Would YOU let your teenage daughter sleep with a boyfriend in your home
These middle-class mothers do. The alternatives, they insist, are even more worrying…
When Sarah Watts’s 16-year-old daughter Alicia asked if her boyfriend of three months could stay the night, she wasn’t outraged or upset. Instead, she responded in a way that would horrify many parents — she went out and bought Alicia a double bed so she could sleep with boyfriend Matt in comfort.
Now 17 and a sixth-former studying for A-levels, Alicia and Matt, an 18-year-old photographic student, spend many nights together under Sarah’s roof.
The arrangement is a far cry from the way Sarah, 46, conducted her own teenage relationships.
Trusting: Sarah Watts allows daughter Alicia to sleep with her boyfriend at her house and even bought them their own double bed
‘My father was very authoritarian and would never have let my boyfriends stay over,’ says the customer services advisor from Norwich. ‘But, like it or not, teenagers will have sex, and my father’s attitude meant I took all kinds of risks without my parents knowing — drinking too much and being rather cavalier about contraception.
‘With hindsight, I think I was rebelling against being told what to do and my parents not giving me the respect I felt I deserved as an emerging adult.
‘I want to know where my daughter is at night and who she’s with. Letting her boyfriend stay is the best way of ensuring her safety.’
According to a new book, Not Under My Roof, Sarah’s approach is a very sensible one.
Author and academic Amy Schalet argues that the reason the teenage pregnancy rate in the United States is eight times higher than the Netherlands is because Dutch parents adopt a far more liberal approach to adolescent sex, with two-thirds of those in Holland allowing their teenagers’ partners to sleep over.
‘In Dutch families there is an expectation that sex should take place in steady relationships in which both teens are in love,’ says Schalet. ‘Dutch parents don’t want teenage sex to be a secret. They want to stay connected with their teens and be able to exercise influence and provide support.’
'It's better to have an open
relationship with your children and discuss things, rather than lay down
the law about what they can and can't do'
As a nation, we have traditionally shared the U.S.’s ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach to our children’s sexual activity.
However, we also have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe — seven times greater than the Netherlands. But is Sarah’s very liberal approach the answer
‘Alicia is sensible: she doesn’t smoke or get drunk. But when she started going out with Matt, I knew I had a responsibility to talk to her about safe sex,’ says Sarah.
‘It was awkward because she didn’t really want to talk to me about it, and tried to brush it off, saying things like: “I’m not daft. I’m not going to get pregnant.”
‘But she went to the family planning clinic with Matt and has reassured me several times that they are taking sensible precautions.
‘Alicia has ten GCSEs, hopes to study English language at university and would like a career in the media. She wouldn’t put that in jeopardy by getting pregnant.’
Sarah has been divorced from Alicia’s father for six years and has an older daughter, Anna, 20, who moved out two years ago to live with her boyfriend. She has a close relationship with both daughters and would hate to think that they couldn’t confide in her.
‘It’s better to have an open relationship with your children and discuss things, rather than lay down the law about what they can and can’t do,’ says Sarah.
‘I know from experience that, whatever parents say, teenagers will have sex anyway, and I try not to think about what Alicia might be doing when Matt stays. What I wouldn’t want is her going out and meeting strange men or having unprotected sex.’
Alicia also spends a couple of nights at Matt’s parent’s home. But though they share a bedroom, Matt’s mother has asked that they do not have sex under her roof.
Boys allowed: Alexandra Fisher with mum Jane, who prefers her daughter to stay at her house with her boyfriend so she knows where she is
While most of Alicia’s friends are not allowed to have their boyfriends to stay, she argues that her mother’s approach means she takes less risks than her peers.
‘When Mum first said Matt could stay over about eight months ago, when I was still 16, some of my friends were jealous, and they couldn’t believe it when Mum bought us a double bed.
‘Other girls my age might lie and claim to be staying with friends so they can spend the night with a boy. It’s obviously safer if your Mum knows where you are at night.
‘Mine and Matt’s parents have shown they trust us and we want to keep that trust, so we would always use protection and respect their wishes.’
David Spellman, a consultant clinical psychologist working with teenagers and families in East Lancashire, believes mothers like Sarah are misguided if they think all teenagers are eager to have sex.
‘Not all 16-year-olds are the same. The rates of maturity and development can vary enormously,’ he says.
‘I can understand parents wanting to know where their teenagers are, but I don’t think it’s a convincing argument for allowing partners to sleep over.
‘It’s not right to assume that teenagers will have sex whether you allow it under your roof or not. Not all teenagers want to have sex early, so there might be a danger in making it too easy; it could encourage sex to happen sooner than it otherwise would.’
