Talking to kids about sex

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I don’t remember my parents ever having the BIG TALK with me. I think I just asked my mom questions about sex as they came up and she told me what she knew.

Apparently that’s pretty typical. Experts say kids often take the lead, asking simple questions about sex as their curiosity dictates. If they haven’ started doing that by the age of 5, then parents need to be more proactive, initiating age-appropriate discussions as opportunities arise.

“Parents need to get across (the fact) that they are askable,” according to Marilyn Heins, M.D., F.A.A.P., a pediatrician who writes a parenting column for parentkidsright.com. Children need to know that, whatever the questions are as they grow — about sex, drugs, alcohol, anything — they can ask their parents about it and get answers, she says.

“Children start getting sexual messages from the moment they are born, so it is important to start opening the lines of communication early,” says Renee Marshall, director of education and outreach for Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona. “This can start as simply as talking about sex organs in the same way we talk about other body parts such as arms, toes and ears. Use the correct terms for these parts — penis, vulva, breasts — so that children don’t get the idea that these parts are somehow “dirty” or “wrong.”

As children get older, they will want increasingly more detailed information on sex and where babies come from, Marshall says.

“Children in the primary grades may be shy about asking questions. But most of them will have heard about such things as AIDS, rape and child abuse. So it is important to utilize ‘teaching moments’ to initiate conversations, such as when (they are) watching a TV show or discussing neighborhood gossip,” she says. “In the later elementary years, from (ages) 8 to 12, they will need information on puberty to prepare them for the changes their bodies will start making. Sharing your family’s values around sexuality is also very important. These are the guidelines that will help young people to make responsible choices as they become teenagers.”

Kristin Shepherd, M.D., of Great Destinations Pediatrics in Glendale, asks parents what they have discussed with their children about sex and makes suggestions about how to approach it.

“For little girls around 8 or 9, I ask parents if they’ve talked to them about physical changes they will experience — like hair under the arms, pubic hair and growing breasts. I tend to hold off a little longer for boys, until they are around 10 or 11. They will see the size of their genitals changing and hair under their arms. There will also be emotional changes and they need to know they are not alone.”

Being honest is key when talking about sex with your children. If you are uncomfortable, experts recommend, just say so.

“Recognize that most people are uncomfortable talking about sex with their children,” says Marshall. “You can say,’This is really uncomfortable for me to talk about. My parents never talked with me about sex. But I love you and I want you to feel that you can talk to me about anything.’ The important thing is to convey that you are willing to be as open and honest with them as you want them to be with you. And remember to keep a sense of humor.”

Make sure you understand what your child is asking.

“Often parents panic and think they have to launch into a detailed discussion about where babies come from when really a very simple answer, like ‘Babies grow in a special place inside the mother,’ would have done fine,” says Marshall. “To get more clarification on a child’s question you can ask, ‘What have you heard about that?’ This also gives you a chance to dispel any myths they may have heard from their friends or any misconceptions they may have.”

If you don’t know an answer, say you aren’t sure but will look it up. If you are still unsure about what to tell your child, ask your pediatrician, your child’s teacher or school nurse or clergy members for advice.

“You can also ask the parents of your child’s friends how they address these topics and perhaps you can be supports for one another. If there is a family member or close family friend that you trust (and that person is agreeable), you can tell your child that they can go to this person to talk if they don’t feel comfortable coming to you about a particular issue,” Marshall suggests.

Heins says parents have to be prepared to keep educating their children.

The entire world comes in your house with the TV and computer,” she says. “You don’t have to be afraid of giving the child too much information.”

Learn more

BOOKS

  • Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask) by Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster
  • From Diapers to Dating: A Parents Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children by Debra W. Haffner
  • Raising a Child Responsibly in a Sexually Permissive World by Sol and Judith Gordon
  • Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex by Deborah M. Roffman
  • What’s Happening To My Body? Book for Boys by Lynda Madaras
  • What’s Happening To My Body? Book for Girls by Lynda Madaras

WEBSITES

American Academy of Pediatrics

Families Are Talking

Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona

Talking with Kids About Tough Issues

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