Column: Monitoring the dating game

One of the most difficult - yet important - aspects of parenting is teaching your children how crucial the decisions they make about their body are.

I'm not talking about drugs or alcohol. I'm talking about sex.

When children become teenagers and they enter the thick of puberty, sex and everything that goes with it - except maybe the consequences - moves to the forefront of their minds.

As a parent, it's your responsibility to be there to answer their questions, give advice, set boundaries and most importantly: keep watch.

Images of unhealthy sex permeate our society. Our movies, commercials, music videos and TV shows pander to the "male gaze," a camera technique that uses the perspective of a sex-crazed heterosexual male to tell stories. Next time you're watching TV, count how many times cameras focus on women's breasts, their butts and the curves of their bodies, and ask yourself what purpose it serves.

The subject of the male gaze is more often than not the objectified woman, so the effect of these images on our children is twofold. One, it promotes the idea of the dominant male and diminishes our boys' abilities to respect women and treat them as equals. Two, it puts forth the idea that our girls are subservient to men and are better off finding a husband to submit to than following their dreams.

So what can you do?

In many ways, you're going to always be fighting a losing battle when it comes to the unhealthy sexual images that bombard our children from all directions. But that doesn't mean you should throw in the towel.

These images, combined with the influence of peer pressure and raging hormones, can be disastrous. There are immediate problems associated with the mixture, such as your children having sex way before they're ready, but it also presents problems that may not show up until your children are adults.

First and foremost, you have to talk to your children without pulling punches.

Let your sons and daughters know that whom they decide to have a child with will be the most important decision they will ever make. Ask them if they're willing to lose that power by engaging in underage sex.

You have to show them that having sex at a young age is playing with fire and that they're basically giving away their power to make important decisions in exchange for a few moments of awkward pleasure.

Show your children that they can find much more enjoyment without risking everything by holding hands, hugging or kissing their boyfriend or girlfriend for the first time.

Create rules that allow your children to experience life but draw the line at inappropriate behavior.

My stepdaughter wants to date, but her mother and I don't quite feel comfortable with letting her go off with a boy. So we decided that her first date would be spent with us. We'll take her and her boyfriend to dinner so that we may get to know him and then we'll take them to a movie and allow them to sit a few rows away from us so that they may have some privacy. We'll speak with the boy's parents, letting them know where we stand and how we feel about the relationship. It's important to be on the same page with other parents because a united front makes it much more difficult for the children to sneak around.

We understand her need to spend time with her boyfriend, but we also understand how fast things can get out of control, so we're unwilling to send her off without supervision.

We also spend a lot of time talking to her about how important she is to the world. We want her to follow her dreams and never have to make decisions about relationships based on economic need. Quite simply, she should only be in a relationship because she wants to.

My stepson is more interested in video games than girls. But that doesn't mean we ignore his social life. He received the most-important-decision-you-can-make talk as well, and I often speak to him about the correct way to treat a woman, which comes down to respect and care.

He doesn't really want to hear my advice, but I don't care. I'm going to keep hammering away at him for as long as I can. Something's going to stick, right?

Both of my stepchildren have iPods capable of browsing the Internet, playing music and videos and communicating with friends.

They signed contracts that guide the use of the devices. The contracts deal with everything from the consequences for sending inappropriate pictures to the hours of appropriate use. It is clear to them that if they violate the contract, they lose privileges.

One proviso requires them to never delete their messages without parent approval and to turn the devices over to my wife and me at 8 p.m. on school nights and 10 p.m. on the weekends.

Once we get the iPods, we go through every message they sent or received in the day, and if there's anything inappropriate we take away their privileges, which includes their right to use the iPod.

It may not seem like much, but the kids know we are watching and that we care. We want them to lead productive, fulfilling lives, but we're not going to accomplish that by closing our eyes, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.