'I'm a good mother and a protective one. I wouldn't tolerate a different boyfriend every week'
Meanwhile, those who work with young people argue that teenagers feeling comfortable enough to be open with their parents about sexual matters is a key weapon in the battle to reduce sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy in this age group.
With recent figures revealing a quarter of all abortions in Britain are on teens — almost 60 per cent of whom confess to not always using contraception — some argue we need all the tools at our disposal.
Suzie Hayman, a counsellor and trustee with the parents’ advice charity Family Lives, says one key difference between teenagers here and in Holland is our children’s unwillingness to discuss sex with their parents.
‘In this country we still don’t have good sex education and most parents probably had very poor sex education themselves, so they don’t have a model for being able to talk about these issues comfortably,’ she says.
‘If you tell teenagers they’re not allowed to have sex under your roof, they will do it in secrecy and shame. And if you make it something they have got to hide, you increase the risk of it being dangerous sex.
Morning-after pill reliance: Many teens are not using contraception – is it because they can't be open about sex with their parents (posed by model)
‘If they know you don’t approve, that will make them less likely to use condoms or the Pill, as they will be worried you might find them.’
However, Suzie stresses the importance of impressing on teenagers that sex should be part of a loving relationship and cautions parents against allowing a string of boyfriends or girlfriends through your door.
‘Dutch boys are as comfortable talking about being in love with their partner as the girls, whereas British boys, whose sex education is often gleaned from pornography, are more likely to talk about making love in terms of notches on their bedposts,’ says Suzie.
Alexandra Fisher, 18, has been
allowed to have boyfriends stay over since she turned 16. There have
been five in total and each has been given a stern talking to by her
mother Jane, 40, about treating her daughter with respect and using
A-level student Alexandra broke the
news to her Mum two weeks after losing her virginity, aged 16, but Jane
says they have talked about preventing pregnancy and STIs since her
daughter was in her early teens.
‘Friends have been shocked when they
find out that I let Ally’s boyfriends stay over. But I tell them that
this way I always know where she is,’ says Jane, a beauty sales
‘I’m a good mother and a protective
one. I wouldn’t tolerate a different boyfriend every week, and if I get
the feeling she’s picked a rogue I can make it very uncomfortable for
him to be in my house.’
Current boyfriend Joe is at
university in Liverpool but stays with Alexandra and her family — mum
Jane, stepdad Rob, 30, a garden centre supervisor and brothers Michael,
17, and Nicholas, nine — in Hollyhead, Wales, a couple of times a month.
Jane was not allowed to sleep with boyfriends under her own parents’ roof, but would often go out on Friday nights and not return until Sunday — and her mother and father had no idea where, or with whom, she was.
Twenty-seven per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds admit to having been 15 or under when they lost their virginity
‘Parents can’t delude themselves,’ says Jane. ‘If you want to keep your child safe, then you need to know where they are.’
When the mother of one of Alexandra’s boyfriends asked her to go on the Pill, concerned that condoms were not sufficient to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, Alexandra refused, explaining that she didn’t want to put unnecessary chemicals into her body.
‘I think she was worried my daughter might try to trap her boy by getting pregnant, which is ridiculous,’ says Jane. ‘I told Alexandra that if his mum was so concerned, she should tell her son to take the male Pill.’
Whether taking a more liberal approach to teenage sex is a sensible progression or naively misguided is a matter of opinion. But Alexandra is in no doubt her mother has it right. ‘Mum doesn’t have to worry about me,’ she says. ‘I always insist on using condoms because it’s the safest way to protect against pregnancy and diseases.’
Norman Wells, of the Family Education Trust, however, argues that the Netherlands’ record on teenage pregnancies is less to do with an open attitude to sex and more about the Dutch valuing traditional family life.
‘The Netherlands has lower rates of divorce, lone parenthood and births outside marriage,’ he says. ‘Also, the fact that fewer mothers work full-time outside the home means that there are higher levels of supervision within the family, and there is more of a stigma attached to teenage motherhood in the Netherlands than there is in the UK.
‘Parents who allow their teenagers to share a bed with their boyfriend or girlfriend may imagine they are being very open and progressive, but in reality they are helping to break down the very boundaries children need.’
Psychologist David Spellman agrees, saying that although some teenagers may push boundaries, they still rely on their parents to make the right decisions for them.
‘Of course when parents say “No” their children will complain. But on some level, they also know they are being looked out for.
‘As parents we need to have the courage sometimes to take a position and let our children know we are not OK with certain things.’