How to handle this rite of passage.
There's a rite of passage every parent dreads: the birds and the bees discussion.
Just hearing about it makes us break into a cold sweat and nervous laughter, until we push it out of our minds and postpone it for a distant time.
If more of us considered the facts, we would realize that the stakes are just too high to let embarrassment prevent us from talking to our kids about sex. The statistics speak for themselves: teen pregnancy is on the rise again in America, a sexually active teen not using contraception has a 90 percent chance of getting pregnant within 12 months, and close to 50 percent of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) contracted in a given year are by individuals ages 15-24. But parents continue to wait for that magical age when their child is old enough to have the big talk.
As a mother, I too am guilty of procrastinating initiating a healthy dialogue about sexual reproduction with my children. Because my oldest is only 8 years old, I thought I had years to go before broaching the topic and never transitioned out of referring to my children's private parts by childish potty training names. But the other day, I had a wake-up call.
I was sitting with my daughter, noticing how grown up she seemed with her long limbs and her sassy attitude when I realized the days of zit cream and first bras were suddenly within range. Gripped with a nameless dread, I asked her gently if she knew where babies came from. She answered quickly and without hesitation, "Babies come from your butt."
Her innocent answer reassured me that she was still my baby under her cool clothes, but it also filled me with guilt. I worried that she might be ridiculed if the topic of sex or private parts came up with her little clique of girlfriends. It was clearly time to rectify her lack of information about the reproductive system before it was too late.
The media is flooded with segments and articles about pinpointing the right time to have the big talk. But Mary Halter, author of 101 Questions Kids Really Ask ... and the Answers They Need to Know, claims that, "Perpetuating this myth that there is a time to start is our biggest problem.
There shouldn't be one talk. Families should begin a healthy discussion as soon as a child can speak about body parts." Denise Wible, a mother of two in Powell, said, "We've given our children little snippets of information their whole lives. It's actually easier to approach this topic gradually. I didn't want to wait to spring it on them and shock them, or wait for their friends to fill them in."
Diane Kopp, a stay-at-home mother of four in Dublin, felt that she was robbed of her chance to tell her two oldest daughters about sex because their friends talked to them before she did. She ended up having to play catch-up to redress the misconceptions her daughters' friends had passed on, and considers herself lucky to have an open communication with her daughters today. As a result, she made sure to begin talking about sex earlier with her two younger children.
The library is a great place to prepare yourself to talk with your children. You'll find dozens of titles targeted toward parents and kids of all ages covering every possible question related to body parts and sex. Spend a few hours reading, letting the questions wash over you, familiarizing yourself with the vocabulary. As you read, take note of what you feel comfortable discussing, and what feels out of bounds. Deciding up front whether you want to discuss same-sex marriage and pregnancy out of wedlock will help you prepare for possible questions.
Experts agree that the first step toward establishing an open environment is to call body parts by their given, clinical names. Using childish terms early on, such as "wee wee" and "pee pee," being vague by referring to "down there," or telling children that babies are carried in the stomach just leads to confusion at later ages and can create a sense of shame. Halter advised, "There's nothing wrong with telling children that a baby is grown in a special place called the uterus." She further advises parents to get comfortable with words like urethra and penis by saying them over and over in front of the mirror until they sound as benign as dog and cat.
Of course, different age groups will have different age-appropriate topics. It's a good idea to bring up topics as questions arise and to clarify exactly what question children are asking. Preschool children should learn the appropriate names for body parts, what constitutes inappropriate touching, and the basic mechanics of pregnancy. In the later elementary years as children near middle school, they should hear about puberty, healthy relationships, and what information is appropriate to upload to the web.
If the dialogue has been constant and free-flowing, by the time your child reaches high school and you need to address sexually transmitted diseases, consensual sex, and birth control, the all-important discussion will be less painful for all.
Amber Madison, author of Talking Sex with Your Kids: Keeping Them Safe and You Sane by Knowing What They're Really Thinking, feels strongly that both parents have valuable insights to share with their children, regardless of their comfort level discussing intimate topics. While sons may be more comfortable asking their fathers questions about penises, hearing about their mothers' experiences will help them get a good sense of healthy relationships.
Jason Gonzalez, father of two in Columbus, has been the primary initiator of sex talks with his teenage son, but he always coordinates the discussions with his ex-wife so she can weigh in with her own point of view.
Regardless of when you begin talking to your children about sex, be sure the dialogue continues and that you remain an approachable, ask-able parent. Set up a standing one-on-one weekly date with your children and encourage them to keep a log of issues they want to discuss.
Use news stories and movie plots to stimulate relevant conversation. With an ongoing discussion in an open environment, the questions will flow naturally, eliminating the need for one awkward and ineffective sex lecture.
Vanessa Druckman is a freelance writer and blogger living in the Columbus area with her husband and three children. She blogs about cooking and parenting at www.chefdruck.com.