A girl, trying to impress her new boyfriend, snaps a naked photo of herself and texts it to him. A few weeks later, they break up, and he forwards the photo to another girl who used to be friendly with the first girl, but not anymore. That new recipient then forwards the photo to every single person on her contact list, and the picture, originally meant for the eyes of one boy only, is sent to hundreds, perhaps thousands of other students. Law enforcement is summoned, criminal charges are considered, lives are changed, and reputations are damaged with repercussions that can last a lifetime.
This is a true story, as told on the front page of the New York Times on Sunday, March 27. It happened in the state of Washington, in a suburb of Olympia, the capital, but the scary thing is that it could have happened anywhere. Even scarier? All the kids involved were in middle school, eighth grade, and the major players were only 14 years old.
“Kids today are influenced by social media such as Facebook and YouTube, pop music, TV shows, movies, and celebrities in the news, as well as their peers. We want our kids to feel confident in making decisions based on family values and open conversations in their homes,” says Ellen Burgess, a guidance counselor at Community Middle School in Plainsboro, who acknowledges that middle school children experience a wide range of physical and emotional changes and challenges. This is magnified by the fact that they are growing up wired, online, and plugged in, with easy access to pornography and other graphic content on the Internet.
Add to the mix cyberbullying, which put the West Windsor Plainsboro School District in the international spotlight last year when Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate, a WW-P graduate, allegedly posted a secretly recorded video of Clementi’s private moments online. For parents it can be alarming to observe the speed and ease with which a child can get into trouble as a result of a bad decision, especially in situations where sex and technology converge.
‘Parents navigating the choppy waters of adolescence need to be helpful and sensitive and at the same time, provide discipline, structure, and guidance,” says Colleen Pedersen, another CMS guidance counselor.
To help parents address the challenges of raising kids in a hyper-technologized world, the CMS guidance department presents “Yikes! Kids Are Doing WHAT?!,” a lecture and discussion by Elizabeth Casparian, executive director of HiTOPS Adolescent Health and Education Center in Princeton, Thursday, April 7, 7 to 9 p.m., in the Commons at Community Middle School, 55 Grovers Mill Road in Plainsboro.
Casparian’s talk will focus on what “normal” adolescent behavior and development looks like. “The time to start helping our children communicate is in middle school when the most pertinent issues are about their relationships with their peers,” says Casparian. “So much in middle school is about things like who is popular and who is not, but it’s important to begin working with kids on these concepts because these kinds of issues are precursors to bigger issues like relationships and peer pressure that happens later.”
Casparian is one of the pre-eminent sex educators in the country, highly sought after for her expertise on adolescents and sexuality, and admired for her ability to talk frankly about a subject with young people that would make many a parent blush. HiTOPS, on the corner of Wiggins and Tulane streets in Princeton, was established in 1987 as a grassroots response to the need for accessible sex education and healthcare for young people. It has since grown into an internationally recognized organization that serves as a model for other youth programs. Experts from HiTOPS, both adult professionals and the students who comprise HiTOPS’ Teen Council, conduct educational programs in schools and also provide wellness and prevention services to thousands of youth. It is the only health center in the state that focuses exclusively on adolescents. HiTOPS also provides support services to gay and lesbian youth and to fragile youth populations, including survivors of sexual assault.
Casparian plans to cover a wide scope of adolescent issues in her April 7 program in Plainsboro. She says one of the biggest issues today is bullying, and whether it is your own child being bullied or bullying others, it is a serious problem, especially when it overlaps into the area of sexuality at a time when children are just starting to become aware of their own bodies changing and are beginning to think about relationships.
“One of the most common ways adolescents bully each other is to call one another gay,” says Casparian. “It’s considered one of the worst insults we can call someone. And if you don’t go along with the homophobia, you get called gay too. And even if kids are not truly homophobic, they may say ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘he’s so gay,’ and then say ‘I didn’t mean anything by it.’ But it perpetuates an ongoing belief that it’s okay to use gay as a discriminatory term. We live in an environment where there is so much violence against those perceived as different, there’s a real need for kids to have explicit education.”
