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Health & Sex

The Sex Talk

How are your kids learning about sex?
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The Solutions

So what's a concerned parent to do? Experts agree that the responsibility is too important to be left to schools, which means that it's your job as a parent. If you're uncomfortable with the idea, it may help to know this: "Research shows that children, including teenagers, wish their parents would talk to them more about sex than they do," says Monica Rodriguez, director of information and education for SIECUS. "Whether they say anything about [sex] or not, parents are their children's primary sex educators. To say nothing is to say a lot."

A study conducted for the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy released earlier this year found that parents think they discuss sex with their kids much more than the kids say they do. So forget the old notion that one talk about the birds and bees is enough. Even group programs like the ones Melby and his sons attended are only a first step. "You can't attend one with your child and feel your work is done," says Melby. Communication must be ongoing.

How to Communicate With Your Kids About Sex

Start by considering what kind of example you set by your own behavior (television viewing and reading habits, for instance) and how you talk about sex. "Children learn sexuality from birth by observing and listening to everyday occurrences," Rodriguez says.

Begin your discussions early. "If you've never brought up sexuality topics with your kids by the time they're 10 or 11, they'll get the idea it's taboo," says Leslie Kantor, MPH, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood of New York City.

Experts also advise taking advantage of "teachable moments" -- such as television programs, billboards, news events, or a neighbor's or a pet's pregnancy -- that can serve as opportunities to initiate discussions. Always be aware of the question behind the question, the unspoken "Am I normal?" Reassure your kids that they are normal and that many other young people have asked the same questions.

You and your child can take advantage of information resources together. A few examples: Planned Parenthood Federation of America's Talking About Sex kit includes a videotape and booklets (1-800-669-0156; or http://www.plannedparenthood.org/store). SIECUS has a bibliography for parents and children. Talking With Kids About Tough Issues, a national campaign by Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation, also has resources.

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