A new school year brings a new social dynamic for kids, along with the ever-present question for parents: Is this the grade when we should have “The Talk”?
According to a new book on the subject of parents and sex ed, that talk may probably be long overdue.
“Parents often confuse talking to kids about ‘the facts of life’ with talking to kids about ‘sex.’ Many children as young as 4 begin quite spontaneously to ask about their origins, with their questions gradually becoming more and more pointed over the next couple of years,” said Deborah Roffman, author of “Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go-To’ Person about Sex,” (July 2012, Da Capo)
“Children at this stage are not at all interested in sex as an adult might define it, but they are ready cognitively to understand about sperm, eggs and how they come together to start a baby. Typically, they’re not curious about sex, as in behavior, until they’re in mid to late elementary school, and that’s a great time to start talking with them, not just in terms of body parts, but more importantly in terms of sex being part of a special and unique kind of relationship.
“That’s a message kids can’t get too early in today’s world.”
Roffman has taught sex education in Baltimore for decades, has published two previous books on the subject and frequently writes about parenting in The Post’s Outlook section and elsewhere.
With the new school year upon us, we had an e-mail exchange about her thoughts on communication within the family, if “the talk” can ever come too early and how the instinct to protect can backfire.
An edited version of our Q&A is below:
JD: Often parents fear that broaching the subject of sex too often or too explicitly with their kids might encourage them to consider having sex. What are your thoughts on this?
DR: Sadly, this myth is deep-rooted in American culture. There is absolutely no data to support it, and in fact, children raised in families where adults are open about this topic actually postpone involvement in sexual behaviors statistically longer than peers growing up without this kind of support. Kids who are well educated, because they are learning critical thinking and communication skills, make more cautious, considered, and safer decisions.
Can you talk about how a parent might best separate out real and perceived dangers of sexual activity among teens?
First of all, not “everyone” is doing it! In reality, the rates of teen sexual behavior have dropped over the last decade and only about half of all teens have participated in sexual intercourse. Parents can best safeguard their teens by providing solid information; a clear sense of the values they expect their children to bring to any sexual situation they are ever involved in (include a first kiss in the seventh or eighth grade); by making sure there is an adult presence/adequate supervision whenever and wherever teens socialize; and by gradually granting their children increasing independence as they demonstrate they can manage it well.
When we feel our anxiety climbing about the potential risks our children may face, we also have to remember that teen sexuality is often used by media outlets searching for attention and dollars. They often highlight stories about teens that are scary and unnerving, thereby jacking up parents’ levels of anxiety to unnecessary and unrealistic levels. Parenting is a balancing act between protecting our children appropriately and over-protecting them in ways that may well backfire.
What are some key points you think parents should keep in mind?
While it may seem pretty daunting, there really is no secret to handling this topic well, because good parenting is good parenting. All of the things that parents already know about being an effective parent and “go to” person apply to sexuality. As soon as they learn to relax and “lean in” to this subject too, they’ll discover they already have what it takes to handle it well. We think of sexuality as different but it’s really the same.
Have you had the talk? When do you plan to?
Or have you been talking all along?