Parents of teens often face challenges that don’t have one “right” answer. Even those of us who are immersed in the research on parenting don’t always agree on the best approach.
Recently a mother shared that she had found her seventeen-year-old daughter surreptitiously reading the bestselling e-book Fifty Shades of Grey. The book is a fictional account of a young woman’s introduction to sadism and feminine submission at the hands of an older, more powerful man. This mother’s dilemma.… If she forbids her daughter from reading the book, mom thought it was highly probably that her daughter would simply ignore her and finish the book in secrecy. If she gave her daughter permission to read the book, then she felt she was condoning something inappropriate for a teen of her daughter’s age. What if this mother were your friend? What would you recommend?
The parenting educators at Parenthetical all had slightly different views about how they thought the mother should respond. Consequently, for this week’s post our three staff experts decided to each offer their response. Even among professionals, there can be several shades of grey.
Possible options depend upon how strongly you feel about not having your daughter read the book. Exploration of sexuality is very healthy and normal. However, even at age seventeen, it is still important for parents to monitor exposure and development as best as they are able.
- You can use this as an opportunity to discuss your daughter’s view of her own sexuality as well as your views on sexuality. Not a discussion of morality or semantics, but a discussion of what her sexuality means to her. What constitutes sexuality to her? What is mentally healthy and what is not? What is healthy, safe and pleasurable versus might be risky or unsafe in some way. Then you may have the opportunity to share with your daughter, assuming this is the case, how the book provides views of sexuality with which you do not agree and why. For example, sexual practices that are demeaning or dangerous to women or do not reflect your views on the realities of a healthy sexuality. Keep in mind that she may have a different perspective than you do and, where you do not have to agree with her, you do have to accept that her differing viewpoint belongs to her.
- If you have discussed the issue with your daughter and you still feel that you prefer she not read the book at age seventeen, share that you do not think this is the appropriate time in her life for her to fully understand this type of material. Discuss with her that you feel strongly that she should wait for “? years“, “until she is in college?”, “until she has had a sexual relationship?” … You fill in the blank.
- If you feel very strongly that is it not the proper time for your daughter to read this book, you do have the option to forbid it. Though she is seventeen, she is still living in your house, therefore your rules. Yes, she might defy you and read it, but she also might not. A parent should not give or even imply permission to do something for the sole reason that there is a possibility that their child might defy them. Regardless of what happens, you need to be up front, explain your reasoning for taking such a stance and keeping lines of communication open. Please note: I do not advocate this approach as a means to avoid talking frankly about sexuality with your teen.
It’s quite normal for a 17 year old, emerging young adult woman, to be curious about sex, sexuality and intimate adult relationships. By the age of 17 more than half of US teenage girls report being sexually active. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this 17 year old would have an interest in reading this best seller, especially given its current popularity. The mother’s insight that her daughter will likely continue to read the book with or without her permission is probably correct. Thus, helping her older teen become a more critical thinker and develop a responsible, mature understanding of sex and intimate relationships are more realistic goals than thinking she can shield or protect her from knowledge of adult content.
The good news is that the mother’s discovery of her daughter’s reading habits provides a wonderful opportunity for her to talk with her 17 year old about some important and often difficult issues. If she hasn’t already, mom may want to read at least part of the book so that she’s knowledgeable about its content. In order to encourage a frank and fruitful discussion with her daughter and lay the foundation for future ones, it’s important that she be tactful about how she approaches her daughter. If the mom begins by scolding or lecturing on what she dislikes about the book, the opening for honest communication is likely to be quickly shut down. It’s better to begin by seeking out the daughter’s own perspective. This can be done by asking some simple open ended questions like “What did you think of the book?”, “Did you think the relationship between the characters was a healthy one?” and “What was your reaction to the book’s portrayal of sex?”
Questions like these give the 17 year old an opportunity to think critically about what she has been reading and a chance for mom to gain some insight into her daughter’s understanding and values regarding sex and intimate relationships. Mom might even be surprised to discover that she and her daughter share many of the same values. She may also learn about aspects of the book that her daughter found confusing or disturbing as well as issues where she and her daughter disagree. All of these provide great fodder for candid discussion and education. After hearing her daughter’s response, the mother should share her own perspective. However, it’s essential that mom explain the thinking behind her values and concerns, so that her daughter can gain a deeper understanding and perhaps learn from her mother’s insights.
I lean toward a compromise that would allow the daughter to read Fifty Shades of Grey but also provide the mom with a chance to still have a role in shaping values. Moral development and critical thinking are key developmental processes during the teen years. I think parents could capitalize on their children’s interest in media that contains discussable, moral issues. The mom could agree that her daughter may read Fifty Shades of Grey with the caveat that mom will also read the book and they will discuss it.
Although I see reading the book as an opportunity for conversation about sexuality and relationships, I struggle with the relationship portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey as being the only example of sexuality and relationships that is discussed. Therefore, as a parent, I’d require a few other titles be on the list of books for the mother/daughter “book club.” For instance, the daughter can read Fifty Shades of Grey but she will also read and discuss two other books about sexuality and/or relationships, such as:
- Transistor Radio by Chris Bohjalian
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
- Matched by Ally Condie
- The Pact: A Love Story by Jodi Picoult
- The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry (short story)
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen