Talking With Kids About Sex
Most parents want to do their best in talking with their kids about sex and sexuality, but we're often not sure how to begin. Here's our advice:
Explore your own attitudes
Studies show that kids who feel they can talk with their parents about sex -- because their moms and dads speak openly and listen carefully to them -- are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior as teens than kids who do not feel they can talk with their parents about the subject. So explore your feelings about sex. If you are very uncomfortable with the subject, read some books and discuss your feelings with a trusted friend, relative, physician, or clergy member. The more you examine the subject, the more confident you'll feel discussing it.
Even if you can't quite overcome your discomfort, don't worry about admitting it to your kids. It's okay to say something like, "You know, I'm uncomfortable talking about sex because my parents never talked with me about it. But I want us to be able to talk about anything -- including sex -- so please come to me if you have any questions. And if I don't know the answer, I'll find out."
Teaching your children about sex demands a gentle, continuous flow of information that should begin as early as possible -- for instance, when teaching your toddler where his nose and toes are, include "this is your penis" or "this is your vagina" in your talks. As your child grows, you can continue her education by adding more materials gradually until she understands the subject well.
Take the initiative
If your child hasn't started asking questions about sex, look for a good opportunity to bring it up. Say, for instance, the mother of an 8-year-old's best friend is pregnant. You can say, "Did you notice that David's mommy's tummy is getting bigger? That's because she's going to have a baby and she's carrying it inside her. Do you know how the baby got inside her?" then let the conversation move from there.
Talk about more than the "Birds and the Bees"
While our children need to know the biological facts about sex, they also need to understand that sexual relationships involve caring, concern and responsibility. By discussing the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship with your child, she will be better informed to make decisions later on and to resist peer pressure. If your child is a pre-teen, you need to include some message about the responsibilities and consequences of sexual activity. Conversations with 11 and 12-year-olds, for example, should include talks about unwanted pregnancy and how they can protect themselves.
One aspect that many parents overlook when discussing sex with their child is dating. As opposed to movies, where two people meet and later end up in bed together, in real life there is time to get to know each other -- time to hold hands, go bowling, see a movie, or just talk. Children need to know that this is an important part of a caring relationship.
Give accurate, age-appropriate information
Talk about sex in a way that fits the age and stage of your child. If your 8-year-old asks why boys and girls change so much physically as they grow, you can say something like, "The body has special chemicals called hormones that tell it whether to become a boy or a girl. A boy has a penis and testicles, and when he grows older his voice gets lower and he gets more hair on his body. A girl has a vulva and vagina, and when she gets older she grows breasts and her hips grow rounder."
Anticipate the next stage of development
Children can get frightened and confused by the sudden changes their bodies begin to go through as they reach puberty. To help stop any anxiety, talk with your kids not only about their current stage of development but about the next stage, too. An 8-year-old girl is old enough to learn about menstruation, just as a boy that age is ready to learn how his body will change.
Communicate your values
It's our responsibility to let our children know our values about sex. Although they may not adopt these values as they mature, at least they'll be aware of them as they struggle to figure out how they feel and want to behave.
Talk with your child of the opposite sex
Some parents feel uncomfortable talking with their child about topics like sex if the youngster is of the opposite gender. While that's certainly understandable, don't let it become an excuse to close off conversation. If you're a single mother of a son, for example, you can turn to books to help guide you or ask your doctor for some advice on how to bring up the topic with your child. You could also recruit an uncle or other close male friend or relative to discuss the subject with your child, provided there is already good, open communication between them. If there are two parents in the household, it might feel less awkward to have the dad talk with the boy and the mom with the girl. That's not a hard and fast rule, though. If you're comfortable talking with either sons or daughters, go right ahead. Just make sure that gender differences don't make subjects like sex taboo.
Don't worry about knowing all the answers to your children's questions; what you know is a lot less important than how you respond. If you can convey the message that no subject, including sex, is forbidden in your home, you'll be doing just fine.
Questions & Answers
What's safe sex?
If two people have sexual intercourse, and one of them has HIV or another sexually transmitted disease, he could give it to his partner(s). Doctors believe that if the man wears a latex condom whenever he has intercourse, it helps to protect him and his partner from giving each other HIV. That's why people call sexual intercourse with a latex condom "safe sex."
Is it true that you can't get pregnant the first time that you have sex?
No. You can get pregnant anytime you have sexual intercourse. Wearing a latex condom, taking birth control pills, or using other contraceptives are very effective at preventing pregnancy. However, the only absolute way to not get pregnant is to not have sex at all. You might also use this question as an opportunity to point out that not having sexual intercourse is a good idea for teens. Help them understand there are other ways to show affection.