Casparian says that part of the problem is that in well-educated communities, there are people who have strong beliefs on both sides about sexual orientation. “There are those who believe that sexual orientation is a choice and that choosing to be gay is blasphemous and wrong. If you grow up in an environment where there is a strong cultural value against homosexuality, that is hard to counter. How are you going to learn that what you’re doing or saying isn’t going to be hurtful?”
The WW-P school district has had a policy and corresponding regulation in place for many years that acknowledges that many hate crimes are committed by children who are often motivated by ignorance as much as by hate, or by the desire to attract attention to themselves with something they consider a prank, without any actual harm or malice intended. Casparian regards the Tyler Clementi tragedy as an opportunity for all school districts to provide better education, to conduct more diversity and sensitivity training, and create more situations for kids to learn, understand, and talk about being good citizens. “We can explain what sexual orientation is in general, and explain that it is not a choice. It’s a part of who people are, and we need to recognize that it’s like having brown eyes or black hair, and they can’t choose what to do or be. So it’s about making it a public health statement, not a moral statement,” says Casparian.
In some households, though, anxious parents have something even more pressing on their minds than bullying or their child’s use and understanding of the word gay. Just like the title of Casparian’s talk, parents of middle and high schoolers want to know, “Yikes, are kids really having sex?” Parents may be relieved to find out that, according to Casparian, there’s more talk than real action.
“There’s a lot of posturing, particularly in high school. We are not inundated with young high school students coming to us for sexual health services, including (services related to) pregnancy, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases. We see a certain number of 15 and 16-year-olds coming for sex education, but the majority of the kids we’ve been seeing for the past five or six years who are sexually active are 18 to 21-year-olds. We are not seeing a huge number of younger kids. Of the younger kids we’re seeing, a good percentage is younger girls having sex with older boys.”
A new national study released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that U.S. teens and young people are indeed, “doing it less,” with 27 percent of young men and 29 percent of young women reporting no sexual contact. The study was conducted between 2006 and 2008, and was based on interviews with 13,500 men and women starting with high schoolers at the age of 15 all the way up to adults aged 44.
Casparian believes that the trend of “doing it less” is partly attributable to good education programs about sex, safety, and responsibility. “I believe young people are getting the message, and they’re making decisions to postpone sexual involvement until they’re older. In fact at the HiTOPS clinic emerging adult clients tell us they remember us from younger grades when we came in to talk to them at school, so they’re getting the message.”
Parents of middle-schoolers may be relieved to learn Casparian and other HiTOPS counselors are seeing a lot of talk but very little actual sex happening in the greater Princeton, West Windsor and Plainsboro area, just as with high-schoolers. “There’s a lot of so-called dating (in middle school), but they don’t really go anywhere,” says Casparian. “They may sit at the same lunch table, posturing, and trying to understand what it feels like.”
Casparian says the biggest risk is among eighth or ninth grade girls and older boys from high school or the community. “It’s not all girls, but girls on the fringe, those who might have low self-esteem or not enough support. They’re looking at ways to connect or become popular by dating an older boy who will put pressure on a younger girl to have sex. When I talk to police about high school risk behavior, younger and older kids should be not socializing or partying together unless it’s in a sports or church activity that is supervised.”
Casparian acknowledges that at the high school level, there can be some pressure on girls to perform oral sex as a way to not give in to intercourse. “So you’ll hear teenage girls in high school say, ‘if you don’t want to have sex, a blow job is okay.’ We may be shocked when we hear about oral sex or when people say it aloud, but kids talk about it being not real sex; they have a different perception of it.”
There’s plenty of porn on the Internet that kids can watch at all ages if parents aren’t paying attention or applying the appropriate parental filters. If kids have free time and access to a computer and no supervision, there’s some pretty serious stuff out there. And the reality is that kids can either actively seek it out or even stumble across it inadvertently.
