Broaching the Birds and the Bees
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
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
"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."