Sex-education specialists say parents traditionally wait until puberty, a time when hormones are causing all manner of confusing, emotional and physical changes, to raise the issue of sex with their children.
To make it worse, parents often swallow their embarrassment, deliver one lecture and think they are finished covering off one of the most complex, mine-strewn and potentially dangerous issues in human relationships.
Jennifer Gibson, co-ordinator of community education services, said it makes much more sense for parents and children to start “a conversation” when the children are young, as early as kindergarten age.
Gibson said to start small, using proper names for body parts — feet, toes, elbows, penis and vagina.
“They are super-proud of their bodies and super-interested in their bodies so there is no judgment or embarrassment,” Gibson said.
“They will say, ‘;I have a penis!’ or ‘;I have a vagina!’ and it’s not to get a reaction or to be silly. It’s because they are proud of all their body parts.”
Gibson also said teaching young children about sexuality at a young age is easier than many adults might think.
Her experience says young children are far less interested in the sexual act (always explained as something grownups do) than they are in the formation of a real, live baby from a sperm and egg — “that’s what’s interesting to them.”
Gibson added it’s important to specify a baby grows in a mother’s uterus not “her tummy.” It avoids some scary misinterpretations.
“Kids can be so literal,” Gibson said. “They start learning about digestion and the next thing is they worry a baby will get digested and excreted out of the body.”
A big advantage of starting a conversation early is it gives a child a vocabulary to better ask for help while trying to explain a health or medical matter. (Gibson said in the clinic she still encounters adults who can only explain themselves by saying something like “I have a problem downtown.”)
Gibson also said that during further sex education around Grades 5 and 6, she has known children to turn red-faced, go speechless, cry or even faint if they don’t have some advanced knowledge.
Meanwhile, the advantage for parents in starting early is they become more practiced, more proficient and more comfortable talking about the subject of sexuality the more they do it. It might be embarrassing the first time, but it will get easier the more the issue is raised.
So when questions arise later, about issues like dating or a high school crush, a groundwork for good communication has already been established.
“More often these days, it’s the parents working through their stuff and trying to sort out what they went through when they were kids,” Gibson said.
Meanwhile, professor of psychology Andrew Smiler of Wake Forest University in Salem, North Carolina, author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, said in a telephone interview any parent who is too uncomfortable to begin the conversation should beware.
Smiler pointed out that if parents won’t talk about sex, pornography is always available to fill the void, usually at the click of a computer mouse.
He said U.S. surveys reveal by age eight, few children have intentionally watched pornography, but more than half have accidentally run into it. And by age 13, about one-third of all children have deliberately watched pornography.
“Anything you put into a search engine that includes the word ‘;sex’ and your first page of hits will be porn,” Smiler said.
“And porn is not who you want to be your child’s first educator about sex, or what a boyfriend or girlfriend or lover might mean.”
One of the big problems with pornography is that it is completely one-dimensional. It’s all about satisfying the urge to have sex, anytime and anywhere.
“We get the message that everybody is ready for sex whenever and wherever. And that is certainly not reality,” Smiler said
“But if you are eight or 10 or even 14 and you have no other experience other than what you’ve seen in porn, how would you know any different?”
He notes parents are willing to instruct their children, over and over, in things such as good manners, treating others with respect, or how to be a good friend.
So Smiler said it makes no sense for parents to give their kids one sex talk at the onset of puberty and finish it up with a reminder the kids can always come back later if they have questions.
“When it comes to sex, or dating, we put the onus on our kids to raise it,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense because we are the ones who have the values that are more thought out than our kids.”
Smiler and Gibson noted much social research shows children who are instructed early on about sexuality and have a relationship with their parents in which they feel comfortable raising it are:
• Most likely to delay their first sexual experience;
• Have fewer sexual partners;
• Less likely to have an unintended pregnancy;
• Less likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease.
“We know there are some major positive outcomes for this,” Gibson said.
“When they do grow up and make some decisions around sex, they are not reactive, in-the-moment decisions. They have put some thought into it.”
Five tips for parents on initiating the sex conversation, from psychologist Andrew Smiler, Wake Forest University, Salem, North Carolina:
1. Start when children are young. When young children ask where babies come from, give them age-appropriate answers. They are old enough to understand living things reproduce and the parent will build a foundation for future communication.
2. Don’t wait until middle school. It’s simply too late. By that time, children will have found their own sources of information — the schoolyard or pornography.
3. Talk to boys as much as girls. Parents may talk more with teenaged daughters about romantic relationships and other issues of sexuality. But boys need the chance to talk, too.
4. Don’t let TV do the talking. One 1992 analysis of TV shows most watched by children revealed one in four on-screen conversations was related to sexuality. That has likely increased in the past 20 years. Parents can use TV as a conversation starter, but the Hollywood message should be balanced with input from parents.
5. Conversations don’t always have to start directly with sex. Parents can begin talking about what makes a good friend, coach, or teacher, and then connect to discussing what makes a good dating partner, wife or husband.
Books for parents to use as aids in their conversations with their children on sexuality. Recommended by Jennifer Gibson, Island Sexual Health Centre.
By Robie Harris:
It’s not the Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends (for young children).
It’s So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families (for children aged eight and up).
It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health (for adolescents).
Gibson said Harris’s books have good pictures. Also, being a series, these books give children information in ways they can handle at their particular age. If kids skip ahead and look at the older books, they are only preparing themselves.
By Meg Hickling:
Boys, Girls & Body Science: A First Book About Facts of Life.
The book starts with a story about seven-year-old Nicholas and five-year-old Jenny taking a science class. It progresses to “science names” for body parts, making babies and good and bad touching.
By Gail Saltz:
Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts
(For young children, kindergarten and Grade 1).
Changing You!: A Guide to Body Changes and Sexuality (Grades 5 and 6).
Gibson is a big fan of these books because, like those by Robie Harris, they are in a series, which provides some comfortable continuity for children.