Oh, No. Not the Birds and the Bees…

Dear Mr. Dad: My son is approaching the age where we need to have “the talk.” My dad died when I was young, so my own introduction was nothing more than what I could find in books or from friends. I want to give him some guidance but I feel totally confused and embarrassed. What’s your advice?

A: You didn’t mention your son’s age, but if you’re like most parents, you’ve drastically underestimated the age at which “the talk” is appropriate. Because children are bombarded by sexual images from a very young age, parents need to control the message, which means you have to bring up the subject first. Otherwise, kids will do exactly what you did: turn to books, friends, and something you didn’t have when you were growing up: the Internet, which is great in many situations, but is also the biggest source of unreliable information in the world.

Under the best of circumstances, talking to a child about sex can make you—and your son—feel awkward and self-conscious. So how do you bring it up?

Actually, “how” is a good place to start since it’s just as important as “what.” If you make your discussion too clinical, dismiss it with jokes, mock, lecture him, or come across as embarrassed, disgusted, or negative, you’ll be sending your son two extremely dangerous messages: First, that you think sex is dirty, wrong, or insignificant. Second, that he can’t come to you to talk about serious issues.

Before you can start a discussion about sex, you need to find out what your child already knows, which means asking questions and listening carefully. You can then tailor your message. Sometimes, having a visual aid helps.

For preschoolers and kindergarteners, you could point out a pregnant woman and ask the child if he knows how the baby got in there. A basic discussion of the differences between male and female anatomy is important.

For early grade schoolers (say, up to seven or eight) point out a kid a few years older who has started puberty and ask your child if he understands the changes that come with adolescence. Now is when you might talk about the physical signs of sexual arousal and what actually happens during sex. That can be scary for some kids, so be sure to emphasize that all of this is completely natural and normal.

For tweens, you might use a typical TV or movie scene: Boy meets girl. They talk, they laugh. Then, cut to the next morning with the two of them in bed. Does your child understand what happened during the commercials? In addition to the physical part of sex, it’s important that your child understands the emotional component too—and the significant repercussions. Talk about pregnancy and the importance of protection. Talk about sexually transmitted diseases and steps that can help cut the risk of contracting something frightening and potentially deadly. You might also discuss things like, gulp, masturbation and oral sex. This isn’t going to be easy, but research shows that around 70 percent of tweens and teens think that oral sex is not “real” sex and isn’t that big a deal anyway. They’re wrong.

We’ll delve deeper into “the talk” in future columns, but don’t wait for me. Get these discussions going now—you’ll need to have more than one. It may make you uncomfortable, but kids who talk with their parents about sex are far more likely to be responsible, practice safe(r) sex, and have an easier time understanding and coping with the changes they’re undergoing.
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