Many boys want their fathers to be the ones to talk to them about condoms. But a new study offers fresh evidence of all the ways these conversations can be complicated and leave young men without a clear picture of how to have safe sex.
Researchers did in-depth interviews with 25 African American or Latino father-son pairs, all of whom lived in a New York City neighborhood where teen pregnancy rates and cases of sexually transmitted infections are much higher than the national average.
Most of the fathers and sons had talked about sex, but many of the dads felt ill prepared to explain the intricacies of condom use, and many of their teens had only a vague sense of the importance of delaying sex and using "protection," without a clear understanding of how have safe sex every time they're with a partner, the study found.
"We found that fathers often endorsed the use of condoms to their sons in general terms," said lead author Vincent Guilamo-Ramos, director of the New York City Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health.
But fathers seldom felt comfortable giving specific guidance regarding correct and consistent use or common condom mistakes and problems, such as late application, breakage, or slippage, Guilamo-Ramos said by email.
The average ages were 17 for the sons and 44 for the dads - meaning many of the fathers came of age in the 1980s, when sex education often focused on abstinence instead of how to make informed decisions about birth control.
The young men in the study said they wanted to hear these specifics from their fathers, and have their dads initiate these discussions, researchers report in Pediatrics.
As one teen put it: "I want him to say that he wants to talk about something important and it will benefit my future. And then he can take it from there."
Another teen stressed the importance of having the facts to avoid mistakes with condoms. He said during the interview: "The most important thing is using a condom and how to put it on ... the right way and be aware of what you're doing when you're using a condom."
Fathers, in contrast, disclosed the need to fill their own knowledge gaps and expressed interest in having educational resources to help them prepare to talk with their sons.
Dads also saw conversations with their sons as a way to improve their own condom use.
"I'm willing to teach him as much as possible," one dad stated, "...as much as he needs to know, (but) if I'm teaching him, I'm actually teaching myself."
The study can't prove that father-son conversations about condoms would impact teens' sexual health or contraceptive choices.
Still, the results highlight the importance of parents having frequent, ongoing, open communication with teens about sex, said Dr. Kate Lucey of Northwestern University and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
"Sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are all on the rise among adolescents, and condom use is one of the best ways to prevent STDs," Lucey, the author of an accompanying editorial, said by email. "Having one-on-one, honest conversations with your teen about why condom use is important and the specifics of how to use a condom is critical."
Teens who can't talk to their parents can speak to their doctors about safe sex, Lucey advised.