Here's why you need to bring up the birds and the bees with your kids.
Nearly half of high school students say they have had sexual intercourse (6 percent of them before age 13), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey. Eight percent said they had been physically forced to have intercourse when they did not want to.
Too many teens are at risk of getting pregnant and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Of the third of ninth through twelfth graders who are currently sexual active, only 60 percent reported using a condom.
Convinced yet that you need to start a conversation with your kids? To find out what to say, Family Goes Strong chatted with human sexuality educator and grandmother Deborah Roffman, author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' 'Go-To' Person About Sex. Excerpts:
At what age should sexual education begin?
From the second they're born they're labeled in terms of gender. It affects how we see the child, treat the child, speak to the child, the dreams that we have, the fantasies that we have as it grows up. Children are picking up all kinds of signals from the world around them.
You talk about not using nicknames for body parts.
If we call arms, arms, we should be calling genitals "genitals" because that's their name. We use lots of euphemisms n this country. Children are left without explanation, and that's very confusing."
Do you recommend certain books, such as Robie Harris's It's Not the Stork for younger children?
It's important to read things before you share them with your children. Robie's books are wonderful. Not everybody might agree with that. It's very important to be comfortable with what you're reading.
What books can help teens?
The book that I like most for high school kids is by Heather Corinna. [It] S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College [in the family resources list at the back of Talk to Me First]. It's very straightforward and provides lots and lots of information, but it talks about how that particular information relates to relationship issues or values or communication issues. That's what kids need more than anything.
What about the fine line between educating kids about issues such as sexually transmitted diseases - and scaring them to death?
Intuitively, parents and teachers and school districts think, "let's scare them." It doesn't work. Adolescents don't think about risk taking the same way as adults. If they hear a lot of bad scary news about something, they're likely to become very overwhelmed. I want my students to realize this is serious to think about, and I know what I need to know to protect myself. The scare tactics don't do that second part. They are nothing but manipulation. The older kids get, the more they're able to spot manipulation. You lose their trust that way.
How should parents share their own beliefs about sex, such as thinking it's best to wait until marriage?
Very directly. Part of adolescence is pushing and pulling against your parents' beliefs and values. If they don't know what their parents believe and value, they sort of have to guess at it. That makes their adolescence harder. The trick is for parents to be able to express their values without moralizing. [Don't say], "Listen here, I'm going to tell you what you should do." If the parents are smart and share their point of view while being very willing to listen to their child's point of view, they have a much greater chance of their child taking what they have to say to heart.
What about parents who strongly want their kids to just say no, even if that's not what they did themselves?
Adults don't want to think of their children as sexual beings. They have natural instincts to protect them. The message they tend to give is, "I want you to postpone this indefinitely." The truth is, our children have at least 12, 13 years between reproductive and sexual maturity and marriage. That's 10 or 12 years when they have to manage this powerful part of themselves. My message to parents is instead of "no" or "not yet," what we have to educate our children for is "yes" or "no." You have to help them for them to be able to manage this part of them for that long period of time.
What about the Centers for Disease Control survey's depressing statistic that 6 percent of high school students say they had intercourse for the first time before age 13?
Any time a 13 year old is having enough freedom to have intercourse, there's something wrong with that picture. Where's the adult supervision? Children need adult presence. They need information, adult presence, limit setting, guidance, and clear statements about values.
In the CDC survey, 22 percent of high school students said they were drinking or using drugs the last time they had intercourse. What's the message around that disheartening figure?
Parents should make it clear what their expectations are. They should also engage the support of other parents. Parents have to be willing to make hard phone calls. What I see today is very overwhelmed parents who feel helpless. I understand that. There's no other generation of parents that have had multi-billion-dollar corporations trying to get between them and their children.
What's an example?
The cell phone. A cell phone with an internet connection or a computer with an internet connection is one of the most powerful machines in the world. Yet adults turn them over to elementary school kids without thinking about them. They don't have the maturity to manage that kind of power. I think about the public service advertisement, "It's 11 o'clock. Do you know where your children are?" That used to mean they were out on the street. With an internet connection, they could be anywhere in the world. Five years ago the idea of a 6-year-old having an iphone would have been are you out of your mind? That's all marketing.
Sometimes movies make it seem as though virtually all teens are having sex, when the CDC survey shows fewer than half have ever had it. Should parents share that information with their kids?
Kids always overestimate who's engaging in these behaviors. One of the most important strategies is giving them proof positive that that's not the case — that it's the kids who are making responsible decisions who are in the majority. This is what's effective. It takes a lot of the pressure off.
How much should parents share about their own experiences?
When it comes to sexual behavior, parents are in a good place. Nobody ever needs to share anything about their personal sexual history.
So is it better if moms and dads don't share their own stories about the birds and the bees at all?
Who's teaching kids that sex is private? They won't get that unless the immediate adults in their lives say, "This is supposed to be a very personal and private part of life, and it would make me uncomfortable to share that with you. Let's talk about why you want to know that." They're not interested in their parents having sex. What they're interested in is how their parents, who they trust and respect, went about making their decision. What is the right age, and how do you decide these things? That you can always answer in a more general way.
Should parents ever get birth control for their kids?
"I'm putting you on birth control so you don't get pregnant" is a real mistake. To say, "I am available to you at any time to talk to you, to see that you get your health needs met" - that's very different. "I'm here in any way you need me."
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