As upsetting and confusing as it can be to bring up the subject of AIDS with young children, it's essential to do so. By the time they reach third grade, research shows that as many as 93 percent of children have already heard about the illness. Yet, while kids are hearing about HIV/AIDS early on, what they are learning is often inaccurate and frightening. You can set the record straight -- if you know the facts yourself. HIV is transmitted from person to person through contact with blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk. HIV can be prevented by using latex condoms during sex, not sharing "drug needles," and avoiding contact with another person's bodily fluids. So stay informed. Sharing this information with your youngster can keep her safe and calm her fears. Finally, talking with your child about AIDS lays the groundwork for any future conversations about AIDS-preventative behavior. Here are some tips on how to get started:
Use a "talk opportunity" to introduce the subject of AIDS to your child. For example, try tying a discussion into something your child sees or hears, such as a commercial about AIDS. After you and your child watch the ad, say something like, "Have you heard about AIDS before? Well, what do you think AIDS is?" This way, you can figure out what she already understands and work from there.
Present the facts
Offer honest, accurate information that's appropriate to a child's age and development. To an 8-year-old you might say, "AIDS is a disease that makes people very sick. It's caused by a virus, called HIV, which is a tiny germ." An older child can absorb more detailed information: "Your body is made up of billions of cells. Some of these cells, called T-cells, help your body stay healthy by fighting off disease. But if you get a virus called HIV, that virus kills the T- cells. Over time, the body can't fight disease any more and that person has AIDS." Pre-teens should also understand how condoms could help protect people from getting AIDS and that the disease can be transmitted between persons who share drug needles. (If you have already explained sexual intercourse to your children, you might add, "During sexual intercourse, the semen from the man's body goes into the woman's body. That semen can carry HIV." If you have not yet talked about sex, don't bring it up during initial discussions about AIDS. It's not a good idea for your child's first information about sex to be associated with such a serious disease.)
Set them straight
Children's misconceptions about AIDS can be pretty scary, so it's important to correct them as soon as possible. Suppose your 8-year-old comes home from school one day, tearful because she fell down on the playground, scraped her knee and started bleeding -- and the other kids told her she would get AIDS. As a parent, you might explain, "No, you don't have AIDS. You're fine. You can't get AIDS from scraping your knee. The way you can get AIDS is when the fluids from your body mix with those of someone who has AIDS. Do you understand?" After such a discussion, it's also wise to check back with your child and see what she remembers. Understanding AIDS, particularly for young children, takes more than a single conversation.
Praising our children frequently, setting realistic goals and keeping up with their interests are an effective way to build self-esteem. And that's important, because when kids feel good about themselves, they are much more likely to withstand peer pressure to have sex before they are ready, or to not do drugs. In short, they are less likely to engage in behavior that could put them at risk for AIDS.
Put Your Child's Safety First
Some adults mistakenly believe that AIDS is only a disease of homosexuals. Whatever your beliefs, try not to let your opinions or feelings prevent you from giving your child the facts about AIDS and its transmission -- it's information that's essential to their health and safety.
Be prepared to discuss death
When talking with your kids about AIDS, questions about death may come up. So get ready to answer them by reading books (see Readings for Children and Parents) available at libraries or bookstores. In the meantime, here are three helpful tips:
Explain death in simple terms. Explain that when someone dies, they don't breathe, or eat, or feel hungry or cold, and you won't see them again. Although very young children won't be able to understand such finality, that's okay. Just be patient and repeat the message whenever appropriate.
Never explain death in terms of sleep. It may make your child worry that if he falls asleep, he'll never wake up.
Offer reassurance. If appropriate, tell your child that you are not going to die from AIDS and that he won't either. Stress that while AIDS is serious, it is preventable.
Questions & Answers
What is AIDS?
AIDS is a very serious disease that is caused by a tiny germ called a virus. When you are healthy, your body can fight off diseases, like Superman fighting the bad guys. Even if you do get sick, your body can fight the germs and make you well again. But when you have AIDS, your body cannot protect you. That's why people with AIDS get very sick.
How do you get AIDS?
You can get AIDS when the fluids from your body mix with those of someone who has AIDS. You can't catch it like the flu and you can't get it just by touching or being near someone with AIDS, so you and I don_t have to worry about getting it. (NOTE: If you have already talked with your child about sex, you should also add, "You can also get AIDS by having unprotected sexual intercourse with someone who has the HIV virus.")
Can kids get AIDS?
Very few children get AIDS. But if they were born to a mommy who had AIDS, they could get AIDS when they were born. A long time ago, some kids who had hemophilia -- a disease that means their blood doesn't have enough good cells, so they need to get blood from other people -- got AIDS when they got blood. But that doesn't happen anymore. AIDS is mostly a disease of grownups. (NOTE: If your child already knows about the link between sex and AIDS, and IV drug use and AIDS, you might also add, "Sometimes teenagers who have unprotected sex or who share drug needles get AIDS." But you should still emphasize that "AIDS is mostly a disease of grown-ups.")
How can you tell from looking at someone if they have AIDS?
You can't. Anyone, regardless of what they look like, can have AIDS. People find out if they have AIDS after being tested by a doctor. Therefore, the only way to know if someone has AIDS is to ask him if he has been tested and if the test results were positive for HIV/AIDS.
Do all gay people get AIDS?
No. Homosexuals get AIDS the same way that heterosexuals do. And they can protect themselves the same way, too.