The news that more than 50 percent of American teens have had oral sex raised hardly an eyebrow when it was first reported by the National Center for Health Statistics as part of most comprehensive survey of teen sexual behavior ever conducted, and this by the federal government. Nor were people surprised at the huge change in young girls who were giving as much oral sex as they were receiving, thereby confirming the transformation in young women from sexual prey to sexual predators.

Less so was there any shock value in the newly released fact that 11 percent of young women reported having at least one homosexual experience. By now, Americans have become completely inured to the idea of teens having more sex than their parents. Time was when Dad would sit down and give his son the talk about the birds and the bees. Now it’s junior who sits Dad down and teaches him all the latest positions.

But there was another statistic that should have gotten parents’ attention but which was similarly ignored, namely, that there seems to be a direct link between teen sexuality and teen depression. A study by the Heritage Foundation, in-turn based on the government-funded National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, found that about 25 percent of sexually active girls say they are depressed all, most or a lot of the time, while only 8 percent of girls who are not sexually active feel the same.

While 14 percent of girls who have had intercourse have attempted suicide, only 5 percent of sexually inactive girls have. And whereas 6 percent of sexually active boys have tried suicide, less than 1 percent of sexually inactive boys have. The report challenges the previously held notion that teens become sexually active in order to self-medicate their own depression.

“Findings from the study show depression came after substance and sexual activity, not the other way around,” says researcher Denise Dion Hallfors of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, analyzed data from a national survey of more than 13,000 teenagers in grades seven to 11.

Pretty tragic, huh, that it takes children slashing their wrists or sinking into a morbidly dark depression to awaken parents to the dangers of children engaging in activities that should be reserved exclusively for adults, and married ones at that.

Sex is the most powerful impulse known to man. It is as overpowering as it is pleasurable. Did we really think that those in a rickety boat should be exposed to this storm? How could we ever have believed that allowing big children detonate such powerful emotions, in empty relationships where neither party is sufficiently developed to assimilate such strong emotions, would do anything but eviscerate the emotional landscape of its child practitioners? Heck, we don’t even let teenagers play with fireworks for fear of them blowing their own heads off. But we’ve given them the emotional equivalent of a nuclear blast.

Many parents mistakenly believe that the first job of a parent is to love their child, when really the primary responsibility of a parent is to protect their child from harm. You can’t love that which is no longer extant. An object of love that is destroyed will forever remain unloved.

Thus, prior to loving your child, prior to teaching your child, prior to even to feeding your child, your first objective is to protect your child. Your role as guardian comes before any other. A parent who allows harm to come to his or her child is a parent who has been delinquent in the very fundamentals of child rearing.

Most parents believe that protection involves guarding children from physical harm. You lock the door at night so that your kids won’t be injured by robbers. You drop them off at school so that they won’t be abducted by kidnappers. You teach them how to cross the street safely so that they won’t be hit by cars.

But protecting your children from external dangers is miniscule compared to the task of safeguarding them from absorbing influences that will corrupt them from the inside, and it is much easier to recover from physical scars than from their emotional equivalents.

Look around and you’ll see parents who take little kids to R-rated movies, who allow their kids to listen to and sing misogynistic melodies and sexual lyrics, and who let their kids play video games where the most graphic violence is the main selling point. I know otherwise responsible parents who smoke marijuana with their teenage kids, and I know parents who have no problem with their kids watching MTV and VH1 music video junk for hours a day. Indeed, parents today seem to have little compunction about the tremendous amounts of garbage from the popular culture being pumped directly into their children’s cerebral cortex. Will we pretend that daily loads of toxic smut will not permanently coarsen our children, robbing them of their innocence and making them grow up preternaturally? By treating our children as young adults rather than big kids, we are allowing them to skip the childhood stage of life, which is essential to a strong foundation in their later years.

Healthy parenting involves the dual role of nurturer, on the one hand, and protector on the other. A child is like a sapling that requires water and nutrients, but also protection from weeds and pests. The unconditional love we give our children instills in them a sense of security and internalizes a feeling of value. If they are shortchanged of love, they will later grow to believe that things like money are currencies by which they may purchase an otherwise lacking self-esteem.

But unconditional love is just one side of the coin. All the watering in the world won’t shelter a vulnerable plant that has been uprooted by a fierce wind. We have to shield our children from the increasingly malign influences of a culture that is telling them, subtly but constantly, to skip the essential stages of childhood and become an adult while they are really still kids. Exposure to gratuitous violence, sex and other uniquely adult subjects overwhelms children with emotions and experiences they cannot digest, sowing confusion and anxiety. It also imparts to them an inauthentic desire to prematurely discard the wonders of their youth and join an adult world that where they trade in awe for cynicism and conviction for compromises.

Our kids may not look like it, but they’re crying out for a protector. It may seem that they just want to be left alone, that they crave unrestricted freedom and unbridled indulgence. But deep inside they want to be protected. They want someone to stop them from harming themselves. They want someone that says no. And if not you, the parent, then who?

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