DEAR HARRIETTE: I have grown close to my sister's eldest child. She even stays with me once a year when she is on break from college. I know she is close to her mother, but I realize that she tells me things that her mother doesn't know. She just told me that she is sexually active. I have talked to her mother about this possibility with her daughter, and she seemed ready to accept it, since her daughter is already 21 (even though she still lives at home), but I don't think she knows it is actually happening. Right now my niece has my confidence, and I am giving her the best advice I can. But I wonder if I should tell her mother. What would you do? -- Keeping Confidences, Atlantic City, New Jersey
DEAR KEEPING CONFIDENCES: This is a tough situation, and one without a simple answer. I believe that since your niece is officially an adult with the right to make her own choices and she has asked you to be her confidant, that is probably your best role for now. If you can give her sound advice on her behavior, including as much as you can on practicing safer sex, you will be helping her and her mom.
Nobody can prevent your niece from being intimate. What you can do is talk about safety and your family's values (without preaching). Most of all, you can listen to learn what she is thinking and what she is doing so that you can figure out how best to support her.
People become sexually active at many different ages these days, and the notion of waiting for marriage is all but obsolete for many. Being careful and respectful of yourself as you enter intimate arenas is still commonly encouraged. You should definitely encourage her to make conscious decisions about her partners. She must learn to value herself and her body first. Otherwise, hurt feelings will surely come.