What do I say about sex?

During a school meeting on pre-adolescent behavior, parents were asked to write down the one subject that was most difficult to discuss with their child. One mother was too embarrassed to write “sex,” so she put down “homework.” She later found out her friends had done the same thing. They wrote “chores,” “talking back,” “sibling rivalry”—anything but “sex.”

 Most parents and kids have a hard time talking to each other about sex. Parents find it difficult to imagine their child as a sexual being, and they’re ambivalent about giving detailed information. Discussions often become embarrassing as parents blush and kids try to change the subject: “Okay! I know about that. Let’s not talk about it anymore.”

Pre- and early adolescents are definitely interested in sex. They just don’t want to discuss it with a parent: “I’m not going to tell my father what I’m thinking about some girl.” Kids are much more comfortable and uninhibited talking with friends about sex. They also look for information from older siblings, books, TV, movies, and magazines. Some of what they find out is accurate, some isn’t. They rarely hear a discussion of values from these non-parental sources.

Most parents believe they should talk more about sex to their child than they do. They remember their own lack of knowledge as pre-teens and want him to grow up in a more communicative home.

When kids are young, parents have a relatively easy time telling them the basics of intercourse and childbirth. Yet as they approach adolescence, parents avoid discussions about the details: wet dreams, sexual arousal, masturbation, etc.: “I’ll wait a little while.” “They talk about that in health class.” “He’s probably heard a lot already.” Avoidance is not surprising. Adults rarely speak seriously about sex with anyone, even close friends.

As uncomfortable as you may be, try to find a workable way to communicate information and strong values to your child. If you want to discuss an aspect of sexuality, acknowledge your discomfort: “I feel really awkward, but there’s something I want to tell you about.” “I was too embarrassed to talk about this before, but I want to try now.”

Briefly share your information. If your child wants to learn more, continue. If he doesn’t, don’t force a longer discussion. He may be more open if you talk about your own lack of information as a child: “When I was a kid, I pretended I knew all about sex, but I didn’t.” Don’t be surprised by blunt responses and questions: “Was Dad the first man you had sex with?” If discussing sex is too difficult for you, give your child one of the many good books on the subject, written for his age and maturity level. Urge him to read it, and offer to answer questions he has.

At these ages, it’s important to share your thoughts on relationships and intimacy. Some parents clearly believe their child should abstain from intercourse until marriage, while other parents, looking ahead, are not quite that absolute. Whatever your position, make it clear that sexual intimacy is not appropriate until the people involved are grown and mature. Talk to your child about responsibility to himself and others and about loving relationships. Discussions about contraceptives and safe sex can generally wait until your child is older.

Learning about sex is a gradual process, and each person’s feelings and knowledge about the subject will evolve through a lifetime of changes. When you raise your child in a caring and loving home, he’ll feel good about himself, acquire strong values, and have a positive model for all his later relationships.

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