Parenting and Family

'The Talk'

By Elizabeth Agnvall
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Early one morning, Nancy Nisselbaum was readying her 6-year-old son Marshall for school and herself for work when he asked: "Mommy, how does the sperm get from the donor to the doctor?"

A single mom by choice, Nisselbaum had neatly fielded earlier questions about why her son didn't have a dad. But this query momentarily stumped her. Then she took a deep breath and dived in:

"Let's start with . . . married people," she said, and explained the traditional sperm-meets-egg method. "Ewww. Gross," Marshall replied, as any self-respecting first-grader would.

Working up to his original question, Nisselbaum, who lives in New York, next explained the mechanics of masturbation. Marshall listened intently, then moved on to other crucial morning concerns, like getting dressed.

Even for a parent used to frank talk with her children, explaining this particular means of modern reproduction before 9 a.m. can make for a tough start to the day.

Changes in reproductive technology, a new openness about formerly closeted subjects and the flaunting of overtly sexual imagery in news and entertainment outlets have shifted the parameters of the traditional preteen birds-and-bees talk. (Remember? Mothers talked to daughters; dads talked to sons. End of discussion.)

Today, experts urge parents to welcome questions on sexuality by the time their kids can ask why the sky is blue. Recent research has shown that regular discussions of sexuality may improve parent-child relationships and even delay the onset of sexual activity by children. For some parents, that latter effect is taking on new importance in light of a recent study showing that at least one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease.

What a complex new world parents have to explain today. It's not just that some kids have two mommies, others two daddies or no daddy at all. Or that national debates on abortion and gay marriage, along with news stories on in vitro fertilization and sex changes, are generating a whole new set of questions.

We've also got a transgender person -- born a woman but now living as a man, albeit with female reproductive organs intact -- showing off what seems to be his six-month pregnancy bump on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Try explaining that to a 9-year-old -- or a 40-year-old, for that matter.

What's more, some experts say there's a disconnect between the Bush administration's sex-education message (practice abstinence until you're wed) and the implicit media message (engage freely in sexual behavior). And in that disconnect lies a danger, says Baltimore-based sex educator Deborah Roffman, the author of "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex."

"You could do a real disservice with this assumption that you wait until the child asks," she said. "The truth is that we've left our children in a vacuum around these topics, and popular culture has just waltzed into this vacuum."

Which leaves many parents asking: How do you give your kids the tools they need to safeguard their physical and emotional health? And how much should you tell kids to reassure them about their own sexuality but not encourage risk-taking?

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