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Broaching the Birds and the Bees

The 'Talk'

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

"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."

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.

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