That’s when parents can step in to exert a positive influence, says Casparian. “Parents need to talk with kids about images that are frightening. They don’t want their kids using the Internet as a way to learn about sexual behavior, especially from some of the live sex presentations; there’s humiliation, degradation, brutality — and easy access to pretty much anything for free. Adult viewers can put these images into perspective and they know how to separate reality from fiction.” Kids don’t have the context or knowledge to do that, so their entire view of sex can become skewed.
“As a sex educator I can’t talk about porn with kids in a classroom but this is where parents can and should step in to exercise control. We need to think about the values we want our kids to know.” Casparian says parents need to acknowledge that their children may be exposed to porn and be prepared to talk about it with them openly, with a conversation that may begin like this: “If you see it, it may make you feel uncomfortable, even sick to your stomach. At the same time it may turn you on, and that may be confusing to you.”
What if you should walk in on your middle or high schooler watching porn? What’s the healthiest, most constructive response you can have? Casparian says first and foremost remain calm, and then say something like, “Wow, I had no idea you were watching something like this.” They’ll be embarrassed, no doubt. Follow up by saying, “In a little while, let’s have a conversation about this.”
Take a deep breath, collect yourself, and then meet in a neutral place in the house, perhaps the kitchen. Then you might say, “It concerns me that you were watching something not meant to be watched by someone your age. You have to remember that you’re watching something on film, and it’s not real. That’s probably not something that real couples involved in an intimate relationship really do. That’s supposed to be something special and I’m afraid you’re not seeing it as that, but as something that’s humiliating or painful.” Casparian says it’s good to acknowledge that it’s normal to be curious about sex. It’s not about punishing them for being curious.
Casparian says there is a gender difference when it comes to watching pornography: there is definitely more pressure for boys to watch, in groups, perhaps at a sleepover. In general in our culture it’s more acceptable for boys to be curious, and girls are not as likely to admit their curiosity or that they’re watching it. Boys will watch for longer than they are comfortable because no one wants to be the first to turn it off.
Casparian and her older sister grew up in an enlightened university environment. Her mother, Margie Hellman Muller, was the bank commissioner for the state of Maryland, and her father, Steven Muller, was the president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1972 to 1990. But even more important in fostering her open and frank attitude about sex and sex education was that her father was European, from Germany. “His way of dealing with sexuality was to teach us that is is normal and natural and straightforward. It was talked about at home,” she says.
One of Casparian’s assignments in high school, where she wrote for the school newspaper, was to write about sex — where kids learned about it and what they knew about birth control. “And it turned out kids didn’t know very much,” she recalls. That article garnered her some notoriety, and it also piqued her interest. She volunteered at Planned Parenthood and also worked there during summers in college.
After graduating from high school in 1980, Casparian went to Cornell University thinking she would major in French. But about halfway through, she switched to human development and family studies.
Her personal life would also take a major turn because of her decision to switch her course of study. “In my sophomore year at Cornell I was taking a human sexuality course that met for a lecture and group discussion once a week. It was during one of those discussion groups that I heard somebody mention Nantucket. I started to chat with this young man, and it turned out we both had families who summer in Nantucket. He asked if I wanted to study with him for the exam. People always laugh when they hear that. I was engaged to somebody else but I ended up breaking up with my fiance.” Her study buddy was Theodore Casparian, whom she later married. They have three children: Will, 21, a junior at the University of Vermont and an alumnus of the HiTOPS Teen Council; Elliott, 19, now at Cornell and also a former member of the HiTOPS Teen Council; and Sara, 14, who is a freshman at Princeton High School and not yet old enough to be involved in a HiTOPS program (HiTOPS uses only juniors and seniors).
After graduating from Cornell in 1984 Casparian went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where she received her master’s and Ph.D. in education, focusing on human sexuality. Over the last two decades, she has emerged as a leading lecturer, author, and consultant in the area of sexual health education and has been instrumental in the development of curricula and teaching materials. Currently the executive director of HiTOPS, she also served as the director of educational programs for five years. Prior to coming to HiTOPS, Casparian managed the “Ask the Experts” section of the award-winning website, www.sexetc.org, which is based at Answer, formerly the Network for Family Life Education at Rutgers University.
