Maybe there isn't anything unique about this generation of parents and adolescents. Teen-agers have always demanded independence on one day and longed for limits on another.
Parents, for our part, have often stalled as we try to shift gears at these mixed signals. We have our own desire to protect our kids while encouraging them to grow up.
But there is a pervasive unease among parents now: a feeling that our kids have won a host of duhious freedoms. A feeling that we as parents have lost authority while retaining responsibility and concern. At times our parenting role is reduced to picking up the pieces.
I think that some of this concern, at least about teen-age sexuality, was reflected last fall when family planning programs were re-funded under Title X. In that bill, Congress required family planning projects "to the extent possible... (to) encourage family participation."
It was a sensible piece of congressional advice. The best of the family planning people are aware that it isn't enough to provide adolescents with contraceptives. The counselors have begun to deal with families, not just teen-age "patients." Previously parents felt locked out of this medical and emotional counseling.
But something happened to this positive legislation on the way from the Capitol to the Department of Health and Human Services. The specific instruction by Congress to "encourage" the involvement of parents was twisted into the order of the administration to "mandate" parental involvement.
Now, if the draft of regulations making their way around Washington is finalized, HHS will be able to force any clinic to send a notice to the parents of a minor seeking prescription birth control.
As the University of Pennsylvania's Frank Furstenberg, sociologist and author of "Unplanned Parenthood," put it: "To have a blanket policy that prescribes the same solution for all teens in all circumstances is ludicrous."
So is the "solution" itself. In effect, parents would be getting a report informing them that their children are sexually active. Furstenberg calls it "the pink slip approach. It's more or less the way truancy is handled. We don't know how to deal with it, so we send a notice to the home. But that doesn't deal with the issue."
Those teen-agers who don't want to tell their parents, for right or wrong reasons, can use drug-store birth control or, of course, no birth control at all. Even now, the typical teen-ager who comes into a clinic has been sexually active and unprotected for an average of six months.
It comes down to this: would the result of these regulations lead to greater parental involvement? Would that lead to sexual restraint on the part of teen-agers? Or would the threat of clinic-as-informer result in more teen-age pregnancies? What are the risks and benefits of this federal program?
No one has yet figured out how to help those families where communication over the issue of sexuality has simply broken down. Family planners are experimenting, with mixed results.
We do know that teen-agers who don't talk with their parents can either avoid the clinic or lie about their identity. It is unlikely that they will stop having sex.
So, as Jeannie Rosoff, president of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, puts it: "We have a choice. Parents are anxious but sane. They would prefer that kids not have sex that early, but they want to be more sure that they don't get pregnant. They will have to decide which is the lesser of two evils and come down."
In poll after poll, we parents have said that we want family planning clinics available for teen-agers, and we also want to be advised.
But we don't need this hoax. Whatever our anxieties, the federal government cannot mandate family communication.