Speaking About Sex — Why Parents Matter Most

   When is a good time to begin reading to your child? Some experts believe that even infants benefit from this early form of communication. If you begin the practice of regular time for one-to-one reading, books become a welcome and established part of family life. True, your infant will not understand word meanings, but he will enjoy the comfort of a regular activity. He will eventually begin to enjoy the pictures and comprehend and associate words. Some day, he will be an independent reader, choosing his own books!

   When it comes to talking about sex, there are parallels. When communication and open discussions are routine, there are many opportunities to exchange thoughts and information. This information will, in later years, be about changing bodies, relationships, and often confusing media messages.

   Curiosity is a continuous phenomenon. When it comes to sex and sexuality, questions will begin gradually but will increase exponentially as your child nears puberty. This usually begins between 9 and 11 for girls and between 10 and 12 for boys. This may vary slightly, but guaranteed, there are hormonal changes taking place even in the absence of obvious physical change.

   It is wise to remember, that, like reading, the goal is to give information in a supportive manner. Eventually, your teenager will be making decisions based on this information. If you have created a comfort level, you will continue to be a valued source. When sex is the subject, the stakes are high. Hopefully, your children’s independent choices will be based on accurate information and reflect values that are meaningful.

   Raising a child in an era of text messaging, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and fallen idols (Britney, Paris etc.) is a daunting task. We live in a sexually open, sexually charged, dynamic time. It is almost impossible to shield our pre-teens from the explicit messages, images and culture in music, print and TV that bombard and confuse them. Just at a time when they are coming to terms with changed bodies and responsibility, they must reconcile self-image with what they see “out there”. It is important that parents affirm the changes they are experiencing. Your child is, undeniably, a sexual being from birth. This sexual identity has now become an important part of life.

   Parents can restrict or monitor the messages to some extent, but it is nearly impossible to completely protect our kids. The next best thing is to work as the “cultural interpreter” for your child. That means discussion, dialogue and time spent talking. Parents are, of course, the first and primary educators of their children. Unfortunately, many parents avoid discussions concerning sex until puberty is reached. To use the book example, this would be equivalent to handing your middle school child a cardboard picture book.

   Information is needed as soon as language and active learning begin. Speaking comfortably to a 2-year-old about sexual body parts (using correct names) is gateway to discussion about changing bodies at puberty, dating, relationships and later, risk behaviors. Imagine being asked by your 10-year-old about AIDS or condoms if discussions about sex have never taken place. Chances are, you will not be asked. Chances are that the information needed will be gleaned from classmates, the Internet or TV shows. There is a very good chance that this information will be distorted, factually incorrect, have a “spin” or contain T.M.I (too much information!). Often we fear questions because we anticipate lengthy, abstract discussions. In reality, short, age-appropriate answers are best. When a 4- or 5-year-old asks, “Where did I come from”?, they are not ready to hear about sexual intercourse. A short, “You grew in a special place in mommy’s body” will do. The questions will continue exponentially as they are ready.

   Later, that same child will ask how the baby first got into mom’s body. Years later, the questions about condoms, abortion, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and much more will arise. The rules are the same. Age-appropriate, factual information is best. If you are avoiding an answer, you are missing the opportunity to be your child’s source and interpreter. Parents know their children best. Language, body posture, learning styles, sensitivities and insecurities all factor into ideal learning conditions. And parents know these best.

   That said, don’t worry if you think you have waited too long. Puberty offers a wonderful “window” of opportunity. As physical changes become noticeable, parents can begin by simply commenting on the changes about to or already happening. Sometimes planning a shopping time for new-sized clothes or even first bras can be a fun way to open discussion of other changes going on. Clothing also offers an insight into self-image and attitudes toward growing up. It is good to affirm the changes in a matter-of-fact way. Other opportunities include watching TV shows and commercials with your child. There are sure to be sexual references along the way.

   When it comes to TV and clothing, setting limits is most important. If you think it is inappropriate, set limits. Experts commonly agree that children need and want limits and rules. As they become more independent and influenced by peers, this does not change. Children grappling with changed bodies, changed social patterns and new responsibilities are bolstered by knowing that there are boundaries and rules to guide them. Another, more traditional approach to discussion is books on the subject. Buying, reading and then giving an age–appropriate book is a simple way to begin discussion. Let your child know you read and liked the book and would like to discuss it when they are ready.

   Of course you can wait until middle-school when most districts offer Health Education as a required course. At this level, sex and reproductive issues are introduced. By this time, most students are well into puberty and are finding the opinions and acceptance of peers very important. If you have waited this long, you should still get information on the curriculum and have discussions about it at home. By the time most children are 10 years old (or sooner, if ready), they need to understand the anatomical and physiological changes about to occur or already happening. Both boys and girls should have an understanding of hormones and how these make secondary sex changes in their bodies.

   The fact that this is all perfectly normal and, in fact, a good thing, makes dealing with hair growth in new places, acne and menstruation more acceptable.

   Once this foundation is in place, there should be discussions about menstruation and spermatogenesis. There is so much information on the Internet and in books, parents can become instant experts.

   In a society that dictates often unreasonable standards for beauty, it is important that there is discussion about body image at this time. Puberty is a time of great anxiety about being different. Short boys, chubby girls and being flat-chested are all causes for worry. When there is an understanding that puberty is a process that occurs over several years, these fears may be allayed. It is also important for both boys and girls to have an understanding of changes in the opposite sex. This is important in establishing both sensitivity and parity. Healthy attitudes about sexuality start here.

   Finally, there are all those subjects that follow: Hygiene, fitness, dating and relationships, safe sex, AIDS, and more. You should be there to inform and guide.

   But for now, if you are the parent of a younger child don’t miss your “window” . It is wide open for now, but the seasons are about to change.

For Parents:

Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex, Deborah Roffman

But How’d I Get in There in the First Place? Talking to Your Young Child About Sex, Deborah Roffman

For Children:

My Body, My Self (For Boys or Girls), Lynda Madaras

It’s So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth and Babies, and Families, Robie Harris

Changing You: A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality, Gail Saltz and Lynne Avril Cravath

Amazing You: Getting Smart About Your Private Body Parts, Gail Saltz and Lynne Avril Cravath
American Girl Series — Growing Up Books

BARBARA SANTARELLI has been a school nurse in White Plains for the past 17 years. Before that, her work included five years in an adolescent in-patient unit in a major hospital. For the past 15 years, she has dedicated herself to Puberty Education programs. Her focus on the niche group (9- to 11-year-olds) is part of the permanent curriculum in the White Plains public schools, and she offers the program to private schools and organizations as an after-school program called ”Tween Scene 101”.  She can be reached at Bsantarelli@mac.com or (914) 779-7896.