Shaping attitudes, values about ‘the facts of life’ in a sex-saturated cultureFor many parents, talking to their kids about the facts of life is an uncomfortable task at best, and can be made more complicated by children’s potential exposure to information and images that may be troubling or damaging. The trick is to get to them first.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
At a time when overtly sexual messages seem to permeate the media and Internet porn may pop up when children mistype a link while doing homework, how can parents impart their own values and ensure their kids gain a healthy understanding of sex?
For many parents, talking to their kids about the facts of life is an uncomfortable task at best, and can be made more complicated by children’s potential exposure to information and images that may be troubling or damaging.
The trick is to get to them first. Before they follow a celebrity rumor into an X-rated site. Before they start dressing like Rihanna and don’t understand why you’re speechless. Or before they happen upon an MTV hot-tub scene on the way to Nickelodeon and wonder what they saw.
“There is still so much embarrassment and shame and confusion about how to talk to kids about sex,” said Amy Lang, an educator who advises parents on how to best handle this responsibility. “At the same time, there is so much information that parents worry about giving them too much.
“So, they don’t give them any.”
Lang built a business called Bird + Bees + Kids, or BBK. She speaks to parent groups, holds in-person and online workshops on the subject, and maintains a busy website (www.birdsand beesandkids.com) where parents can find answers.
Shocked but silent
In recent years, she said, our culture has become “considerably” more sexual and, as a result, children more adult-like.
Time and again, parents are confronted with kids’ clothing and music lyrics that defy good taste, but ignore their own intuition.
“They send their 8-year-old out in high-heeled boots and a miniskirt and think, ‘Oooh, inappropriate,’ but then they don’t do anything about it,” Lang said.
So, what do you say to your little Nicki Minaj?
“I think your outfit today is a little too grown up,” Lang suggested. “You’re a little girl and you aren’t going to be able to run and play.”
Start talking to kids about sex when they’re no older than 5, she said, and keep the conversation going in short and sweet talks that stretch over years, rather than having “the big talk” when they reach puberty.
“There’s no ‘one talk.’ It’s not an event,” Lang said. “Talking about sex should be a normal part of family life. It should be weird not to talk about it.”
“You want to talk about porn before they see porn,” she said. “Warn them that they may see it, that they should tell you when they do and they won’t be in trouble.”
Cost of avoidance
“To ignore it doesn’t make it go away,” said Dr. Ellen Feldman, child psychiatrist at Altru Health System in Grand Forks. It drives it “underground.”
People who don’t discuss sex with their children run the risk that they will get information elsewhere, she said.
“Parents don’t talk about it because it’s uncomfortable, not because kids don’t need to know.”
She suggests parents give information appropriate to the child’s stage of development.
“Tell them as much as they appear interested in hearing,” Feldman said. “You can and should give them what they ask for, given their attention span and the context.
“If your child asks, ‘Where do babies come from?’ you might say, ‘Why do you ask — did you see someone who’s pregnant or a cat that had kittens, did a friend say something?’
And it’s OK to say, “This is uncomfortable for me. I didn’t have this conversation with my parents.”
Parents should know their “words are not as important as understanding their kids’ experiences and realizing that what you say is probably secondary to what they’ve seen, from you and other people.
“If they’ve gotten something from media or friends and you tell them, ‘That’s wrong,’ it’s not necessarily as effective as the parent asking, ‘What do you feel, or think, about that?’”
This kind of communication helps lay the foundation for an open and honest relationship that will sustain the child through the sometimes turbulent years of adolescence.
“Don’t assume that what prompted your child’s question is the same thing that prompted you to ask the question of your parents 30 years ago,” Feldman said. “Their world is different — they’re exposed to all kinds of things.
Try not to be judgmental or confrontational, she emphasized. Questions like, “How can you talk that way?” and “How can you think that way?” will end the conversation.
“In general, talking to kids about sensitive issues is best done when it’s not confrontational.”
“Long trips can be a good time to talk because you’re kind of forced to interact with each other.”
Communication “is best when you’re doing something innocuous,” she said.
Teenagers are developing their own individual identity — pushing and challenging — that’s natural and healthy, she said. “It’s what we want them to do.”
But teens often feel as if their parents are telling them what to think rather than finding out what the teenager is thinking and feeling, she said. “They’ll say, ‘You can’t tell me what to think.’”
A better parental approach would be: “Here are my thoughts and feelings. Here are possible consequences if you break the rules. But ultimately, it’s up to you.”
That’s difficult, she said. “It’s hard to see your child become sexual because it means they’re growing up.
“Even the most tightly regulated teen has some unmonitored time.”
