19 June 2009

The birds and the bees

Many parents feel anxious and uncertain about educating their child about sex. When is the right time and how should you go about it?

The conversation every parent dreads is the one about where babies come from. But avoiding it is the worst thing we can do: if they don’t hear it from you, they’re going to get their information elsewhere. The best protection we can give our children is an honest and clear set of guidelines.

Many parents feel anxious and uncertain about educating their child about sex. When is the right time and how should you go about it?

The answer is as easy as it is difficult: the time to introduce the subject is when a child wants to know what their "peepee" is. By talking to your children in a developmentally appropriate way, you remove the taint of taboo.

Experts recommend that you consider buying a children's book on sexuality to guide you through the tougher topics (see below for suggestions), and when possible broach a sex-related subject in terms of a TV show or movie you and your child have seen, or a book he or she has read.

The goal is to inform and protect your children while making them feel good — not ashamed — of their bodies. Teach young kids about topics like:

Children need to understand from the outset that no one is allowed to touch their “private parts” unless Mommy or Daddy says it's OK (at the doctor's, for example), and that the child should tell a trusted adult about any such touching. Kids sometimes play doctor, or "I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours" — that's common because children are naturally curious about each other's bodies. But let them know in a gentle way, directs sexologist Dr Ruth Westheimer, that other forms of play are more respectful of everyone's privacy.

Safe surfing and cellphone use
Kids have to know that when they surf the Internet, on computers or on their cellphones, that they shouldn't "talk" to someone unknown to them any more than they would if a stranger approached them on the street.

According to the Parent24 Parenting Survey, some 24% of all children have unsupervised cellphone access. There have been many instances of children being exposed to pornographic images on “their” social networking groups like MXit.

How do you manage this without intruding on your child’s privacy, or leaving them without a means to communicate in an emergency? A start would be to ask your service provider about protected packages for underage users, and to make it clear to your children that you will check their phones from time to time. “It would be entirely reasonable to (check a child’s cellphone),” says Professor Michael Simpson, Health24’s CyberShrink. “How you do it requires your wisdom and skill, avoiding being needlessly abrasive. That you can and should do it, is non-negotiable.”

Limit your young child's exposure to inappropriate sexual messages also in other ways: monitor the television shows and movies your kids watch so they don't become overstimulated and desensitised to sexual acts; keep any erotic tapes, magazines and books out of little ones' reach; and call your cable company about locking out channels unsuitable for youngsters. Go to or for information and filtering software to help block children's exposure to inappropriate Internet materials.

Beyond the basics
Though schools often include sex education in the curriculum — they might impart some information about Aids and pregnancy, for example — parents, too, should be involved with educating their children about these issues of physical health, and about the moral aspects of sexual behaviour. Prepare your middle school-aged kids for puberty so they're not caught with their proverbial pants down — offer your child the information in small doses, experts recommend, rather than in one "big talk."

Your pre-teen son should know that:
His penis and testicles will start to increase in size and his scrotum will change colour. His erections will become more frequent during puberty, and he may have nocturnal emissions, or wet dreams. He may experience a growth spurt and his voice will begin to change.

Your daughter should know by around age nine or 10 that:
She will get her period at some point, a change that means she can become pregnant. Her body, including her breasts, will be developing and could change more slowly or quickly than her friends' figures.

Whether your child is a boy or a girl, and where there are two parents, both should be involved in talking with them about sex.

If you have teenagers with whom you have not been talking and who aren't receptive, asking an older brother, sister, close friend or other person who shares your values to help, recommends sex educationalists Pepper Schwartz and Dominic Cappello.

They may do it anyway
Teach your kids, that not having sex is the only way to be 100% safe against pregnancy, Aids and other sexually transmitted infections. Get across to your kids that they should come to you or another trusted adult if they are considering intercourse. But know that not all kids will inform their parents of their sexual intentions, and that the average age at first intercourse in South Africa it is 12.

"Sex will be attractive to them sometime and you want to be ahead of the curve," stresses Schwartz.

Worried that teaching your kids about condoms for safer sex will give them the message that you condone premarital intercourse? Your morals matter, but be sure not to bury your head in the sand. After all, Schwartz points out, "Talking to me about snowboarding doesn't make me want to snowboard. But if I am going to take up something new — snowboarding or, say, inline skating — someone should tell me about helmets and knee pads to protect me so I don't kill myself."

Further reading
Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character , by Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., and Dominic Cappello (New York: Hyperion, 2000).
Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex , by Deborah Roffman, M.S. (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2000). Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, by Ruth Bell (New York: Times Books, 1998).

(Dr Elna McIntosh, sexologist, Health24, updated June 2009 by Health24 team)


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