Will daughters walk mom’s talk? The effects of maternal communication about sex on the sexual behavior of female adolescents


Numerous social marketing campaigns exhort parents to talk to their children about sexual abstinence, pregnancy risk, and sexually transmitted disease prevention. The effectiveness of these conversations is difficult to ascertain if parents are more likely to broach discussions related to sexual activity with adolescents who have greater propensities to engage in these risky behaviors. Our baseline empirical results indicate that female adolescents whose mothers communicate more about sex are more likely to have sexual intercourse, practice unsafe sex, and engage in casual sex. However, once we control for the adolescent’s environment and peers through the use of school fixed effects and for the daughter’s own propensity to engage in such behaviors through a rich set of adolescent-specific covariates, the effect of a mother’s talk on her daughter’s behavior is reduced dramatically indicating that mother’s talk is endogenous to the daughter’s sexual behavior. Models employing sister fixed effects to control for family-level unobservables, although imprecisely estimated, confirm this finding.

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  1. 1.

    These campaigns are not dissimilar from long-standing social marketing campaigns like The Partnership for a Drug Free America’s TimeToTalk initiative aimed at adolescent substance use or a newer campaign by Children Now which encourages parents to address a range of topics from terrorism to HIV and to “talk to your kids before everyone else does.”.

  2. 2.

    See, as examples, Swain et al. (2006), a discussion of the predictors of the extent and content of parent communication, and Blake et al. (2001), a small scale experimental study of parent involvement with school-based sex education curriculum.

  3. 3.

    Unfortunately, although we would have liked to include data on other types of sexual activity including anal and oral sex, the AddHealth did not collect data on anal sex until wave 2 (and then only for girls who are in a relationship) and did not collect data on oral sex until wave 3 (at which time the respondents are young adults). Given that our primary variable of interest is mother’s talk about sex, which is only measured at wave 1, we must limit our analyses to vaginal sexual intercourse except in the case of casual sex where the survey question does not distinguish between sexual activity generally and intercourse specifically.

  4. 4.

    While Oettinger does not focus on STDs, social, or moral consequences of sexual activity, we can easily extend his framework to incorporate information regarding STD prevention, the costs of contracting an STD or incurring social stigma, and the probability of such outcomes.

  5. 5.

    Oettinger also empirically tests his theory, using sibling pairs to identify the effect of sex education, and finds that sex education in the 1970s had some effect on teen outcomes through “risk altering” information.

  6. 6.

    Existing research has documented the role of family size and birth order in the production of risky adolescent behavior. See for example, Rodgers et al. (1992), Argys et al. (2006), and Averett et al. (2011).

  7. 7.

    Trenholm et al. (2008) use data from an abstinence-only education experiment and find some indication of greater awareness and knowledge about STDs, condoms, and birth control. However, they uncover no significant impact of the same program on adolescent behaviors including sexual activity and unprotected sex or outcomes like teen pregnancy, giving birth, and STD diagnosis, Conversely, Cannonier (2012) finds a significant effect at the state-level on teen childbirth rates with increased funding for abstinence education.

  8. 8.

    From the 20,745 respondents in wave one of the AddHealth, we drop those without a valid sample weight (1,821), males (9,290) as well as adolescents whose parent survey was completed by someone other than a biological mother (2,440). We limit our analyses to those aged 14–18 (dropping 1,255). We eliminated others for missing key variables including having had sex (44), the measures of maternal talk about sex (135), mother’s age at first birth (1,764), and missing values on other covariates (813). Since we use school fixed effects in many of our models, we also eliminated one adolescent because she was the only respondent in her school. Rather than eliminating respondents who are missing income data, we impute income and include a binary variable in the models to indicate these observations. We are left with 3,182 female adolescents in 129 schools.

  9. 9.

    A table of means for each sample is available upon request.

  10. 10.

    These variables include indicators that the mother allows the daughter to decide her curfew, who to hang out with, what to wear, how much TV to watch, weeknight bedtime, and what to eat as well as indicators that the mother never drinks, feels it is most important that her daughter is well behaved and indicators that a parent supervises the daughter before school, after school, and before bed.

  11. 11.

    More details on construction of the index are available upon request.

  12. 12.

    All three of these indexes, also constructed using the alpha command in Stata, are included in any model containing daughter characteristics.

  13. 13.

    The full set of questions for this index is available from the authors upon request.

  14. 14.

    The positive correlation between talk and adolescent sexual activity corroborates the findings of Khurana and Cooksey (2012) which, like these baseline models, do not deal with the endogeneity of parental talk.

  15. 15.

    These full models are available from the authors upon request.

  16. 16.

    One advantage of the talk indexes we construct, in that they are continuous, is we get more leverage out of our small sisters sample than we would, for example, with dichotomous measures of talk.

  17. 17.

    While their final results indicate that substance use may not be causally related to adolescent sexual intercourse, they find a positive correlation in models that do not account for the endogeneity of these behaviors.

  18. 18.

    Following the advice of Murray (2006), we include a large set of independent variables, in both the first and second stage of our 2SLS models to reduce the potential that our instruments are mediating the effects of other unobserved factors that influence adolescent sexual behavior.


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The authors thank Laura Argys, Karen Smith Conway, Jennifer Kohn, David Phillips, Lucie Schmidt and Yang Wang for helpful comments. All errors are our own. This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by Grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/addhealth). No direct support was received from Grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.

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Correspondence to Susan L. Averett.



See (Tables 4, 5, 6).

Table 4 Results from MCA analysis of parenting style
Table 5 Fully specified OLS models (Y = 1 if adolescent has had sex)
Table 6 2SLS estimates (with school fixed effects)

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Averett, S.L., Estelle, S.M. Will daughters walk mom’s talk? The effects of maternal communication about sex on the sexual behavior of female adolescents. Rev Econ Household 12, 613–639 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11150-013-9192-y

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  • Maternal sex talk
  • Sexual intercourse
  • Unsafe sex
  • Casual sex

JEL Classification

  • I13
  • J12