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Dr. Wolf: Teen sex comes to a bedroom near you

It's not an arrangement that most parents choose so much as one they succumb to under pressure

Dear Dr. Wolf,

I'd appreciate your views on the boyfriend/girlfriend sleepover. It's not unusual these days for older teens to expect their parents to allow them to have their boyfriend or girlfriend "sleep over," and sometimes practically move in to the family home. Many parents in my circle of friends permit this. In my own case, my 17-year-old daughter's father allows her to have her boyfriend sleep overnight in her room at his house. I don't permit boyfriend sleepovers at my house. Her boyfriend is welcome to visit and join us for family events, but sleeping in the same room is something that, in my mind, comes with being self-supporting. As a consequence, my daughter no longer stays at my house, preferring the greater sexual freedom she is allowed at her father's. Am I out of date, or will she thank me one day?

Old-Fashioned Mom

Dear Old-Fashioned Mom,

An eight-year-old girl bounces into her parents' room and asks: "Can my boyfriend sleep over in my room when I'm 17? Of course, we'll have sex when he's there."

How many parents, looking ahead nine years, would be comfortable with that prospect?

My point: Even today, even with ever-changing sexual mores, the great majority of parents are not comfortable with the idea of their teenage children having sleepover sexual partners. They just are not comfortable with it.

Many teens, especially older teens, see it differently.

"I don't see what the big deal is. We're having sex. I'm not making a secret of it. We use precautions. We're mature individuals, whether you like it or not. What's wrong with it? Who does it hurt? You're just embarrassed if your friends would know."

I think it is not so much that parents choose to allow their teenage children to have sleepover boyfriends or girlfriends so much as that they relent. Pushed inch by inch, tantrum by tantrum to what they never dreamed they would allow.

In your case, you clearly do not want your daughter's boyfriend sleeping over. I think it would be a mistake for you (or any parent) to make any other choice that so plainly goes against what you believe.

Granted, there are consequences to making an unpopular decision like this. For one, your child isn't going to be happy with you. In your case, the consequence is more than just getting the silent treatment: She's chosen to spend more time with the parent who's offering the greenest pastures. She prefers your ex-husband's rules, or lack thereof.

But consider this a relatively short-term pain. I would not worry about later vindication. When your daughter is an adult she will look at what went on from a new adult perspective. She may or may not then agree with your choices, but she certainly will see you as someone who stands by what they believe. You could do worse.

What do I personally think? Should a teenager be allowed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend stay overnight in their room?

In preparing this column, I went through the exercise of listing the pros and the cons. I thought of a lot more cons. Under 17, it is simply inappropriate. They are not emotionally mature enough. With older teenagers, there are many arguments against - especially if there are younger children in the home. Also how do you feel about having someone who is not a relative become a new member, at least some of the time, of your household - and not by your choice?

But perhaps the main argument against is that having a sexual partner staying overnight changes the whole nature of your teen's relationship. Sleepovers put her in a relationship that is deeper and potentially more committed - and also one that's more complicated to break up - than she may have envisioned or have the maturity to handle.

Then why might parents go along with it? The main argument in favour would be keeping alive the relationship between parent and child, a relationship that otherwise might prove too contentious. In other words: Better some relationship than none. Better to have the parent be more involved rather than less, and therefore have more input.

So what's the right answer? Many parents find the prospect of their teen's boyfriend or girlfriend sleeping over morally unacceptable. But many are less clear.

Ultimately it is a personal decision. I am a believer that, as with many of the tougher teenage issues, ultimately you have to go with what you are comfortable. The fact of having a teenager means having to make decisions that you never dreamed of. This is one of those decisions.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.