The Sex Talk

How are your kids learning about sex?

4 min read

May 29, 2000 -- Todd Melby is the editor of Contemporary Sexuality, a publication of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. You wouldn't think that he'd need any help teaching his two sons about the facts of life. But the Minneapolis dad acknowledges that he did.

"The schools concentrate on anatomy, but there's much more to sex than that," Melby says. "I wanted my kids to learn about the moral and emotional aspects as well, and I didn't want to leave it to chance."

That's why Melby attended a day-long father-son workshop sponsored by Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota with his 12-year-old son. There, with the help of facilitators and sex educators, the 10- to 12-year-old boys learned about their sexual development. Fathers and sons took turns talking and listening to each other. Later, Melby went to a church-sponsored program on sex education with his other son, who was 14.

Enlightened programs such as these are rare. That's unfortunate, because when it comes to sex ed, there's a big difference between what American parents say they want from schools and what the schools provide.

For instance, a 1999 poll by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in New York City showed that 93% of Americans support teaching sex education in high schools (84% also approve of sex ed in middle school and junior high). But a survey of 825 public school districts released late last year by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that only one in seven actually teaches a comprehensive program that treats abstinence as one option but includes instruction on contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. One in three districts surveyed prohibits discussion of contraception or only emphasizes its shortcomings while it advocates an abstinence-only policy.

Statistics from such diverse organizations as the American Medical Association, the National Council of Churches, and the YWCA, as well as hundreds of published studies, show that abstinence-only programs not only fail to discourage young people from having intercourse but also may increase the chances that they will not use contraception and condoms when they do have sex.

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.

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 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.

When you do talk to your kids, don't just focus on the mechanics of sex or on the unhealthy aspects, such as unwanted pregnancy. Children also need to know about the emotional aspects and what constitutes a healthy, caring relationship.

"Sex education is more than just talking about the nuts and bolts," Melby says. "It's also about setting up a moral framework and communicating positive values regarding topics like dating, marriage, and parenthood."

Sharon Cohen is senior editor of Shape and Fit Pregnancy magazines.

Waiting for the Right Time: Teen Abstinence -- Tamara Kreinin -- 11/13/02

Talking with Your Teen -- David Elkind, PhD -- 8/20/03

The Role of the Media and TV in Adolescent Sexuality Education and Pregnancy Prevention -- Kate Langrall-Folb -- 05/23/2000

Young Adults: Relationships and Health with Drew Pinsky, MD

Age-Appropriate Sexuality Education: What to Tell Your Children and When with Barbara Huberman