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Sex Education: What Should You Say?

Here's advice on how to discuss sex with your child.

Sex Education: What Should You Say?

Tales from the Parent Zone

Jason was observed blinking frequently, staring obsessively at his hands, popping breath mints, and applying zit medication every few hours. Finally he confessed to his parents. He had been doing “it” and he'd heard through the grapevine that “it” would give you hairy palms, make you go blind, cause bad breath, weaken the blood, and cause pimples. His parents hastened to reassure him that masturbation is a normal part of sexuality, and just about everybody “does it.”

Kids need to know how their bodies work, and they need to know how to prevent pregnancy and disease transmission. Say whatever comes into your head to start, as long as it's true. Sex education is a process, and it's far more than one brief, uncomfortable conversation. It's a process of building trust with your child. Use your listening techniques. Never penalize your child for telling the truth about sex (or drugs, or anything else, either). Let him talk, confide, and trust. Stay cool. You have “later” (in private) to react. Your child needs you to be an ally.

The risks for your sexually active child—pregnancy (I said the rates are going down, not that it doesn't happen), disease, and emotional damage—are great. Your child needs to know the plain facts, but that's not enough. And it's not enough to stress an abstinence-only education (it won't work, anyway). Try for abstinence-based education. That will leave room for conversation.

Your child also needs to know that:

  • Desire is one of the joys and wonders of being human, but it takes a long time to know how to handle it (and many people never learn!).
  • Sexuality is a natural part of adolescence, though it doesn't necessarily mean beginning sexual activity.
  • Any sexual involvement should be by mutual consent.

When talking about sex:

  • Follow your child's lead. If the conversation is going in a direction you didn't expect, take a deep breath and go there, too.
  • Express your values (and these might be anything from “if it feels good, do it” to “after the gown, the rice, the best man's toast, and the champagne, and not until then!”) but don't lecture. Just the facts, puh-leeze.
It's a Good Idea!

When is sex “sex?” Is it flirting, kissing, intercourse, or an “Arkansas howdy?” More legalistic minds than mine have tormented the country over this one. While every kid has to decide what level of sexual involvement she feels comfortable with for herself, they are strongly influenced by where you stand (even if where you stand is “I think you need to figure it out for yourself, Honey.”).

Behave Yourself!

Most pregnant teens have been impregnated by older boys or men.

  • Kids need to know about birth control, how it is used, and where they can go to get it. Your child may also need direct support in the form of birth control and information and supplies to practice safer sex. When done in a caring manner, and when it's provided as prevention rather than encouragement, this knowledge and equipment won't cause your child to have sex. Just 'cause they have access to birth control does not mean they'll be out catting around tomorrow night. Your child knows where the kitchen fire extinguisher is too, right? Is he going around lighting fires?
  • Every 11-year-old child should certainly understand the male and female reproductive systems—and know how to prevent pregnancy.
  • Stay calm. Don't overromanticize sex (“Like the smell of blooming roses, like fireworks, transcendent, spiritual”) or scare your kid (“The first time you'll bleed, it hurts, you'll feel terrible”).
  • Stress that no matter what happens, you are there for your child.

Ideally, you want your child to be able to make smart choices, freely and without pressure. Discuss the following warning signs (these should make little blinking lights go off in your child's head):

  • When they aren't practicing safer sex to prevent STDs, and using birth control to prevent pregnancy.
  • When they're responding to peer pressure to be sexually active.
  • If one partner is pressuring the other.
  • When the partners aren't peers, when they aren't roughly the same age.

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