Broaching the Birds and the Bees

The 'Talk'

5 min read

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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

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."