Even the most enlightened, modern parents sometimes find themselves unprepared to teach their children about sex. Especially when that conversation ends up happening at your local Thai restaurant.
Here’s an excerpt:
But how does the sperm get in to fertilise the eggs?” she asked.
I said, “Oh, yes. That. Well, the sperm comes out of the man’s penis and it goes into the woman’s vagina. This happens when the two do what’s called, ‘have sex’. And that’s where the egg – there’s usually only one in the woman’s pond at a time – gets fertilised.” Only after the fact did I realise that I had said the words penis and vagina and sex in a strained, sotto voce tone. This was also something my own mother would have done. Self-hate swelled in my breast.
Mulan had put down her fork. Her face was twisted in disgust. “That’s where humans make a baby, where you go to the bathroom? Mum!!” Her voice was rising.
“Yes,” I said, looking around conspiratorially. “I know,” I sighed. “It is weird. That part can take some getting used to.”
“Gross.” Mulan mumbled.
“Yeah, I know. As they say, it’s like having a waste treatment plant right next to an amusement park. Terrible town planning.”
To read the full, hilarious account in The Guardian, click here. To see her explain it all in video format on YouTube, click here. You won’t be sorry.
Should your preschooler be taught about the dangers of smoking? Is kindergarten too young to start talking about alcohol? Does your 8-year-old need to learn about illegal drugs?
Parents often ask me whether it’s possible to give too much information about risky activities, or whether there are clear-cut rules on what kids of different ages should be taught. This is particularly a concern for parents with their younger children, who worry that having older siblings might expose them to this information before they are ready.
Hear are a few guidelines on how to handle this:
Talk: early, often, frankly. Instead of having the dreaded “Talk” about sex, smoking, drugs or alcohol when you feel your kid is ready to handle it, you should make talking frankly about these things fit into regular, on-going (age-appropriate) discussions from the time they are old enough to follow a conversation. See a “No Smoking” sign in a restaurant? Point it out. Someone uses the word “drunk” and she wants to know what it means, explain it using simple words (such as “When someone drinks too much wine or beer they act silly and can get into big trouble”).
Preschoolers should know that smoking is bad for your health. They should understand that we only take medicines that the doctor, a parent or trusted caregiver offers them to get better (small children may mistake colourful pills for candy, so this is an important one). They should start to learn your family’s values about drinking. Maybe you avoid all alcohol. Maybe you have a beer now and again. Maybe you drink wine to mark certain religious holidays or ceremonies.
Kids 5 and under should be taught the correct terms for their body parts, so they can speak up clearly if someone touches them inappropriately. It’s been suggested that pedophiles tend to avoid children who know the right words for body parts, because they are used to speaking frankly with their parents and thus more likely to report on the abuse.
School-aged children can be given more information about these things, and you should introduce knowledge about illegal drug use. They should also be given information about the physical and emotional changes of puberty, and have regular discussion about peer pressure. As they get older, you’ll need to provide more detailed information. We know kids as young as 9 or 10 can be gambling (poker or online) – discuss the risks when they are young enough to listen.
Keep their maturity level in mind when deciding how much detail to give: A child in second grade doesn’t necessarily need to know what pot or ecstasy are; a child in fifth grade really does. And if you find yourself talking too much and your kids’ eyes have started to glaze over in boredom, stop. Reassess. Pick it up later in a simpler way.
Listen: without judgment, for what they are really asking or trying to tell you, for insight into their concerns. Don’t go in with your own agenda. Don’t dominate the discussion. Make sure you are actually sure what they want to know before you bombard them with more information than they need.
Start with addressing their questions in simple terms. A four-year-old who wants to know if smoking can make you die doesn’t need to know about nicotine addiction or hear words like cancer or emphysema. They may simply be worried about a beloved uncle, and want reassurance that if he stops, he can get healthier. Or that there are doctors who can help him. Or that it’s really, really hard to stop smoking once you start, so we need to be patient.
