By Melissa Havard, M.A
It’s often one of the most feared moments for parents– ever. (CUE theme from Jaws here) That time and place when you start getting THOSE questions from your son or daughter: Where did I come from? How are babies made? What’s a penis? And, finally, Mom or Dad, did you have sex before marriage?
It seems like we can talk to our children about so many things: the importance of getting good grades and staying in school (“without stellar report cards, you’ll NEVER get into college and your life will go down the toilet”); drugs (“Don’t do them!”); drinking and driving (“Don’t, but always have a designated driver and wear a seatbelt.”) Yet, when it comes to sex, our throat tightens up, we get all red in the face, and we usually say something along the lines of: “Mary, you’re not having sex, are you? Ok, good! Phew. End of discussion.”
Why are US parents so uncomfortable with sex, a normal, healthy part of life? Americans, by nature, are a bit more nervous about this topic than our friends in The Netherlands, France, and Germany. There are several theories as to why. Most, you’ve probably read about. As a former director of the LA Based, Media Project, I had the privilege to advance my studies in teen sexuality as a participant on an amazing three-week European Study Tour, specifically designed to compare and contrast sexual health attitudes, behavior and information and take away important lessons that may help– and in fact, positively effect outcomes in the States. This excellent program was developed by the non-profit organization, Advocates for Youth, and the tour included invited members of various clergy, teachers, health educators, political and community leaders, and students from all regions.
When you look at statistics on teen pregnancy, HIV/STD rates, number of abortions, onset of first sexual experience in The Netherlands, France, and Germany, the (wellness) numbers are staggeringly skewed favorably compared to similar US stats. Despite the (mis)perception that a more sexually open society = more promiscuity and bad outcomes, we (American) parents, might want to take a few notes. The key difference in Europe is then, HOW human sexuality is approached.
These countries approach sexuality as an expected process of human development—and therefore design sex education programs (in age appropriate measures) accordingly. Note that even in countries that have predominately strict religious beliefs, there is respect for the role of public health education. Safety in sex is tantamount to good health, productive citizens, and ultimately societal benefits, More importantly, it is a part of the fabric of the communication process. The notion of Rights, Respect and Responsibility* is a key component to all discourse.
If we come from the assumption that sex education SHOULD and CAN start in the home within the safety and trust of parents’ values and experiences, honest discussions at early ages, can lead to honest communication throughout childhood and through the tumultuous teen years, where often crucial decisions are made. Instead of cutting our children off, making them feel embarrassed, shaming, or threatening with “If I ever catch you…..,” calmly, openly, and when possible, with humor, encourage a discussion. When your kids trust you about sex, they will trust you about so many other aspects of their lives. You are the adult here, no snickering, no avoidance, buck up—no more ostriching.
Here are a few general tips that may be helpful guidelines in the process of building a healthy sex ed relationship with your children:
- Usually, small children began by asking names of their sex organs. Usually after a round of self discovery. So tell them. Use proper names. If you are matter of fact about it, they won’t think they are doing something wrong by asking.
- Manners and social norms are often step #2 conversations. (As in, we don’t touch other people’s bodies, we don’t grab our penises in public) even if some Major League Ball players seemed to have skipped this lesson.
- The next conversation usually involves “appropriateness.” As in, good touching, bad touching, listening to “uh oh” feelings, privacy rights, and what to do in case of abuse issues. If you are looking for words to use, you can find numerous online resources to supplement any anxiety you may have in this department. It’s an important topic and if your children don’t bring up questions by age 5 or 6, you need to start the dialogue.
- Tweens (9-12 year olds) may be physically developing earlier than we did way back in the dinosaur age; therefore, I recommend having “your body is going to change and this is what you can expect” conversations somewhere around 9 or 10 years old. Yes, schools teach basic anatomy and physiology but we should be ahead of the curve as parents. It’s our job to impart our values and create a safety net. Couch the conversation with “ I’m here for you in case you have any questions. There is nothing to be embarrassed about, it’s all part of growing up.”
- Teens/young Adults. No matter what your current values, no matter how much you may want to hide your children in their rooms and never let the hormone dripping monsters out until late adulthood, we must accept that our teens will have sexual feelings. Always have and always will. And, as much as our children may want to respect our wishes of abstinence or delaying serious dating, the statistics of sexually active teens, particularly by the age of twelfth grade, indicate that well over half are sexually active. Do the math and don’t kid yourself, your son and daughter most likely will not be completely chaste upon high school graduation. Whatever your values are about sex and dating, ultimately, we all want our children to NOT have to pay for a spontaneous lack of control, which many of us have experienced ourselves (despite our own parents wishes, threats and cajoling.) Mistakes happen. No matter what your religion, race or socio economic level. We can look in the media and find numerous examples of human error from all walks of life. Why would we want anyone to get a life threatening disease, or experience an unwanted pregnancy because of ignorance or a momentary lapse in judgment? Therefore, it is crucial that you have a rationale, calm and meaningful discussion about the importance of safe sex. Talking about safe sex, doesn’t mean you are condoning the behavior. (No more than talking about designated drivers, and having contracts about safe rides, mean you condone “drinking and driving.”) On the contrary, if you talk about values and reality, concern and consequences, you are more likely to have your kids continue to come to you with questions and make better decisions. At the end of the day, we want our children safe, alive, and able to come to us and trust that we will support, nurture and give good guidance.