Ready or not, many of you will have to tread into uncharted territory this summer.
Jamie Lynn Spears, the former star of the Disney TV show Zoey 101 and sister of paparazzi favorite Britney, announced her pregnancy in December at age 16. As pictures of the teen and her newborn hit the front pages of celebrity magazines this month or early in August, you'll have a lot of questions to answer about why this one-time role model for children now has a kid of her own. To ensure you send the right message to your children, experts say you'll have to create a calm, comfortable atmosphere in which to share facts and express your values, while withholding judgment of Spears.
"Girls idolized her, so parents have to be careful not to demonize Jamie Lynn," said Dr. Jacqueline Levy Jaffe, a licensed pediatric psychologist at Child Psychology Associates in South Miami. "They have to talk about sexual intimacy and lay out their own values in a casual, noncritical way."
Address the facts
When Lisa Bocchino heard on the radio that Spears was pregnant, she knew she had to raise the issue with her daughter, who had been a fan of Spears' show.
"There was no choice in the matter because it was in all the tabloids, and you can't get away from it," said the Wellington mom of Emily, 12. "I was thinking, 'Thanks a lot. Now I have to have this conversation.' I was angry with [Spears] to a certain extent because I thought she had a responsibility to conduct herself in a certain way. She was a role model."
If you haven't broached the subject during these past nine months, start now. While your child has probably heard a little about sex from friends and is bombarded constantly with sexy images, she may not realize the level of responsibility and maturity required to have a healthy sexual relationship, or the emotional and situational consequences that can come with becoming sexually intimate at a young age, said Dr. Laura Grashow-Rywell, a licensed psychologist at Dr. Samantha Carella and Associates in Aventura. Withholding judgment of Spears and discussing the facts may be the best approach, even if it seems impossible.
"Children are exposed to the words 'sex' and 'sexy' over and over again," Grashow-Rywell said. "But they need to know the facts."When your child isn't busy doing homework or playing a video game, engage her in a conversation, she said. Using Spears' situation as a springboard, find out what she knows and wants to know about sex. Children ages 8 to 12 can understand basic explanations of menstruation, puberty, sex and reproduction. As you talk about pregnancy, you can be frank about your beliefs.
"Jamie Lynn can be the perfect entrée into talking about teenage pregnancy and how you feel [the star] is way too young to have a baby," Grashow-Rywell said. "But you have to be careful because you wouldn't want to infuse the conversation with shame. People make mistakes. This was an important mistake. But if your child engages in sexual activity four years down the road and remembers that you vilified Spears for her mistake, she may not feel comfortable coming back to you for information or support."
Highlight the challenges of teen parenthood
That's why it's important for you to make it clear that sex is a natural, healthy part of a happy relationship -- when the time is right, Jaffe said. You can use Spears as an example of why the teenage years may not be the best time to become sexually active and risk pregnancy. Spears lost her chance to star in a TV show and enjoy the positive limelight because she now has to put everything on hold to raise her newborn.
"[Children] may not be able to relate to the fact that Jamie Lynn won't be able to complete her obligations, like her TV show, because she'll have to take care of a baby," Grashow-Rywell said. "But they can relate to other major life changes that can occur, like not being able to finish school, hang out with friends and provide for themselves and their babies. They can understand how a baby can interrupt your life."
Still, you don't want to focus only on the negative as you bathe your child in reality, she said. While she happens to be young, Spears does have the resources to afford to raise her child with just a high school equivalency certificate because she acted on a TV show and has a famous family. Spears' mother, while shocked, supported her daughter's decision to keep her baby and helped her prepare for delivery.
"The positive of the situation is that [the Spears family] is sticking by its value system," she said. "You can point that out while you express your values."
A little humor can't hurt either. Seeing the comedy Juno with her daughter gave Bocchino an excuse to discuss the topic of sex and teenage pregnancy, so when the story of Spears' situation broke, her daughter already had an understanding of why teenage parenthood isn't one long baby shower. "The coverage in the media of the $1,000 onesie -- what good does that do anybody?" she said. "It just sent the wrong message that it was glamorous and chic and cool to be a teenager and pregnant. Juno gave us a chance to discuss the issues."
But she said other parents shouldn't run out to rent the movie as a way to raise the subject of Spears' baby because of its sophisticated and often strong language. "It worked out nicely for me," she said, "but I wouldn't say it's a great tool to broach the subject to younger kids."
A more effective approach could be to acknowledge the covers of magazines that show off Spears' new baby and explain why these pictures don't depict the whole story.
"When Jamie Lynn's baby pictures appear in magazines, girls are going to think, 'How cute!' They may idealize [her situation]." Jaffe said. "They need to realize babies can be cute, but they can also cry a lot. They need a lot of attention and can get on your nerves sometimes. Having a baby requires a lot of maturity."
Cara Nissman is a writer based in West Palm Beach.