollywood teen celebrity reveals she's going to have a baby. An actress portrays a pregnant high school student in a small movie - a movie that quickly takes off at the box office. TV and magazines pick up the scent: Is a trend developing?
And - voila! - the cultural conversation is launched. Teen pregnancy is back in the news.
After more than a decade of decline in the country's teen pregnancy rate - and with fears of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases occupying parents' panicky thoughts about their kids and sex - it might have begun to seem that pregnancy was no longer the chief reason to have that little talk with your child.
But that is changing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the U.S. teen birthrate rose 3 percent from 2005 to 2006. Whether that figure indicates a shift in teens' attitudes, complacent parents relying too heavily on schools, a sex-crazed culture or all of the above is a complicated question. But consider the findings in a new survey conducted by Seventeen magazine and the Candie's Foundation: of 500 girls 13 to 18, 67 percent have friends who are or became pregnant as teenagers and nearly half think it might be possible they'll become pregnant in the next five years.
That little talk? How about now?
Parent coaches, sex educators, therapists and medical professionals say the discussion should be not only about sex but also about the baby that could result. Of course, many parents are already on the job. Some, however, are too uncomfortable to broach the subject, or too deep in denial to believe that their kids might be sexually active. Others fear that by talking it, they're giving their kids tacit permission to have sex.
The opposite is true, experts say.
"If you're conflicted and you're sending mixed messages, they won't know what their own values are," says Heather Simonson, a licensed social worker and director of training and education for Planned Parenthood of Nassau County.
Parents need to be prepared to have a very different conversation than their parents might have had with them.
"Our perceptions of sexuality have changed dramatically - our ideas about intimacy, what constitutes a relationship, what constitutes sex," says Logan Levkoff, a sex educator in Manhattan who specializes in parent-child communication and author of "Third Base Ain't What It Used to Be: What Kids Are Learning About Sex Today and How to Teach Them to Become Sexually Healthy Adults."
"If we don't do it as parents, we default to all the far less reputable sources to do it - TV, movies, their peers, the Internet - and there's no guarantee it's going to be accurate information."
Want your kids to listen? Lay off the lectures, experts say. Instead, use what's happening in the culture - with Jamie Lynn Spears, the hit movie "Juno," or something happening in your kids' school, for example - to create teachable moments.
"Use real-life situations," says Simonson. "Ask them what they think so you can find out what they already know about the topic."
Do your homework. Find reliable resources to educate yourself about sex and sexuality, including books, your pediatrician or family doctor and local agencies that specialize in sex education and teen pregnancy prevention.
Then, keep the conversation going - while you and your kids are having dinner, riding in the car or watching TV. And listen to what they say, correcting - when they finish talking - any myths or untruths you hear, she adds.
Depending on your child's age, find age-appropriate ways to talk to your kids, starting when they're young. You might talk to a younger child about their bodies and the differences between boys and girls. With preteens, 'tweens and older teens, the focus might be on making wise choices, avoiding risk-taking behavior and taking responsibility.
And give equal time to sons and daughters. "In our society, we still wink at the guys doing it," says Melanie Percy, a pediatric nurse practitioner specializing in adolescence and an assistant professor of nursing at New York University. "With girls, they fear they're more vulnerable so they have to talk to them about it. It's very unusual to hear a boy who's been taught he has a responsibility and he has to control his emotions as much as a girl."
Just what are some parents telling their sons about sex? "They've told me every once in a while to wrap it up and don't get her pregnant," says one 16-year-old male student at a Suffolk County high school.
The conversation can't stop there, says Gina Foster, a licensed clinical social worker in the Inwood office of Peninsula Counseling Center. "Do they even know what 'wrap it up' means? [It means: use a condom.] Or is somebody's daughter going to be an experiment gone awry?"
All kids need to hear the same messages from their parents, Foster says. "If you realize that you have a 12-year-old and 13-year-old of different sexes and you're treating them differently, that's a wake-up call."