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Broaching the Birds and the Bees

The 'Talk'

So What's a Parent to Do? continued...

As your child grows, answer his or her questions about sex honestly and naturally, and be tuned to listen for the question behind the question. "Make sure the conversation is going in both directions," says Michael McGee, vice president of education for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York. "Make sure you listen to what your kids really want to know. Listen for what is really being asked. And find out what your kids think."

Especially with young children, earnest parents may give longer answers and more detailed information than their kids are ready for. McGee, a parent himself, admits that he's done this. "I've taken a teachable moment and beaten it to death with too much information," he says, "and I've seen my kids' eyes glaze over."

But McGee is quick to add that parents shouldn't worry too much about overdoing it. "There's no such thing as too much information," he says. "Kids do tune out what they don't need to know."

I Know There's a Book on This

Some parents will do better with a book in their hands. Visit your local library or bookstore and ask for Where Did I Come From? (for preschool and grade-school-age children); What's Happening to My Body (for preteens, boys' and girls' versions are available); It's Perfectly Normal (for kids going through puberty); or The New Teenage Body Book (an owner's manual for teens).

If you didn't start talking to your kids about sex early and they've now reached the "too embarrassing" age, one way to get a conversation started, Kilmer suggests, is to leave a book or two lying around the house where your kids can't miss them. Another way to get started talking about sex is to attend a workshop with your child; many organizations offer workshops and classes.

Don't They Learn This in School?

Many parents are nervous and anxious about sex education in the age of AIDS, McGee says, and they are very eager for the schools to take over the responsibility. But he doesn't advise taking that way out.

Despite some improvements, experts say, in most districts, sex education is too little, too late. In most cases, it is taught at the age when it is most embarrassing for children, around age 11 or 12. "The ages we wait for are some of the most self-conscious years in a kid's life," Kilmer says.

If parents don't take the initiative, kids will turn to their friends to pool their ignorance. They may take in misinformation and believe it for years, they may learn sex is something shameful to giggle about, and they may not even know what their parents' values are about sexuality.

McGee points out that parents who leave sex ed to the schools, or to their children's playground pals, lose the chance to pass on their values to their children; not just their values about sex per se, but about family and about relationships.

"What kids don't get in school is the stuff about the relationship, stuff about the feelings part of it," he says. "Teachers are most comfortable doing the factual physiology and anatomy of things. It's really hard for teachers to talk about relationships, emotions and values. ... The best place to teach that is at home."

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