If you are like many adults, your first introduction to the topic of sex came from a book handed to you from an embarrassed parent or an awkward one-time conversation on the subject from mom or dad. Likely, the important messages they wanted you to understand were never conveyed because of their own uncomfortableness with the situation. Although talking to a child about sex may never be easy, the stakes of not having the discussion are too high to ignore. How should parents approach this vital topic?
Talking about sex with kids is easier if you begin the conversation when they are young and curious about their bodies. Dr. Julie Steck of the Children's Resource Group, says parents should respond to kids' questions at a level they understand. So, for instance a question from a young child like "where do babies come from" doesn't require great detail at this age. Equally important, says Dr. Sarah Norris of the Children's Resource Group, is that parents try to honestly answer their children's requests for information. "This sends a message to your child that it is okay to keep asking questions," said Norris
More than just "The Talk"
A single conversation on the subject of sex can't cover the many facets of sex education kids need to understand. As children grow more questions come to light, which makes maintaining an ongoing conversation critical. When Indy's Child Facebook readers were asked for their input on the subject, Julie F. said that her discussions about sex began when her children were old enough to sit at the table, which she said makes "the hard stuff much easier when it is part of a normal conversation." Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at Harvard University, Dr. Claire McCarthy agrees that setting a tone that these kinds of discussions are welcome is key. "Most important is that parents need to establish that these are conversations they can have together, that their child can come and talk to them if they have questions or worries."
Looking at the statistics however, one wonders how many parents are having these conversations. According to the Guttmacher Institute's Facts on American Teens' Sources of Information about Sex, most teens initiate sex in their late teen years and most sexually experienced teens did not receive formal instruction about contraception before they initiated sex. While this doesn't mean that parents aren't talking to their kids about sex, it could mean that we need to get better at it.
Beyond school sex ed
Many parents let the topic of sex education become the responsibility of their child's school. Dr. McCarthy is adamant however, that sex education is not a substitute for parent-child conversations. "While they supplement and often say things that parents can't say, kids need to hear things from their parents." Parents can share family moral and religious beliefs as well their expectations about these issues, says Dr. Scott Curnow, Indianapolis pediatrician. "Schools do a fabulous job, but often they fit in only the cursory changes of puberty and personal relationships. Parents can go into more depth." Parents should cover the emotional aspects of having sex, mutual sexual respect, sexual orientation and abstinence.
When parents put in the time to address these topics with their kids, their messages do stick. Research shows that teens who talk to their parents about sex postpone sexual activity – especially risky behavior. Studies also show that parents are more influential in their children's attitudes about sex than any other person.