Give information is small, easy-to-manage increments. Use age-appropriate words. If they ask questions and want to know more, it’s OK to follow their lead.
Inform yourself: Make sure you know what you’re talking about. There are many excellent books, pamphlets and websites for parents seeking to know more about teens and high-risk behaviors.
Parents sometimes worry about their children’s innocence, making them grow up prematurely with this information. But if you don’t tell them, they will learn from friends, television, music and the world around this. You can’t guarantee that they will get the correct information. More importantly, you missing the opportunity to provide your own values and moral framework.
Parents are sometimes shocked to learn how young kids are when they first experiment with smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling (typically grades 5, 6 and 7). Since we know that the younger kids are when they start, the higher the risk of developing problems, we need to try and put off that initial experimentation as long as possible (if not avoid it altogether).
According to the 2008 Quebec Survey on Smoking, Alcohol, Drugs and Gambling in High School Students conducted by L’insitut de la
statistique du Quebec, young people who experiment with smoking, alcohol, drugs or gambling had:
•Their first cigarette at the age of 12.7 years (40% of kids will try smoking before high school)
•Their first alcoholic beverage at the age of 12.6 years
•Their first experience with marijuana at 13.4 years
•Their first experience with gambling as early as 11.6 years.
Other research suggests that 7th grade is the typical starting point for experimentation with oral sex (which 40% of teens believe doesn’t qualify as “sex”).
And what about those younger siblings who seem to know way too much, way too soon? Truth is, there isn’t that much you can do about it if they have older siblings around. But instead of mourning their precociousness and premature loss of innocence, remember that knowledge is power. If your kids are well-informed, they are less likely to believe the rumours, dangerous half-truths and misinformation circulated in the schoolyard.
They will be better prepared to resist trying things that could get them into big trouble. And that, ultimately, is the goal we all need to keep in mind.
Pretty much everything you’ve ever thought of, and lots of things you’ve never dreamed of, have their own dark, sweaty corner in a website somewhere. And teens are pretty good at finding these places. So are adults, for that matter, but at least they are comfortably over the age of consent and have (hopefully) developed the good judgment to process what they see.
What you don’t always find online — or in most places in Western culture — is frank, honest discussion of human sexuality, with all its permutations, challenges and pleasures. French theorist Michel Foucault noted that despite all the constant buzz about sex, we actually are quite repressed since we never really talk about sex.
Scarleteen is an independent, grassroots sexuality education and support organization and website, facilitated and staffed by a wide diversity of adult and teen writers and educators. They offer an amazing set of resources in their static content, hundreds of up-to-date articles on all sorts of issues. They have an opt-in/ opt-out policy on information, so it’s all there, from abortion to contraception to LGBTQ; that means users are independently able to seek out what they want to know more about, and steer clear of material they might find offensive.
They provide ongoing mentoring and guidance for their volunteers, many of whom help moderate the interactive portion of the site, offer offline teen outreach and support, primarily through sexual/reproductive health clinics, community and school groups and teen homeless/transitional shelters in and around Seattle, Washington.
Covering everything from STIs to sexual orientation, body image to birth control, masturbation to misogyny, the anatomy of the clitoris to considering cohabitation, and written for you whether you’re male, female or genderqueer; straight, gay or somewhere in between, this is the everything-you-need, comprehensive, progressive sexuality guide to get you through high school, college and maybe even the rest of your sex life.
There are so many cool, interesting, informative and helpful sections to this website that every teen and parent should have it bookmarked. The fact that the information is put out there without moral judgment or hidden agenda is pretty awesome, since teens are really good at tuning out when the lecturing and moralizing begins. And since the whole point is keeping them (and ourselves) informed so we can make healthy choices at difficult times, Scarleteen.org is an example of how the Internet can work for the forces of good.
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
"Alissa is the consummate professional and speaks with great authority. We hope she will be one of our feature speakers at many future workshops." Kelly Wilton, editor and co-publisher of Montreal Families Magazine
RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en