Parenting is always hard work, and keeping our children healthy can, at times, seem especially daunting. Teaching our kids about sexuality is among the most intimidating jobs we have as parents, as well as one of the most important. Gone are the days (we hope!) when the girls get most of their information from Judy Blume books and the guys get it from their friends and older siblings. With society’s ever-more-casual attitude towards sex in the entertainment industry, most kids are being exposed to suggestive content at an increasingly younger age. So how do you do it? What is the best way to approach the dreaded subject?
Discussing the Birds & the Bees
The answer is…there may be no single best way. Parents know their children best, and should base “the talk” on their maturity level and what they’re observing.
“Parents are the number one influencers of their children’s sexual health choices,” says Mike Jestes, an Oklahoma City author of K.E.E.P. (Kids Eagerly Endorsing Purity). “Parents are the trusted source from which children want to receive sexual health information. They should always be honest, open and available to discuss matters of sexual health.”
Jestes says that parents who give accurate, candid and timely information to the child become the valued source for teens to turn to when they have questions. “Parents who empower their child with the facts equip then to dispel the myths [regarding sex],” he adds.
When is the Best Time?
Dr. Justine Shuey, a Board Certified Sexologist & AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator, says that there is not one magic age to discuss sex with your child. “I believe parents should be having age-appropriate conversations with their children from cradle to college. It’s not a one time conversation,” she explains. “The idea of ‘the talk’ is a myth. It should really be a series of talks.” Dr. Shuey says that sexual education in early years can be as simple as using proper terminology for body parts and then gradually taking on more advanced concepts and topics as the child matures.
Elementary and middle school teacher Robin is a mom of three, including an 11-year-old boy and 14- and 18-year-old girls. “I spend most of my time working closely with minority kids in middle school. Parents should know that their kids are hearing things from their peers earlier than they can imagine. It’s much better for their parents to give them the facts than for them to learn from urban legends,” she says. “I see teasing and jokes starting in the second grade. In middle school, the kids start going out more and sex talk becomes more specific. By 8th grade, if a parent hasn’t taken the time and initiative to really talk, it may be too late,” she says. With her own children, the discussion occurred at 10-11 years of age.
Where to Begin?
Mandy is a single mom of three, including a 16-year-old son. With him, “I look for teaching moments. Anytime something comes up on TV or in the news, we talk about it. I try to keep the dialog open all the time,” she says. While she’d love to see all of her kids strive for purity before marriage, she remains realistic and admits that in today’s society, it’s better to prepare and educate your children and let them know you’re there for them, come what may.
Jestes says there are several ways that allow for conversations regarding sexual abstinence with your teen. He agrees that teachable moments, such as watching a movie with sexual content, can lead to a natural conversation and allows parents to share and discuss opinions. Also, asking open-ended questions based on life experiences gives parents a chance to ask their teen’s opinion on sexual matters. “Engage in deliberate conversations,” he recommends. “Share with your teen what you learned about sexual health at their age and what you appreciated about the information. Give them the information you feel is necessary at their age on the topic of sexual health and the choice of abstinence.”
Renee is a mom of three, including a 13-year-old boy. “When he was nine, I was pregnant with his younger brother and he asked me how the baby was made and put into my stomach. He asked all sorts of scientific questions and I answered them, but that initial conversation was more technical than anything. We’ve discussed it since, and I’m pretty open with my kids when they ask me questions. We just talk very matter of factly about sex and their bodies. I just want him to understand that it’s a huge decision, and to make sure he’s mature enough to handle anything that comes with sex.”
Dr. Sheuy encourages parents to keep an ongoing dialogue with your child as they become a teen. “Practice makes perfect,” she encourages. “Take advantage of teachable moments. Share books and resources. You, as a parent, don’t need to know everything but you should be an ‘askable parent’—someone they can come to when they have questions without fear of shame or guilt or negative consequences.”
How Much Do They Need To Know?
The local parents interviewed for this story agreed that kids need to know about sexually transmitted diseases and contraception options. With sex comes potential consequences, both physical and emotional. Most of the parents try to emphasize a sense of gravity and responsibility, by talking to their kids about respecting their bodies as well as their partner’s health and wellbeing.
“Discuss topics of birth control and sexually transmitted dieases using facts,” says Dr. Shuey. “If you don’t know the answer, don’t make things up. Instead find resources together or take your child to a health professional and give them the privacy to ask the health care provider the questions they want.”
Sexting and sending suggestive or sexual images is another important topic that should be addressed in today’s society. Remind your teen that a picture can potentially last forever and follow you throughout your life. Many parents choose this time to talk to their kids about alcohol and drugs, which can often lead to irresponsible sexual behavior. Some parents choose to answer questions about their own experiences, while others don’t.
Whatever you decide, the important thing is to open up a line of communication, and make sure your kids are comfortable talking to you about important subjects such as sexuality.
Confused about Guardasil?
Gardasil is a vaccine for use in the prevention of certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause health problem including gential warts and cervical cancer. In the United States, aproximately 4,000 women die every year from cervical cancer and 7,000 men die of HPV-associated cancers.
According to Dr. Melanie Marshall, M.D., of INTEGRIS Family Care Northwest in Oklahoma City, Guardisil is recommeded for boys and girls ages 9-26. “The vaccine is given in three doses, within a one-year time span, and the child must receive all three doses to be protected.”
Dr. Marshall says that there has been much controversy regarding the vaccine, both in the media and amongst physicians themselves. “The pros are that the vaccine protects aginst the two most common cancer-causing types of HPV, which cause 75% of cervical cancers,” she says. “[However], there are more than 25 other types of HPV that it does not protect against, so it is not 100 percent effective in preventing cervical cancer. Females who get the vaccine still have to screened with pap smears and it does not treat anyone with existing HPV.”
In terms of side effects, Dr. Marshall says that over 33 million vaccines have been administered thus far, with 18,000 cases of reported side effects. “Some are as minor as pain and swelling at the injection site, or nausea and headache,” she explains. “Eight percent of the side effects were serious [approximately 1,400 cases]—including death.”
“It is a new vaccine, so we don’t have any long-term studies to show what the side effects are,” she concludes. “Many physicians feel that the benefits outweigh the risks. Others say that we now know how to screen and treat cervical cancers, negating the need for the vaccine.”
If you are questioning if Guardasil is right for your child, Dr. Marshall encourages open communication with your family physician. “Treat it as you would any other vaccine,” she encourages. “Always do your research, understand it and then weigh the overall risks and benefits.”
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and single mom to two girls. An Edmond resident, she graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma and is an HR manager in the medical field.