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Broaching the Birds and the Bees

The 'Talk'

WebMD Feature

Nov. 26, 2001 -- When baby boomer girls were 12 or so, their mothers would hand over a little booklet called ""Becoming a Woman,"" which covered the basics of sex and menstruation. A couple of days later the mother would ask if her daughter had any questions. Typically, the embarrassed girl would say no, and that was the end of her at-home sex education.

There was a boys' version, too: A father-to-son talk along the lines of, "Don't get any girl pregnant before you can support a wife and family." And there were the horror stories, including a 13-year-old girl whose mom waited too long to have "The Talk," and poor Sandy started her period without knowing what it was. After three days of bleeding -- and thinking she was dying -- she finally went to her mother.

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Later, as part of health class in the ninth and tenth grades, baby-boomer teen-agers were segregated by gender and told to label diagrams of the inner workings of the male and female reproductive systems, learning lots of useless, but impressive details like just how many miles of tubing are crammed into a man's testicles. They also watched an endless parade of black-and-white movies on the horrors of venereal disease, but they never discussed the really burning question of adolescence: Should they or should they not "do it?"

It's not surprising that today's parents, who had this kind of experience at home, often find it difficult to talk to their own children about sex. "I do think it is hard for us as parents, because we did not have parents who spoke to us with relative ease on this subject, if at all," says Karen Hoskins, an Oregon mother of three. "I have just tried to be as honest as I can, and keep any embarrassing thoughts in the back of my mind. I want them to see my honesty and remember it, and then hope they will come to me when they need to ask something."

So What's a Parent to Do?

Most experts agree that parents shouldn't wait for some magical moment to have their own version of The Talk. Sex education goes down better if it is a part of life, starting whenever your child is old enough to ask questions.

"My best suggestion is to talk to kids really early, when they're too young to be embarrassed," says Joyce Kilmer, a parent educator who is employed by the state government in Olympia, Wash. "It's less embarrassing for you, too, and they are very matter-of-fact at ages 4, 5 and 6. After they've been on the playground for a few years, and heard a lot of snickering, is too late."

Even before that, Kilmer suggests naming the sex organs as you name other body parts while you play with your young child or baby in the tub. "This is your tummy, this is your penis."

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