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The Talk – Sex Answer for Every Age

Do you remember the first time you learned about sex? I do. I found out about sex during my third grade lunch period.

Instead of talking about Barbies, trading peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or complaining about homework assignments as we usually did, one of the girls in our lunch group decided to share what her mother had told her about sex. I was shocked. Previous to this information, I thought babies were made when mommies took a special pill. Yes, this is how misinformed I was at 8.

After I learned about sex over PB & J, I proudly went home that afternoon and announced to my mother, “I know what sex feels like!” My mother, mortified, sat down and asked exactly what I meant. I cheerfully explained that my friend at school taught me what sex was and told me how it would feel. My mother then introduced me to a stack of books on anatomy and human reproduction – far less salacious material than cafeteria talk.

Today, children have access to a world of information. They hear about it in schools before they even know what it is. They learn a pornographer’s library of vocabulary from their classmates, and if parents aren’t observing their Internet use, it’s not just words they’re picking up. Today, having the talk with your children isn’t so much about mechanics as meaning: What sex means to you, and what you’d like it to mean to them. This is your chance to teach your child what you value.

When and How to Start

If you have a young child and you have not had the talk, you are probably wondering about the best time. There are a lot of variations of the discussion. Talking about aspects of sex can begin as early as the preschool years. Some experts advise to begin by teaching children their body parts and explaining why girls and boys have different genitalia. As they age, you can expand on this foundation. This means the talk isn’t a one-time event – it’s a series of talks, an ongoing discussion, which is far more valuable to keeping communication lines open throughout young adulthood.

Ages and Stages

Children vary greatly in their maturity levels and life experiences, so giving parents a one-size fits all timeline for what to say when doesn’t work very well. Therefore, you will need to adjust your talk to the stage level – not the age level – that is appropriate for your child.

Preschool: This is an appropriate time to talk to children about body parts. They will often have questions like, “Why do boys have penises and girls have vaginas?” While your child may have pretend names for body parts, be sure to use the correct anatomy terms when explaining body parts. (Anything you tell them will probably be repeated in school, after all!) Simple explanations work best since it is too complicated to discuss intercourse and reproduction in detail. Your answer to where do babies come from? Mommies’ tummies or an equally simple explanation is acceptable.

Early elementary school: By this time, children become very curious about things like kissing, and they have probably seen forms of intimacy on TV that they have questions about. Some elementary school children are already discussing elements of sexuality so this is a good time to begin a cursory, kid-friendly discussion of reproduction. Some parents utilize books to begin the discussion; others use a family talk time to start the discussion. Still other parents prefer a more casual car-ride conversation.

Late elementary school: Preparation for what your child can expect during puberty is key to helping them navigate this complicated life stage. Some schools do an excellent job of sex/health education — with a signed permission slip – but they may not teach your child the values about sex you want him or her to learn. I recommend treating any school discussion as a supplement to your own conversations.

Middle school: There is so much discussion in middle school about sex, types of sex, pregnancy and STDs, but there is far more inaccurate information circulating than real facts. Additionally, there are the stresses of identity crises, school bullying and peer pressure related to sexual acts. Do know that your child and her friends may be engaging in sexual acts at this age so use your after-school conversations as teaching moments for facts and your value system.

Teens/high school: By this time, teens know what sex is. However, you should still check in with your teen to see whether they have any questions. While your teen probably won’t come to you with every question about sex, he may still be willing to ask a few questions. This is a good time to discuss your teen’s long-term goals and explain the consequences of unintended pregnancy and STDs.

There’s No Such Thing as the Perfect Talk

If you’ve been saving up your parental wisdom until now, mentally refining your sex spiel until you have scripted the perfect talk, you’ll only psych yourself out. It’s okay to admit to your child or teen that talking about sex is nerve-wracking for you. Depending on your child’s age, she may feel uncomfortable as well. But starting the conversation is vitally important to letting your child know that it’s safe to discuss this very important matter. Numerous studies show that children and teens are significantly influenced by their parents’ views, although sometimes parents are left feeling as if their words make little impact. So ignore the sighs and rolling of the eyes when you are talking to your child about sex – they still hear what you are saying.

Sexting and Social Media

Social media and the Internet work at lightning speeds to teach your children about sex. But the Internet doesn’t stop at show-and-tell. In this age, it’s your responsibility to teach them about sexual predators, and the long-ranging consequences of posting explicit material on social media. Don’t forget to check their cell phones for sexually explicit pictures and texts. Today, it’s just as important to discuss your views on your child’s social media, Internet, and cell phone usages as what they do with their physical bodies. There is a myth that talking to children about something will make them do it but that has not been found to be the case.

Reality Check: Your Teen May Be Having Sex

At some point parents are faced with the decision to give their children protection in the form of condoms, birth control pills, or other mechanisms to protect against pregnancy and/or STDs. Whether or not you choose to supply your kid with condoms, you do need to make your decision as a parent and tell your child why you are taking your stance on the issue. Some parents believe in an abstinence approach while other parents may provide birth control/STD protection. Still other parents may choose to teach their teens ways to protect themselves but not actually give them the tools with which to do it. Again, parents should make this decision early and explain their choices to their children.

Many children and teens have learned faulty information about sex, pregnancy, and STDs. Their parents didn’t supply the facts and left filling in the blanks to misinformed friends and search engines. If starting the sex discussion with your child really is too difficult, then consider seeking the help of your pediatrician, family physician, child psychologist or other professional to begin the conversation.

There are many resources where your child can learn the facts of life; however, only you can convey your views and values to your child. When you relay your value system, you are helping your children to better process the massive amounts of information they receive about sex, which will hopefully lead to better life choices. So start talking!

Nekeshia Hammond, Psy.D. is a mother, licensed psychologist, Florida Supreme Court certified family mediator, parent coordinator, and founder of Hammond Psychology & Associates, P.A., a private practice in Brandon. To learn more, go to www.HammondPsychology.com.

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