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Sex Education: What Every Parent Should Know
Parents are the primary sexuality educators of children. Experts urge parents to be "askable", and to take advantage of "teachable" moments. But many parents find their kids NEVER ask about sex, or that teachable moments never happen when they have the time, the mood or a kid who’s listening. Many a parent has resolved to have "that talk" only to be met with a breezy, Oh, don’t worry, I know all THAT stuff! This leaves the parent wondering where, how, and "all WHAT stuff?" Parents sometimes are inhibited, not sure what is appropriate to talk about when, or feel rejected when they try. Somehow their idea of cozy home chats about sex never turn out as they had planned.
One of many parents’ worries is that they could somehow "harm" their child by introducing too much information about sex at too early an age. It is a myth that knowledge about sex is harmful. Virtually all opposition to sex education is based on the assumption that young people who know about sex will practice it. Yet research shows that well-informed young people are more likely to delay sexual experiences and then to practice more responsible behaviours if they do have sex.
Teachers of sex education say they can tell which students have had the benefit of home-based counsel--they’re more confident, less giggly, and have more seriously informed views and values.
However uncomfortable parents may feel, children, even teenagers, say that they want guidance and advice from their parents about sex. Each stage of a child’s development offers an opportunity to integrate sexuality concepts at an increasingly mature level. It may help if parents think of sexuality education as a gradual, life-long process—another aspect of preparing their child to be fully human.Five to Nine-Year-Olds
Many parents find it’s easiest to talk about sex when their kids are very young. By the time a child is in preschool or early school, you’ll want them to know appropriate words for the sex parts of the body and for bodily functions, and that "sex talk" is for private times at home. They are usually ready to understand how babies are made, how they grow, and how they are born. Sometimes this is hard for parents to put in young children’s terms. A simple version is When a woman and a man love each other and go to bed together, they like to kiss and hug. Sometimes, if they both want to, the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina and that feels really good for both of them. A liquid containing sperm comes out of the man’s penis and goes inside the woman. If one tiny sperm from the man meets one tiny egg inside the woman’s body, a baby is started and the man and the woman will be the baby’s parents. The baby grows inside a special place in the woman’s body called the uterus and after about nine months it comes out through the vagina. That’s how a baby is born. You can go into more or less detail if you want, but it might be best to ask if the child has any questions and take your cues from that. You can put in values that are important to you, such as if you feel the couple should be married.
Preschool and early school-age children need to know that boys’ and girls’ bodies are different, but that they are the same in most other ways. Discourage ridicule of the opposite sex and challenge stereotypes of "masculine" or "feminine" behaviour in either boys or girls. Model respect for differences in your own life.
Young children should also know the difference between "good" and "bad" touch and between "private" and "secret". For example, Going to the bathroom is private; it’s not wrong, it’s just something you keep to yourself. But if someone makes you promise to keep something secret and you feel bad about it, you should probably tell Mom or Dad or someone you trust.Nine to Thirteen-Year-Olds
Preteens need to be prepared well in advance for the changes of puberty—when they are in the throes of it, they may not be able to hear. In girls, breast development begins on average about two years before menstruation—anywhere from 9 to 11 years, sometimes later. Boys may start to have "wet dreams" or nocturnal emissions a little later. Their growing sense of privacy and independence will be enhanced if you matter-of-factly explain how to look after these functions and then "butt out", offering to help if they need it. Try to keep explanations short and simple, drawing out what they already know and then discussing fears or misconceptions. An important point to include in such discussion is something along these lines: Once you are old enough to have periods or to have an erection and ejaculation, your body is able to have sex and have a baby. But it takes a long time after that to become emotionally ready to have a child. Everybody takes time to grow up.
Late developing boys and early developing girls may often need the most understanding and frequent reassurance that in a few years their development will be almost the same as their friends’. Appreciate their need to be like their peers, but support their right and responsibility to be themselves too. Don’t wait for questions—they may never come. Instead, use day-to-day events where you agree or disagree with the sexual behaviors being portrayed to start conversations about sexual values. Don’t forget to include the emotional highs and lows of puberty and early adolescence. Laugh with them, not at them, about some of the silly things people say or do about sex. And maintain positive touch—a hug, or a stroke of the hair can go a long way to restoring a fragile ego. Besides, you are helping your child become someone who can show affection without it needing to be sexual.Teen Years
You’ll have to seize those occasional moments when they seem to want to talk. (Watch for them--they’re easily missed!) LISTEN to stories about school or friends and try to ask open-ended questions: So, what did you think when she said that? It is perfectly normal to feel shut out of areas of your teen’s life where you used to be intimately involved. Don’t take it personally--they’re working on a very difficult but necessary developmental task: establishing independence from you. Just be there when they need someone to rail against or fall back on. If you see a concern, try something like I’m not trying to pry into your personal life, but I was worried when I noticed…. Use your own experiences, but don’t go into too much detail. Discuss mistakes you made if you hope your child won’t repeat them, but remember, they’re not you!
Try to work these issues into conversations: being pressured to have sex, (boys AND girls!), getting health care or birth control without parental consent, the very real dangers of sexually transmitted disease and AIDS, when you think it’s right to have sex, and when not, and LOVE. Also include discussion of homosexuality and sex role stereotypes and the role society plays in defining what is "normal". Sex is not what you do; it is part of who you are.
Don’t be afraid to state where you stand on teenagers having sex. Many parents would agree with something like, For many reasons, I hope you’ll decide not to have sex while you are a teenager. There’s the possibility of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases which have the potential to change your whole life forever. Even if birth control methods and condoms were 100% foolproof--and they aren’t—the people who use them are not. And even though you may feel very strongly about a certain person now, it is part of growing up to change often. You may regret sharing something so intimate with someone who you find you’ve changed your mind about , or who changes their mind about you. It’s your decision, but I hope you will wait. I hope you will talk it over with someone else you trust, if you feel you just can’t talk to me. If you do make the decision to have sex, it is your responsibility to yourself and to your partner to protect yourself against pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.
Mainly, help them sweat it out through those awful times. Involvement with varied activities is a self-esteem booster and expands their horizons beyond a narrow social set, which they may feel can "make or break" them. If you include your ideas about the joys of human sexuality and about the love and pleasure that can come from a positive and fulfilling sexual relationship, it provides a positive goal, not just a negative "don’t". And, if you can’t seem to establish rapport, many parents find it helps to put their teen in touch with another adult who could be a trusted confidant. This is not a failure; it is a strategy of effective parenting.Toward Adulthood
It is difficult for parents to come to terms with the fact that their children are sexual beings. Try to remember your overall goals. Ask yourself before you begin a lecture, is this going to help my child become a sexually healthy adult? You may make a few mistakes, but teenagers tell us that they appreciate their parents’ efforts to talk to them, even when they seem to be rejecting them completely. What matters is the spirit in which your counsel is offered. What you’re trying to do is show your child that you care about their well-being, that you think sex is a wonderful part of life, and that you want them to grow to be adults who have the capacity for the joy and sharing that comes with a meaningful sexual relationship.
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Reprinted from Sex Wise—a
newsletter of Planned Parenthood of Toronto, Fall 1993.
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