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Talking About Sex

For Ages: 8 to 10

The Scene:

You and your eight-year-old daughter are chomping on hamburgers at the local diner. Suddenly, there's a lull in the noisy chaos. Your daughter looks up from her plate suddenly and asks in a loud, clear voice, "Mom, what's 'oral sex?'"

It's important to talk with children honestly about sex and it has always been hard for most of us to do that. But these days several factors make it even more crucial that children have access to good, honest information about sex and sexuality:

  • Girls as young as eight are beginning to develop breast buds and to grow pubic hair.
  • Children are experiencing hormonal changes that may be difficult and frightening for them to understand.
  • Children are subjected, mainly through electronic media, to a kind of phony sexuality that ranges from the titillating innuendo to the brutally graphic.
  • Pre-teens are encouraged, through advertising, to dress and act like teenagers.
  • The AIDS epidemic has made lack of information about sex literally deadly.

These days children are constantly barraged with overt (and covert) messages about sex and sexuality. As media moguls use sex to sell everything from music to microwaves, and as advertising becomes more ubiquitous, children pick up signals about sex and sexuality, most often without a context to help them make meaning of this exciting, and endlessly fascinating topic.

The Words You'll Need

The best thing you as a parent can do for your kids, (who are growing up in these confusing times) is to have ongoing and open conversations with them about sex. Just being open to talking about sex within the context of your values will make it easier for them to approach you with all kinds of problems. Until recently, the information children got about sex -- that didn't come from their parents or other trusted adults -- mostly came from their peers.

    The Words: I'm happy to tell you, but it will help me explain if you can tell me what you think it is.
    The Reason: Getting a sense of what your children already know (and its accuracy) is a good way to know how to begin.

    The Words: I'm wondering where you heard about 'oral sex.'
    The Reason: It's helpful to know where your kids are getting their information. If they're hearing about it from television, for instance, you might think about whether you want them to watch particular programs. If they heard about it in the context of a political figure, you might need to have a conversation that includes your feelings about things ranging from invasion of privacy to adultery.

    The Words: That's an importation question, and I want to make sure I give it a good answer. Let me think about it for a while.
    The Reason: If you're uncomfortable about a question, or aren't sure how to answer it, feel free to tell kids that you need some time to think -- as long as you reassure them that they have a right to ask difficult questions and they know you will be responsive.

    The Words: Do you remember when we talked about sex before?
    The Reason: Make sure that you've talked with your children about the basics of sexual intercourse before you talk with them about oral sex or any other specific issue about sexual expression. If they understand that grown ups have sex to express a special kind of love, it is easier to explain the idea of using different parts of one's body to give pleasure to someone special.

    The Words: You know, you're getting to an age when you're going to have lots of questions about sex. I'm happy to talk to you about it any time.
    The Reason: Let kids know that their interest is normal and that you expect that you'll be talking with them about it again.

    Conversation Tips

    The conversations you have with children before they are teenagers set the stage for being able to talk with them when sex is likely to be a part of their lives. If they think it sounds "gross," laugh with them (not "at" them) about that. Let them know that they might change their minds when they are older.

    • Think about your own education.
      Try to think about your own sex education and how you feel about it now. Think about your own feelings about your body, your own sexuality. The more comfortable you are, or the more you understand your own positive feelings and discomforts about sex, the easier it will be to help your children develop into adults who are comfortable with their own sexuality.
    • Choose a good book.
      There are lots of good books for children about sex and sexuality. Robie Harris's book, It's Perfectly Normal, has received a lot of praise from educators and parents.
    • Be straightforward.
      Talk to kids in a straightforward way about your concerns about the amount, and kind of, sexuality they are exposed to in the media. How do you feel about using sex to sell things? How do you feel about young girls and boys being exploited as sex objects to sell jeans? How do you feel about the links between sex and violence in music or movies?

    Many teenagers think that oral sex is a good way to avoid getting AIDS. Recent information strongly suggests that's not true. You might want to talk, even with preteens, about how HIV is transmitted and about safe sex.

    Beyond the Rap

    Exactly how you answer children's questions about sex depends on your own values. It may be easier to read books about sex together, or to use humor.

    You may want to talk about sex in the context of marriage, or you may be comfortable talking with them about sex in the context of a caring adult relationship. You should make very clear their right to say "no" to any kind of physical overtures that make them uncomfortable.

    Communicate in ways that enable children to preserve their dignity, that feel in line with your values, and most importantly, that provide them with accurate information. Helping kids feel good about their bodies, and validating their curiosity, will help children make responsible decisions.

    Remember, just try to get a sense from your children about how much they're ready to hear about sex. You'll get lots of other chances to talk with them about sex and other important issues as they grow. Good luck!

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