How not to bungle the birds and the bees

How not to bungle the birds and the bees

The awkward and stilted conversation many parents refer to
as

The Talk

is not only a vital link to health information for kids, it may
actually deter them from engaging in risky sexual behavior later
on.
But few parents know what to say or when, and often the
information comes too late, when teens begin to turn to their peers
rather than their parents for information on the subject.
The awkward and stilted conversation many parents refer to as “The Talk” is not only a vital link to health information for kids, it may actually deter them from engaging in risky sexual behavior later on.

But few parents know what to say or when, and often the information comes too late, when teens begin to turn to their peers rather than their parents for information on the subject.

Parents should, ideally, have a general discussion about reproductive behavior during the preteen years, between the ages of nine and 12, said Norma Rivera, director of health education for Ambulatory and Community Health Services and Valley Health Plan at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

“You just want to explain to them the basics – where babies come from and things – which they’ve probably already heard from their peers,” said Rivera. “You want to sort of check their information and explain anything. And you really want to talk to your preteens and teens about body image and any concerns they might have.”

The consequences of sexual activity, such as pregnancy or the contraction of STDs, are one of the most important things to stress with pre-teens, said Rivera, who advised parents to hear their child’s perspective and consider their knowledge base about sex when talking with them.

“A parent can relate to them by giving them some of the concerns they had when they were that age,” said Rivera.

But overkill isn’t necessary, said Tom McCaffrey, owner of the Parker, Colo.-based National Training Organization for Child Care Providers, which produces informational videos on sex education for preteen boys and girls that can help parents open a dialogue with their children.

“When they realize how a child is created, that in and of itself is a little extreme for them, and giving them too much information can be frightening” said McCaffrey, who developed the video line, called “The Birds, The Bees and Me” in response to the dirth of usable general information he found available for teaching his then nine-year-old son about the birds and the bees. “Just some general information leads to a lot of questions. What creates an erection? What is love? Why should you do this? Why should you wait?”

Answering these questions honestly and matter of factly is a key to successfully communicating sexual information to children whose levels of sexual curiosity will vary, said McCaffrey, who also noted that most parents think their kids get this basic information in fifth grade health classes.

“The only thing the kids take away from the class is, ‘I should use deodorant,'” said McCaffrey, who conducted a variety of surveys to gauge preteen sexual awareness before producing his video series.

“I think a lot of kids start to go through puberty wondering what in the world is going on with them, girls especially,” he said. “When they start their period and they have these body changes going on, a lot of them are scared to death. Many, many of them were never told.”

On top of this, social pressures begin to mount for youngsters as they become increasingly aware of body images portrayed in media. It’s up to parents to set the record straight, said Rivera.

“Talk about having a more positive body image, getting away from the sort of perfect ideals they’re seeing in magazines,” said Rivera. “They’re trying to reach this body image that they see of models.”

Only a parent can gauge when the time is right to talk with their children, but experts agree that it is more dangerous to let the moment pass than to face personal embarrassment.

Kids who are sexually uninformed are more likely to engage in risky behavior later on, said McCaffrey, and are more likely to believe rumors about sexual activity, said Rivera.

To get the lines of communication open long before “The Talk” becomes a looming dread, answer a child’s questions about sexual behavior from a young age, but do so at a level they can understand, said Rivera.

“If you have a five-year-old who wants to know where babies come from, the answer can be pretty simple,” said Rivera. “They don’t need to know all the intricacies of how a man’s and woman’s body grow and differ right then.”

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