Parents would do well to ask themselves, “What do I want from this conversation? Do I want them to think what I think or to understand that they can come to me? What’s my goal?”
For most parents, their ultimate goal is to convey “their overriding value: that their child knows ‘we’re here for you; there’s nothing that will shock us’… and that they’re not going to lose you.
“If there are pitfalls, it’s forgetting that part of the message,” she said.
For advice and guidance, Feldman recommends parents talk with their pediatrician, family doctor, their own parents, neighbors — people they trust, “realizing that we all go through this.”
She also pointed to the American Academic of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website (www.aacap.org) for insight about normal childhood development and how to answer sex-related questions.
Monitor online activity
Paying attention to and monitoring their online and on-phone activities is essential, Feldman said, and at an early age.
“It’s clear that kids are in many cases ahead of their parents in terms of accessing online information and the ability to hide what they’ve accessed.”
Have a family policy, including passwords that are shared, she said, and let the child know that you’ll be intermittently watching.
She recommends parents talk to their kids about this activity in these terms: “Let me tell you where I am on this and you tell me where you are on this,” sharing your thoughts and feelings and the “why” behind your views.
Further, say to your child, “You are probably wondering about things you’re hearing and seeing … How do you feel about things you’re seeing?”
If you’re watching TV together, “you may say, ‘That makes me uncomfortable when I see a 12-year-old dress like that.’”
Feldman stressed “there has to be limit-setting, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a discussion about what it means.”
Pornography “is much more raw, graphic and easily accessible.”
While the lasting effect of exposure to pornography is a point of controversy in her field, it is dangerous because “it distorts the idea of privacy,” she said. “It distorts the idea of what’s important about sexuality.
“It changes the whole context, and can be very confusing” for kids.
Adults should be cautious about sending mixed messages about pornography, she said. “(Kids) may wonder, ‘If it’s there, what’s wrong with it? Why is it bad?’”
It’s important to “talk about it with kids in ways they can understand,” Feldman said.
Parents should be mindful of personal behavior — their use of pornography, the way they dress or how they react when they see things that are unacceptable.
“Be careful about your actions in your own life. Kids learn more from what you do than what you say.”
Exposure to questionable images is an opportunity to open up dialogue and to instill positive messages about protecting one’s own body and image, she said.
Lang said parents shouldn’t be afraid to check their kids’ browser history, or to say something when it seems like their kid is beginning a sexual relationship.
“If something happens, if you walk in on them or see a suggestive text,” she said, “wait until you’ve calmed down and they’re in a calm space.”
Say something like, “Clearly, you guys are intimate. I get that.”
Admit that you’re a little uncomfortable, but that your kid’s health and safety is your No. 1 concern.
And if they tell you it’s none of your business? What do you say then?
Lang plays right along: “I can see you feel that way,” she said softly, then, with direct eye contact, “But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be a grandparent or you’re going to get an STD.”
3 biggest myths that get in the way of ‘the sex talks’
• The kids are too young to learn about sex. Parents worry that they will “ruin their innocence” by teaching kids about a part of life that is not for children. This isn’t the case. Children’s ideas about sexuality are not clouded by all of the adult information we have about sex. When we think about talking to kids about sex, we think about everything we know about sex — the good and the bad. Our children don’t know what we know, so they come to the conversation with openness and curiosity, not shame or embarrassment.
Innocence is lost when kids learn on the playground, from the Internet or are sexually abused. You can protect their innocence by providing this information before anyone else does.
• How and what the parents learned was good enough and they turned out OK. They probably did turn out OK and most of us relied on our peers and school for information about sex. Our parents might have given us books or had one awkward talk when it was way too late. This “sex education” will not serve our kids in today’s world. Things have changed and parents need to as well.
If you don’t talk to your kids from an early age and regularly throughout childhood and adolescence, they will learn it from TV, their peers, media, video games, music and Internet pornography — sources that don’t share your values.
• Because their kids aren’t asking, there’s no need to have the conversation. Some kids will never ask their moms how babies are made — they may be naturally shy, it’s not on their radar, or they think you won’t answer their questions honestly. Just because your kid hasn’t asked it doesn’t mean they don’t need to know. When you learn what is age-appropriate for kids to know, and then initiate the conversations with them, your kids are safer and, ultimately, healthier. If you show them you are open to these talks, they will be more likely to confide in you.
Source: Amy Lang, MA, Birds + Bees + Kids (www.birdsandbeesandkids.com)
Nicole Brodeur of The Seattle Times contributed to this article. Knudson covers Health and Family for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext.1107 or firstname.lastname@example.org.