PARENTING Before that dreaded sex talk, prepare, experts say
Many of today's parents still have trouble talking with their children about sex.
By SAMANTHA CRITCHELL
NEW YORK -- As if parents don't already dread The Talk, some doctors and sex educators are now encouraging The Conversation, an ongoing discussion between parents and children about sex that begins in infancy and continues through the teenage years, if not adulthood.
Children start to form their ideas and opinions about sex as soon as the first diaper is changed, says Dr. Justin Richardson, who co-wrote "Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (but Were Afraid They'd Ask)" (Crown) with Dr. Mark Schuster.
Richardson is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York's Columbia and Cornell universities; Schuster is an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at UCLA.
"Very young children pick up on subtle messages by the tone of [the parents'] voice or their facial expressions," Richardson says. Babies even get signals from what parts of their bodies parents touch or don't touch and what body parts are routinely named.
Parents eagerly teach their childdren about arms, legs and toes, pointing them out and repeating their names, notes Richardson, but parents almost always skip over genitalia.
The irony that today's parents who shun open discussions about sex are the children of the sexual revolution isn't lost on Richardson. "The idea came to us to do the book when a father asked us, 'How do I teach my daughter to have a healthy attitude about sex -- and to keep her from having it?'"
He's also asked if parents should ever be naked in front of their children. "Parents say, 'I want my kids not to be ashamed of their bodies,' but the parents are ashamed of being naked in front of the kids. It's confusing to everyone."
Decide on values
But Richardson says even before you get to these issues -- or even before tackling "Where do babies come from?" -- parents should discuss and decide what their own values are and what they want to pass along to the children because it's likely these lessons will stick.
"It turns out that kids still listen to their parents, and their parents' opinions matter. Parents, though, think either they don't matter or they're too embarrassed to give the kids the guidance they want," he says.
Parents can "respectfully disagree" when it comes to discussing such a sensitive topic with their children as long as both voices get equal time to explain their views, advise Amy and Charles Miron, a husband-wife team of sex therapists and educators at The Community College of Baltimore County (Md.) and at Towson University in Towson, Md.
The Mirons wrote "How To Talk With Teens About Love, Relations, & amp; S-E-X: A Guide for Parents" (Free Spirit).
If the parents take the time to first discuss differences with each other, they'll probably find out the sticking points are minor, but the main message will be a unified one, Charles Miron says.
The key is for parents to be prepared.
The Mirons say it would be a luxury for grown-ups to choose the best, most appropriate time to discuss sex; it's more likely to happen when children ask about an unfamiliar word or blurt out an inappropriate, too-personal question.
"Parents need to act responsively, not reactively," Charles Miron says. "Think of possible situations, arrive at your positions and decide how and when you'd like to present them -- but then you'll be ready when it naturally comes up before that."
(A parent can get around that too-personal question by rephrasing it, putting it in more generic terms. The Mirons say it's OK -- and actually encourage -- parents to set privacy boundaries about their own sex lives.)
Amy Miron suggests using "teachable moments" whenever they present themselves: If a parent is driving a bunch of preteens to a soccer game and they're all giggling over the sexual lyrics of a song, the parent can play dumb and ask, "What's so funny?"
"You might get some rolling eyes but they [the preteens] will appreciate it and they really do listen to what their parents say," Amy Miron says.
Schuster, who is co-director of the Center for Research on Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health at RAND, a research and development think tank, offers another option: The parent can have a dialogue, even a staged one, about a sexual topic with another adult, knowing they're in earshot of the child.
This might invite the child to participate in the discussion, bring it up later or just eavesdrop on some valuable advice or helpful information.
There are, though, the puberty years during which many children put up a wall and deflect any sort of discussion about sex, Schuster says, so it's important for parents to get in as much information as they can in the early years. The wall does come down in two or three years, he adds.
Sometimes it's the parent who wishes a question or term will just go away -- but it won't.
Instead, fess up.
If parents are uncomfortable, they should say they're embarrassed but continue the conversation; if they don't know the answer, they should admit it and promise to do some research, says Richardson.
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