Most parents hope their teen will delay sexual activity, but many believe hormones, media or peers will likely mute parental influence. The results of a new study question the presumption that parents take a backseat when it comes to teen choices on sex. Analyzing longitudinal data, the study suggests that early home environments are vitally important in influencing later sexual activity.

Even before parents talk to their children about sex, they are modeling behaviours that influence how children will make decisions in their teen years. The new study from the Ottawa-based Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC) compared responses from parents and their children age six to eleven and then again eight years later as teens.

The study found that children of parents who drank to intoxication or smoked were more likely to be sexually active during the teen years. Children of parents who refrained from these behaviours were less likely to be sexual active as teens when compared to the national average. Studies have linked teen’s attitudes towards substance use to those of their parents. Young people who take risks with drugs and alcohol are often willing to take risks sexually. Mixing sex and intoxication is a risking cocktail for teens.

How family life is organized at home influences teen behaviour. Rutgers sociologist David Popenoe has called married-biological parents “the gold standard for insuring optimal outcomes in a child’s development.” There are many causes of family breakdown, and families sometimes dissolve for tragic reasons. The fact remains that research shows family arrangements affect children. The IMFC study revealed that after controlling for other factors, boys from common-law homes and girls from divorced and separated homes were more likely to be sexually active.

Much existing research reveals that a parenting style that is warm, communicative, supportive, and involves supervision and setting limits, protects teens against risk behaviour, and helps young people develop into healthy, autonomous adults. Children of parents who were inconsistent with discipline or frequently angry when disciplining, were more likely than the national average to be sexually active according to the IMFC study. Those who reported being close to their parents, particularly their father, were found to be less likely to be sexually active. Good parenting is critical for later behavioural choices.

It’s little surprise that children learn their values from their parents. Values are communicated in word and deed. Parents who invest time in their communities model pro social behaviour. The IMFC study found parents who did not volunteer had children who were a little more likely to be sexually active as teens. Parents who were devoted to volunteerism and attended weekly worship services with their children were correlated with having teens who were 40 per cent less likely to be sexually active. Boys and girls who attended weekly worship services, were much less likely to be sexually active as teens.

Parents remain their children’s primary sex educator. Parental attitudes and behaviours during childhood influence later teen behaviour. Considering how teen sex is characterized in public discussions, it’s little wonder parents huddle in the background with fingers crossed. But, parents should be encouraged. Their influence runs deeper than peers, media or hormones.

Peter Jon Mitchell is a Research Analyst at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, a social policy think tank based in Ottawa.