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Opinions of Saturday, 29 October 2011

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

Not Under My Roof: Should Teenagers Sleep Over With Lovers?

Your 17 year old SSS student has a girlfriend. He has not officially introduced her to you as his lover, and you haven’t asked any questions yet. She visits your house frequently, and you are aware your son also reciprocates the many visits. They stay in the living room most of the time, but sometimes he takes her over to the outhouse. The relationship is certainly deeper than mere friendship. The silent communication suggests your son is relieved that you should know what is happening. On his birthday celebration, lots of friends came over to party and eat. The next morning, your son is busy fixing his sweetheart breakfast. She didn’t seem to have left the house. Do you turn a blind aye or use your eagle eye?

This week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tabled this on their mid-afternoon flagship radio programme. In many western cultures, sleepovers, especially among children of the same sex, are allowed. It is normal for 14 year olds to introduce their girlfriends to their parents. Parents receive telephone calls from lovers of their teenagers and pass the phone on without any queries. They sometimes encourage the relationships by inviting the little lovers for dinner, or sometimes field trips, where their parents would consent. In many African, conservative Indian and strict Muslim cultures, teenagers are not supposed to have lovers. The question of introduction does arise. It is disrespectful. It is unthinkable. It is sacrilege.

However, when cultures clash with the modernity of the western life in Canada, America and Europe, they necessarily need to cave in or make some adjustments. There have been serious family feuds as a result of these modernising influences. In extreme cases, girls from these ‘strict’ cultures have been murdered simply for having boyfriends, especially where the boyfriends are from other cultures. The ‘civilising’ influence of the liberal western life is countered forcefully by people who hold their culture/religion supreme. And it doesn’t matter how long they have lived in their adopted countries. East is east: You live in the west as if you are still in the east.

Even then, many of these strict eastern cultures have had to adapt to the ways of the west, especially when their children had been born, bred and schooled in the west. They are the ones who may have to turn a blind eye and pretend they never saw it when their children brought home their friends of the opposite sex. Some westerners, especially those who want to be seen to be practising their faith, may also not tolerate sleepovers at all. Often their children would not even dare. However, compared to the average African or Muslim family, these children would have the liberty to at least bring a girl home and introduce her to their parents as their girlfriend.

As a Ghanaian parent living in megapolitan Toronto or New York, would you permit your teenage son of 16 or 17 to bring home a girlfriend to spend the night next room? Not many parents of Nkrumah’s Ghana would even be comfortable to invite the girlfriend of their son for mere dinner. In Christian homes, this is more sinful than speaking against the Holy Spirit. Traditional thinking has it that a 17 year old does not need a girlfriend in the first place. Modern thinking, however, counters that 17 year olds naturally need girlfriends, and may actually be having sex in cars and quickies in shopping mall toilets. The CBC debate had sought answers to this reality: Do we as parents pretend that it is okay for our lads to sleep over with their girlfriends, or we should let kids be kids and bend their heads into their books, instead? The assumption was that these teenagers are at the age of experimentation: They are sexually active and would find ways of doing it anyway. Would it be smart parenting if we counselled them against diseases and pregnancies?

It is often awkward, especially in our culture, to discuss sex with your parents. Even at university, I never had the courage to bring a lady friend home. “Hi Dad, meet my girlfriend. Lucy, this is my dad.” How does that sound? In some jurisdictions, however, Lucy would say to my dad: “Pleased to meet you, John”. Oh yes by his first name. Try that in Kukurantumi and see what happens. Girls who visited must be known family members of Dad’s friends. Even then, those visits were not encouraged. The father of a very dear friend who had ten daughters (yes 10, and all girls) had warned everybody: Boys must have boys as friends, and girls are only good with their lady friends. Cross-friendships would result in unholy criss-crossings. And that is not healthy for the examination report from school.

You would usually be bold to introduce a girl to your parents when your pubic hairs were about greying. Do parents wonder how children brought up in such strict conditions express their sexual desires and contain their libidos? Unless in the unfortunate cases of teenage pregnancies, the assumption is that they sucked them in and disciplined themselves. The reality was often very bad stories of orgies in the homes of their friends and cheap hotels. Parents would rather they never saw it happen, even if they know it is happening right under their nose. Who pays the price for that hypocrisy? Sometimes, our children think we are funny. On the CBC programme, a contributor had submitted that she encourages teenage sleepovers. In fact, she talks sex with her teenage boys and girls. She gives them condoms and gets them to use them as often as they eat. In her house condoms are not hidden from sight; they are displayed for ready use. She thinks it is working for her family. She doesn’t mind hearing her daughter yessing and kissing and panting right in her ears in the next room. She knows she is doing with it her boyfriend Jason, and the environment is safer and cleaner than the toilets of McDonalds. There is a thought!

Abstain? From sex, you mean? Tell that to the nuns. Sex is so cheap these days. Years ago, you needed legs for a marathon and the patience of a male dog suitor when you only wanted to be platonic friends with a girl. These days you can download sex from the internet, right in the comfort of your sofa. There are a thousand dating sites advertising casual sex, long term dating and marriage. There are even sites specially developed for bored married people who just want to have illicit encounters while staying married. It doesn’t offend modern sensibilities. The world just got so sexy. Marriage itself is getting funny these days. You can marry today by email and divorce with a text message. It is easier if you have a blackberry. Tomorrow you can download a new marriage from www.iwantawife.com.

These are exciting times. These teenagers know how and where to find sex. Their parents have no clue. Modern parenting has, accordingly, become challenging and exciting. Bestselling authors are churning out books on parenting more and more to match up. How do you tell a Facebooking-twittering-buzzing-craiglisted son of a computer to stop ipoding and go to pray? Media experts bemoan troubling times where scholarship is gradually losing to fast-paced downloads of answers we spent months to research and rewrite. Everything is quick these days. So parents ought to be quick too. And perhaps that means sidestepping the bounds of modesty and conventional wisdom, and playing to the changing tides.

But just how much space should today’s parents allow their children at home? Do we talk sex off their minds or talk of sex, actually? In a world of instant hook-ups, would it be wise to have them hook up at home, where we can direct (may be not supervise) them and ensure their safety, or we should hook them up with their books instead, and pray out those distractions that titillate their spongy brains? Perhaps that is the price we pay for the convenience of internet banking and quickie divorces. Let’s pretend they only slept over, but did not sleep together. That saves us some sleep.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin is a freelance journalist.

He lives in Ottawa, Ontario, where he works in partner relations and outreach management.

Email: bigfrontiers@yamil.com