I have spent many evenings in the garden, restaurants and pubs over the years talking to parents and parents to be about how they hope they will stay calm, not be too strict like their parents, respect their child's wants/desires even if they don't want to go to college or get the job they would love them to get. And given my job we have talked a lot about talking to their children about relationships and sex. All hope they will do it well and not be put off by inner talk that says 'what if other people think I am a bad parent for talking to my child about these things too early.'
I spent this weekend with friends and their two children and I got the taste of 'what will other people think and not feeling good enough'. Twice.
Once when the three year old started talking about 'weeing from his willy' and asking whether his mummy had a willy (he clearly knew she didn't but Daddy did). The people sitting on the table next to us were clearly disconcerted. I was torn between wanting to ask him to be quiet (for the adults sake) and letting the conversation roll (what he wanted).
My second experience was when the seven year old fell into a small river trying to get his football. I was ten seconds away. But another adult not part of our group was even closer. She helped him out of the river. When I got there (and I did run pretty damn fast) it was clear he was fine, the big grin on his face and the 'phew that was close' told me I didn't need to worry too much. Yet the tut of the adult who was closer told me different. The implication (drawn by myself) was that I should have been closer and that I was not being responsible. And so it was that I felt inadequate as a carer for a while. The logical part of me knows that wrapping children in cotton wool is not good for them, their personal development or their ability to understand, assess and manage risk. But logic had gone. It was the feeling that was so strong.
The parents in my group confirmed this was a pretty normal experience - the fear of what others may perceive of their parenting skills stopping them from responding intuitively at times.
So most would concur that parents do, at times, still worry about what other parents think when it comes to talking about contraception with their children. Yet the majority are really supportive of young people's rights to access services and contraception. So it is the perception not the reality that worries us.
A survey from the Department of Children, Schools and Families 'shows that only 4% of parents would feel anxious if they were to discover their 16-19 year old was carrying contraception, meanwhile 90% went on to say that they would actually want to talk openly to their teen as a result. Yet despite this overwhelming consensus, two in five teens still feel they need to be clandestine when it comes to carrying contraception.'
Leading teen agony aunt Anita Naik commented 'Parents are more savvy than ever before and teenagers should be really encouraged by this. Even just ten years ago I would have expected to a much higher percentage of parents to say they would be alarmed if they were to discover their teen carrying contraception and reluctant to talk about it. Far from being embarrassed, however, and as the statistics now show, the overwhelming majority of parents I encounter would be proud to find their teen taking responsibility for their sexual health and feel happy to talk to them further about the subject'.
And I agree with Naik that this progress is brilliant. We must however recognise that it is the gap between the perception, the rhetoric and the reality that will prevent conversations happening. If young people do not feel their parents will respond well, and parents do not feel they have support the conversations will not happen as much as they should. So we must all do everything we can to bridge that gap so parents and young people feel able to have the type of conversations they need to enable them to enjoy and take responsibility for their relationships and sexual choices.