Let’s Talk (To The Kids) About Sex
According to Amy Cody, Manager of Parent Education at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM), I am in extremely good company. And what’s more is that she said — to my almost indescribable relief — that most parents are doing a much better job than they think they are.
Through a parent education program called “Let’s Be Honest,” PPLM fields inquiries and provides information to parents who struggle to connect with their children at this, the most basic of levels. The aim: to provide the most essential of information about the most natural of acts.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “parental communication about sex education topics with their teenagers is associated with delayed sexual initiation.” For many of us with younger teens, and maybe those of us with older teens, too (have we not all told our kids they can’t have sex until they are 40?), this is clearly the goal.
Still, we struggle. But why? Clearly we have all had sex at least as many times as the number of children we have. Some of us engage in this most pleasurable of pastimes with admirable frequency (or alarming infrequency) and devout attention, given the constraints of parenthood. Yet still we struggle to talk to our kids.
“Sometimes it’s because people feel as though their faith prevents them from speaking openly about sex, sometimes it’s because our parents didn’t talk to us and we have no roadmap for these conversations,” Cody said. Just as often, we just aren’t sure — we don’t know what information is appropriate for what age or we aren’t entirely sure of the accuracy of our info, particularly where sexually transmitted diseases and current methods of birth control are concerned.
And of course there is the concern that discussing sex and sexuality with our teen children will somehow send a message that we condone it and that we want to provide them with not only information, but also permission.
Well here is some unsavory news for you: According to a 2009 study by the University of California Los Angeles/Rand Center for Adolescent Health Promotion, researchers found that more than 40% of adolescents had had intercourse before talking to their parents about safe sex, birth control or sexually transmitted diseases.
The danger in avoiding the conversations — as uncomfortable as they may be — is that our kids are going to get the information elsewhere if not from us. And at that point, you may as well be letting the Pretty Little Liars or MTV educate your kids.
And here’s the kind of good news for a generation of squeamish parents who think of the awkward sit-down of our own youth: The “conversation” about sex is no longer thought to take place all at once.
“What we have found is that children want to hear this information from us, and they want it to be in the form of relaxed conversations,” said Cody, who added that while it was once thought to be a good idea to have a single “sit-down” sometime during puberty, it is now widely agreed that conversations about sex should begin in early childhood and last throughout their childhood.
Since the program was piloted back in 2005, “Let’s Be Honest” has reached more than 20,000 parents. Educators like Cody, who works in the Boston area, and Mindy Craver, Senior Educator who covers Central and Western Mass, have visited communities — through schools or other partnerships — and empowered parents to break down some of the myths about sexuality and parenting in an effort to help parents build a better skill set for talking with their kids.
“The beauty of the workshops is watching parents leave more relaxed and empowered,” Craver said. “I love to watch the light bulb go off about things that maybe they didn’t understand and now they get it.”
While the program was initially created to serve parents of teens between the ages of 10 and 14, it was quickly acknowledged that parents with younger kids were looking for some help and aiming to get started much earlier. Now the program serves a much broader age range and has a mission of helping parents to get knowledgeable and comfortable with the subject matter they will be sharing with their children.
After all, thanks to social media and a rapid-fire system of message and information, kids are exposed to a whole lot more (and a lot faster) than they once were in terms of gender identity and self-image.
And it isn’t just social media — which has quickly become the easy scapegoat for the times in which we lived. It’s also video games, websites, politicians, celebrities, older siblings, advertising — the incoming information is never-ending. It’s our job as parents, Cody said, to help our kids see everything through the lens of our own particular family values.
“When we do these workshops with parents,” she said of the home visits that are a popular Planned Parenthood offering, “we start to realize that if we want to be involved in this exchange of information, we better get into the conversation and let our voices be heard.” Some parents, Craver added, are under the assumption that everything kids need to know is being taught in school.
As for what kids are learning at school (beyond talk in the locker room), the current health education curriculum varies from school district to school district, and may or may not cover sex and sexuality. “An Act Relative to Healthy Youth,” a bill currently in the State Legislature, addresses this issue and has garnered notable support.
Sponsored by Sen. Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett), Rep. Jim O’Day (D-West Boylston) and Rep. Paul Brodeur (D-Melrose), the bill ensures that a Massachusetts school electing to teach sexuality education selects an appropriate curriculum that’s medically accurate, age-appropriate, and truly comprehensive. Under such a curriculum, students will learn about abstinence, delaying sexual activity, healthy relationships and healthy behaviors free of coercion, effective contraceptive use, and sexually transmitted infections. The bill also maintains the existing state law that lets parents opt their children out of sexuality education programs.
One decent alternative for parents who are genuinely unable to talk about certain subject matter, added Craver, is to point kids in the right direction to someone who is more capable. An aunt, a best friend, or a great book might bridge the gap and has the unexpected side effect of modeling for your child how you deal with the discomfort, which is not to avoid the topic altogether but to admit your feelings and suggest a different path to understanding.
After all, she added, the kids have the ultimate resource — Google — at their fingertips for their questions. Google surely has the information they are looking for minus the “emotional feedback” — the judgment, the potential of being punished, and the awkward pauses between words. So our job as parents, in many ways, is to be more approachable and less judgmental so that our kids come to us and not Google.
“We can’t keep them in a bubble, so we have to get involved,” Cody added.