As a former teen, and now parent, nurse, scientist and teacher, I could never figure out why parents talk about the birds and bees when attempting to address the topic of sex with their kids. With all their good intentions, this fails to cover the material most kids want to know about.
At the end of the story, the kids are not quite sure what pollen has to do with sex and some come to think they were hatched from an bird-like egg.
I don’t know why people have a hard time being honest about the body. Everybody has one, and it’s so full of wonder and performs so many amazing things that we need to celebrate it. We need to honor it, not be embarrassed by it or disregard it.
Over the years of teaching human anatomy and sexuality to sixth-graders, I can attest to all the children who need and want solid and relevant information — and all the misinformation and problems they face when they don’t get it from their parents and are forced to learn from their friends, the street or the Internet. No one could imagine the myths, rumors, confusion and honest questions I hear in class. Which confirms to me the urgent need for families to openly address this subject.
For some 12-year-olds, it’s too late — they are already sexually active. For others, it’s just around the corner. From the music, advertisements and the movies, there is no getting around it.
Personal finance and sex continue to be the most avoided topics in most homes today — yet our society depends on financially literate citizens who know why they need to keep their pants on. Which is why sex ed in schools has become so critical. Whether it’s because they aren’t comfortable with the topic or perhaps they don’t know themselves, parents are failing to convey accurate and honest information.
Today show contributor A. Pawlowski suggests avoiding formal sit-down talks, and to instead use small, teachable moments. Plan the images and words you will use. Kids are extremely literal and you don’t want to create discomfort.
START AT BEGINNING
The first thing parents can do for toddlers and preschool children is to begin referring to body parts by their names. A penis is no different than a nostril. It’s only funny because we make it so. Get over it.
When the question arises about where babies come from, most kids do well with the dad’s sperm fertilizes the mom’s egg scenario that leads to a fertilized egg that grows and develops into a baby within the uterus. And, please don’t say stomach. The stomach is full of hydrochloric acid, so no baby could ever exist there.
The importance of a full discussion on puberty (the release of special hormones and all the body changes that come as a result), cannot be understated. I find that girls know about having a menstrual period, but they have no clue why. They know nothing to very little about their anatomy. Boys tend to be equally ignorant about their internal anatomy. This information should be discussed around 9 or 10, when body changes start to occur.
School-age kids (10-12), want an explanation of intercourse (“How does the sperm get to the egg?”). I have found that the simplest, most straightforward approach is the best. They want to know, but they don’t need to know more than they are ready for.
In class, I find when I remove the person from the body part, the class can hold a better discussion. A depersonalized body part creates a more stable visual image. At this point I interject the importance of being in love and being married (or in a committed relationship), and the risks and responsibility of becoming a teen parent, and then I move on to explain that the penis is made to fit into the vagina so it can deliver the sperm to the egg released by the ovary.
By now, kids have already begun formulating their own values. Frequent “check-ins” provide a better context for the information your child is getting. But avoid overkill and lectures or you’ll be tuned out and left out.
Not all parent-child sex talks are 100 percent effective. A Planned Parenthood Federation survey showed that half of all teens felt uncomfortable talking to their parents about sex (while 19 percent of parents felt uncomfortable) and that there needs to be more parent-teen discussion about the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Parents and teens have very varying perceptions about how often they discuss sex and what is being discussed. On one hand, parents think they’re giving sage advice, but teens hear a lecture. Teens need to have the right information to help them make smart choices about relationships and sex, and how to avoid getting pressured into sex when no one is around. Some great information can be found at www.plannedparenthood.org/letstalkmonth.
In Dr. Vanessa Cullins’ piece for the Huffington Post, “Why Parents Need to Talk With Their Kids About Sex” she discusses how hard it is for adults to talk frankly about sex with their kids. She reports that African Americans ages 13-24 account for 56 percent of new HIV cases, and nearly half of all African-American girls between 14 and 19 are infected with sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, herpes or HPV. The consequences of not talking are simply too great. Talk openly, honestly, and nonjudgmentally about sex, and the risks and the responsibilities associated with engaging in sexual activity for both boys and girls. Answer your kids’ questions, role play and seize opportunities to help them make smart decisions about their relationships and behavior. As I emphasize in class, in consensual sexual activity, everyone is responsible for their own actions. But I point out that the girl carries the ultimate burden of pregnancy.
Knowledge is powerful — you don’t have to depend on others to guide you. But self-esteem is more powerful and, at this juncture in their lives, it is pivotal. Knowing something but not having the fortitude to stand by it is a huge problem for teens. Besides sexting and remaining in abusive relationships, alcohol and substance abuse are all based on a lack of self-esteem. As such, it is critical that we help our children build self-esteem early on so they will want to take care of themselves and respect others.
Parents can build self-esteem by acknowledging their children’s efforts and accomplishments and by supporting their failures. By spending time with them. By encouraging long-term goal planning, like college and career.
Allowing them to talk about their plans not only strengthens our relationships with our kids, it also allows them to understand how the risks they take today may affect their dreams for tomorrow.
YOU ARE NOT THEIR FRIEND
It’s also essential that parents set and maintain guidelines that provide teens with the freedom they want with the boundaries they still need. Know their friends, discuss the movies they see and the places they go. Stay involved. This scenario makes it less likely (but not impossible) for teens to engage in risky behaviors before they’re ready.
Sex — like drugs and success — is out there. It always has been. As a parent it’s our job to acknowledge it, discuss it and keep the focus on the glorious path ahead.
Laurie Futterman is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.