Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Resisting temptation young helps you later on

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Giving kids lectures about stopping rooting isn't going to work, says Deborah Hill Cone. Photo / Thinkstock
Giving kids lectures about stopping rooting isn't going to work, says Deborah Hill Cone. Photo / Thinkstock

I lost my virginity in my second year at university. Freak eh? It makes me quite the deviant in today's sexy-and-you-know-it world.

Oh, it wasn't because I was saving myself or religious or anything. I was just awkward and a late developer with bad hair and hide in your bedroom music taste - strangely Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark is no help getting you laid - and no one was lining up to do it with me.

In retrospect I'm lucky. I spent most of my twenties being emotionally annihilated by grisly love affairs. I'd have been a total wah-wah if I'd had to deal with that sort of rejection earlier.

There is a brave article in the latest Metro written by a young Samoan woman "Isn't it time we talked about suicide?".

She says matter of factly that she lost her virginity at 12. "Before long I started smoking weed, drinking and tagging."

In this paper last week the talented and perceptive portrait artist Stephen Martyn Welch offered that he lost his virginity at 14. "I was a bumbling idiot."

This age range seems to be the new normal when it comes to sex. Although maybe not new but it is only now we can talk about it.

Of course on one level I love that we can even talk about this taboo stuff in the newspaper. (Thanks Ed!)

It's not all shameful and creepy. And I really hope this isn't going to sound like I am bringing up S-E-X in any sort of cat's-bum prissy moral way.

But I'm starting to wonder in practical terms whether by accepting being sexually active is okay at such a young age we are condemning young people to too much emotional torture for them to handle.

Perhaps other people are better at dealing with rejection than I was, but I barely survived. I seemed to be devastated over and over, howling in dark bedrooms to REM.

I still find it pretty tricky to regulate my emotions at the age of 45, so imagine how freaked out you are as a kid. Because of the legal limitations of talking publicly about suicide we never know how much the trauma of the collapse of a youthful sexual relationship may contribute to our high youth suicide rate.

Of course, it's easy for me to bring this up but not so easy to know what you do about it.

Taking your teenager's door off the hinges wasn't really what I was thinking. And giving kids lectures about stopping rooting isn't going to work.

Zip it, sweetie? Yeah that'll work.

But there are perhaps some other good things we could teach kids at school that could help them with learning to regulate their emotions and not just with sex.

There is a famous study about deferred gratification in which children were offered a single marshmallow but if the kid could resist eating it for ten minutes they were promised two marshmallows instead of one.

Following up years later scientists found marshmallow resisters as children were more competent in later life, "could deal with important problems" and did better academically.

Being able to delay gratification is a predictor of success. But the best news is, this is not something you are born with.

You can learn willpower. Do we specifically teach our kids this at school?

Can we create a new generation of marshmallow resisters? It might be more useful than some of the other curriculum items like eat your veges and fight racism and global warming or whatever. Dozens of studies show willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.

Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught, the same way kids learn to do maths and say "thank you". I'm sure schools do some of this already - I am grateful to my daughter's teacher not for teaching her times tables but teaching her resilience - but I'm not sure we have all caught up with the explosion of studies about the neuroscience of willpower.

There are tricks you can learn to help you to make willpower a habit. I'm only learning this stuff now: told you I was a late developer.

Tapu Misa is taking a week off. Her column returns next Monday.

- NZ Herald

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