Are Parents in the Dark About Children’s Sexual Activity?

A baby is born, and invariably the first question focuses on its gender. The answer will determine, to varying degrees, how a child is dressed, which toys she is given, and how others interact with her. From birth, children learn about love and touch. They experience relationships by observing their parents and those around them. Although they give children all these messages, few parents give much thought to what they want to teach their children about gender and sexuality. Many parents tend to focus on the “big talk” that, theoretically, they will have with their children “when they are ready,” answering all the questions in one session. These parents, who might envision having the talk with their child at age 10 or 11, may find themselves tongue-tied and flustered when their 4-year-old suddenly asks: “Where did I come from?” They may also be shocked to learn that by the time students are in the ninth grade, 34 percent have already had sexual intercourse.

Begin early The idea that sexuality education is a one-shot deal is wrong, say the experts. It is an ongoing process that should start at birth. In fact, issues related to values and sexuality should be discussed by parents even before the child is born. “We tend to think of sex education as a verbal act, but I would like people to get out of that mode,” says Deborah M. Roffman, M.S., a nationally certified sexuality and family life educator. “Sex education is a nurturing process that starts at birth with issues at every stage.” A report released recently by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota Adolescent Health Center showed that half of all mothers of sexually active teenagers mistakenly believe that their children are still virgins. Although the study did not examine why so many mothers were unaware of their children’s sexual activity, one of the study’s authors was willing to speculate: “Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to know.” Roffman says parents often delay bringing up the subject because they are uncomfortable and they may have no role models from their own childhood to use as a guide. “There is a notion of waiting for the ‘right ages’, but while they are waiting it just causes their own anxiety to build,” she says. “Most parents are not tuned into the cognitive stages of development and what children want to know at each stage. This results in starting too late with sex education.” In her book, Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parents’ Guide to Talking Sense about Sex, Roffman suggests it may be helpful for parents to start an early dialogue with their children about sexuality so that they have a reference point as the child reaches each developmental stage. Her advice to the parent faced with the 4-year-old questioning his origins is not to rush to interpret this question any more than one about geography — the child just wants to know physically where he was before he was born. Roffman also suggests keeping answers short, honest and to the point. An appropriate answer to this 4-year-old’s question would be: “You came from a special place inside Mommy’s body called a uterus.” This is probably all the information the child wants at this point.

Age-appropriate discussions At every stage, parents should be careful to listen to the question before giving an answer and should try to determine what is age-appropriate at the time, says Tamara Kreinin, M.H.S.A., president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “’Age-appropriate’ depends on the child; trust your instincts,” Kreinin says. “Don’t tell too much because you will probably bore the child with excess information. But also make sure you tell enough. “The most important message to give children is that it is OK to come to parents with questions. Start early and stay late,” says Kreinin, suggesting that parents should keep the communication open, starting young and extending through the teen years. “It’s not just about the one-hour talk. Kids need the basic information but they also want the bigger picture about love and relationships.” SIECUS, which promotes comprehensive education about sexuality, is aware that other people, aside from parents, are often involved in the child-rearing process, Kreinin explains. “It is important for parents to talk through values with grandparents, foster parents, nannies and babysitters. You might want to tell caregivers to teach the child proper names for genitals. Parents may also want to outline which questions are OK for the caregiver to answer and which questions they prefer to answer themselves, she suggests.

Talking, not doing? A common concern of many parents, Kreinin adds, is the notion that discussing sex with their children will encourage the child to engage in sexual activity. Kreinin says the opposite is true. In fact, one of the studies from which the Minnesota researchers drew their data showed that close relationships with mothers seemed to discourage youngsters from sexual activity; however the effect diminished with age and disappeared altogether among girls. “Children who have developed an honest and trusting relationship with their parents will probably delay having sex and will have fewer sexual partners,” says Kreinin, citing the findings of more than 30 other such studies on the topic. While it is ideal to start conversations about sexuality at a young age, Roffman says it is never too late to start, insisting that parents should not wait until the child brings up the subject. “As children go through elementary and middle school, they are increasingly exposed to sexual messages from outside sources including peers and media. Parents need to work at being the primary reference around these issues in order to communicate their own values to their children, she advises. “If you give your child values, you can frame any objections to media messages in terms of these values,” Roffman says. “The values we teach our children as babies and toddlers are the same values we want them to bring into a sexual situation: respect, caring and loyalty. We teach them that people are easily hurt and they need to take great care with other people’s feelings.”

Media as teaching aids Roffman adds that parents can use the media to provide “teachable moments”. When watching a television program with a sexually explicit scene, a parent can use that as an opportunity to open a discussion and as a chance to dispel misinformation that the child may be interpreting, she suggests. For example, a scene showing a couple in bed after their first date can give a parent the chance to explain that this is not the norm for relationships, opening the communication channels for a discussion about values in relationships and feelings. As children reach adolescence, parents need to change their communication style, she says. They should treat their children more like colleagues than charges, and listen without a hidden agenda. “Just as toddlers are driven to toddle, adolescents are driven to think on their own. Parents need to respect the child’s developmental need for privacy,” Roffman says, adding that respect for privacy should not be confused with setting limits, which parents still need to do.

What about abstinence? While most parents probably want their children to delay having sexual intercourse for as long as possible, she says they should be careful in the way they encourage abstinence. “Abstinence is about not doing something,” says Roffman, explaining that this can trigger a rebellious response from children. Instead, she recommends that parents frame delaying sexual activity in a positive way by telling their children: “Don’t cheat yourself,” or, “Sex is not bad, it can be very wonderful but it is also very powerful so you need to be very careful.” It is important that children understand the emotional and physical consequences of sexual activity, Roffman says, stressing the significance of providing them with information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. Under the first two years of the Bush administration, sex education has largely been discouraged in lieu of promoting abstinence; under the terms of financing, $135 million was allocated this year for courses that are forbidden to encourage the use of contraception. Training programs developed by Advocates for Youth and financed by the Clinton administration — designed to help parents take the awkwardness out of talking with their children about sex — have been held up. The delays, some sex educators say, could further widen the gap in communication between parents and children. “Many parents are scared of giving misinformation,” Kreinin says. “Parents need to be able to say they are not comfortable or don’t know the answer to a question, but tell their children they can find the answer together.” She adds that parents should provide children with additional resources for questions including a pediatrician, a gynecologist or an organization like Planned Parenthood.