After Cornell Theodore became a trader on Wall Street where he stayed for many years before owning his own business, White Lotus Home, a popular futon shop on Nassau Street, which the couple ran for almost 20 years. After selling the business, he followed his heart, as he had always been interested in education, and earned a teaching certificate. He has been substituting in Princeton schools, including leave replacements at the Princeton Charter School and the Hun School, and is now applying for a full-time job in education.
Casparian notes that both she and her husband have careers that are centered on supporting youth in the greater Princeton community, a philosophy that took root and grew at home with their own children. “We talk very openly. My kids know there are limits, boundaries, rules, and consequences. We have a lot of fun, but I don’t have to be cool. If I end up being cool it’s a side benefit because I’m listening to them. The point is that they know I’m going to be honest with them and their friends, and I create a safe environment. And that’s what HiTOPS is all about too.
“If kids feel pressure that they are not cool because they’re not having sex, they should know what they need to do and say to protect themselves in a school environment,” says Casparian.
CMS guidance counselor Faith Scibienski agrees, adding that helping children establish a foundation of confidence and boundaries is a job where schools and parents need to work together from the earliest ages. “Limit-setting is something that starts when children are young. When adolescents turn into adults and they never have had boundaries set for them, that is when the real trouble can begin.”
If there’s a million dollar question here it is: How do you talk to your kids about sex so they’ll talk to you about sex? A follow-up question: How do you recognize a “teachable moment” with respect to talking about sex?
Casparian says she and her husband have created a home environment where all three of their children are comfortable asking questions, and they know both their parents are resources. “I’m proud of that,” says Casparian. “A lot of kids don’t ask their parents. We know our kids aren’t perfect. They’re supposed to make mistakes, and they’re supposed to learn from them. Do I sometimes freak out when they tell me stuff? Absolutely. But if I’ve done anything right, it’s to remain calm and to remember that I need to listen to them.”
Casparian says since parents are with their kids every day, they have to be absolutely clear about what their values are and the messages they are sending. “Otherwise kids are going to get mixed messages. They’re getting mixed messages anyway — at school, from their peers, from the media — but if they get positive reinforcement from their parents and the right messages, that’s going to have an influence when the kid is facing a decision and the parent isn’t there.”
Casparian says sometimes well-intentioned parents send messages that their children don’t understand. “They’ll say something like, ‘that’s bad, don’t do it.’ But the kid is thinking, ‘if I want to do it and my friends already are, then are my friends bad and am I bad too?’ Sex is compelling and interesting, so they wonder, ‘are my friends who are experimenting bad people?’ The message you want to send is, ‘no, they’re not bad people but they may be making bad choices and engaging in risky behavior.’ If your kids are wondering, ‘can I come to you?’ you want the answer to be, ‘yes, you can always come to me, and I will always be here for you, even when you do something you know I am not going to like.’”
So what might some of those positive messages be? One of them might be don’t have sex until you’re married or in a committed relationship. “We as parents have this way of thinking shaped by our experience, not what kids themselves are experiencing,” says Casparian. “We have to bring parents into the Internet age. Puberty is happening at a much younger age today. There’s this huge period of time where kids are sexually interested and physically mature but there’s no sanctioned way to express their sexuality. We need to figure out ways for them to be intimate, but not necessarily sexually intimate. If they have a sexual desire, we need to give them clear ways of knowing when they might be ready. But if the only option we give them is marriage, then the question becomes, ‘what do I do with myself until then?’ That’s a big issue.”
Casparian acknowledges that kids today are under tremendous pressure to do well at school and at sports and to excel at many different activities. “The fear of disappointing a parent is so real for every kid. Kids often come to HiTOPS when they’re under duress. They say, ‘my mom or dad would kill me; they would be so disappointed.’ Good parenting is about giving your children permission to make mistakes, but also to understand and guide, because what is adolescence but the opportunity to make stupid mistakes that you can learn from and having the safety net of your parents? So making a harsh punishment is not good. But if you set up consequences that are meaningful, kids can learn from them.”
Casparian says that for kids a huge part of adolescence is about pushing boundaries, figuring themselves out, and waiting to see what their parents will say, how they will react. “It’s helping them determine the difference between trying something on and doing something about it. If our daughters are putting on sexy clothes and gyrating around the house, they are only trying out what culture is saying. You might say, ‘you look sexy, you look older, but you’re only 13, and that’s not appropriate.’ You can acknowledge they are succeeding in the mission but it’s not okay for school, for someone their age, or someone in their family. Don’t make them feel like they are slutty or sleazy; help them understand that they’re trying on a persona and don’t criticize that.”
Parents should understand they have myriad opportunities to share positive information with their children, according to Casparian, so they should not be afraid to be the loudest voice, the person their kids want to go to if they want to ask a question. “Get over blushing talking about periods, intercourse, and condoms. If you don’t want to be that person, where would you want them to go, who else would you want them to talk to? Push your boundaries verbally with your children. It’s a great opportunity to share your values, so seize the moments that open up. If they’re talking in the car, if they’re talking about something that happened in school, or watching TV, you can say, ‘what do you think about that, how do you think our family feels?’”
Casparian has these other tips:
Give your child a book. “The book I recommend most often is ‘It’s Perfectly Normal’ by Robie Harris, great for middle school kids. It tells them the information is okay for you to have and (sends the message) ‘I want to make it available to you.’ Let them know your questions are normal. Read the book yourself to make sure you’re comfortable with the content.”
Ask questions and listen. “Kids only take in what they can put into context. If you share information with a child who is not interested in sex, they’re not going to hear it. It should never just be one talk, ‘The Talk.’ It’s all about hearing it and talking about it as you go along. If you do that starting early, they’ll remember how babies are made and as they get older they will ask more questions as they come up.”
What if you’re one of those parents who can’t talk about sex without blushing or feel completely uncomfortable bringing up the subject at all? Casparian has these suggestions for dialogue openers:
“I read an article today that I want to talk to you about.”
“I heard a lecture by a woman who works at HiTOPS, and it made me worry that I hadn’t been talking to you enough.”
“I heard about something that happened on campus that might be upsetting, and I just want to check in with you.”
“I watched this fascinating program on TV.”
Casparian also recommends sharing your family values in the context of family history and heritage, too, because it helps kids understand your perspective in a deeper way. At the same time, she says it’s also the parents’ job to understand the culture that their children are living in and to help them navigate that. “There’s all this pressure, and no one is telling them how to handle it. Just telling them, ‘just say no’ or ‘just don’t do it’ may not be enough, especially at a time when they are bombarded with images, pressures, and exposure to technology.”
Most importantly, Casparian says don’t forget to be the most important thing you can be to your children; their parents. “I don’t think it’s necessary to be cool parents. I don’t need to let kids misbehave or drink at my house. Being cool isn’t as helpful or valuable to your kid as being a parent who creates limits and boundaries. That’s safety for kids. When kids come to your house, when they know there are interruptions, they know they’re safe, and it’s reassuring, especially for middle school kids and young high school kids too. There’s pressure for parents to be cool but parents are supposed to be adults. Discipline means to teach, not to punish. Teach your children decision-making skills, teach them about consequences, and the difference between right and wrong. Set limits, and when they cross those limits, let them understand there will be consequences.”
“Yikes! Kids Are Doing What?” Community Middle School, Grovers Mill Road, Plainsboro. Thursday, April 7, 7 p.m. Lecture and discussion presented by Elizabeth Casparian, director of HiTOPS teen health and education center in Princeton. She will talk about children ages 11 to 13 and their physical and emotional changes, fostering self-esteem, and reducing risk-taking. For information about HiTOPS call 609-683-5155 or visit www.hitops.org. 609-716-5300 or www.ww-p.org.