This article first appeared in the September October 2003 issue of Smart Parenting magazine
Robee was six years old when he first noticed his pregnant mom Anna’s swollen tummy. “What’s in there, Mom?” he asked.
"A baby,” she replied.
“How did it get in there?” he asked with an incredulous look in his big round eyes.
Taken aback somewhat, Anna quickly recovered her composure and decided to be as open and honest as she could. She then proceeded to have “The Talk” with her child.
So many heartwarming and even amusing anecdotes have been told about the time a child first learns about how babies are made -- from the same people who actually “made” them. It is a prospect most parents dread for many were brought up to believe that sex is dirty or bad. And the thought of sitting down and actually discussing the matter with their own young can make the most steadfast of parents uncomfortable.
Straight from the horse's mouth Cara Galang Fernandez, a professor of psychology at the Ateneo De Manila University, believes it is very important for parents to talk to their kids about sex, no matter how uncomfortable the prospect may be. “Parents should get over it,” she says, “and remember that they will be helping their children more by educating them about sex than by trying to keep them in the dark.” Studies gathered by Advocates for Youth, a US organization dedicated to helping young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and social health, confirm this. They say kids who feel they can talk with their parents about sex -— because their moms and dads speak openly and listen carefully to them —- are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior as teens than kids who do not feel they can talk with their parents about the subject.
Fernandez believes it is better that kids hear about the facts from their parents rather than from their peers. “If a child is uncomfortable talking to his parents, he may look to his peers as the best resource of information because they have so much in common with them, and share the same experiences. But often they may be given inaccurate information,” warns Fernandez, who is also an adolescent psychologist at the Ateneo Wellness Center, a therapy and crisis management center in the university.
Anna T. Reantaso, mother of now 12-year-old Robee, agrees completely. “I would rather have my kids hear it from me firsthand than have them hear twisted and embellished stories full of malice from not-so-well-meaning people,” says Anna. “It is something they will have to learn anyway and I would rather have them look at it realistically than all tainted.”
The right time So when should a parent have “The Talk” with his child? Most experts agree that a parent need not “schedule” the discussion by waiting for his child to turn a specific age. In fact, there need not even be one single session. Several casual but informative conversations may be more appropriate.
It is always good to start early. Fernandez believes the pre-teen ages of eight to 12 is a good time. By age 10, children should learn about puberty from their parents, so that they will understand the body changes and anticipate some of the emotional stirring that occurs due to hormones.
“It is a time when kids become most curious and are not ashamed to ask questions about what they see and hear,” she says. The child need not even ask a specific question. He may probably joke about sex or make some kind of comment about people having sex. This is a sign that the subject is already on his mind. “Pick up on this right away and initiate the conversation,” says Fernandez.
What is gay? While you’re in the territory, your child is bound to ask other questions as well. For instance, what do you tell a child who asks why gay people are the way they are?
Fernandez says, “Talking about sexual orientation will help you pass on the values of respect and understanding to your child.” Kids these days are more aware of homosexuality because of increased media coverage. Your child will surely have questions about being gay and will look to you for answers. Your silence on such issues can be easily misinterpreted. Take the opportunity to share your values with your child. By addressing the issue, you teach your child to respect the feelings and opinions of other people, regardless of differences.
Ultimately, when it comes to talking to kids about tough issues, the best advise is to listen to their concerns. “Children have great questions and experiences to discuss,” says Fernandez. Make sure you give them the time to express their thoughts and feelings. Respect their ideas. Don’t judge. Process ideas with them and guide them. If you react positively, they are more likely to imbibe the value system you want to communicate to them.
Talking the talk You want to talk about the birds and the bees, but how? Fernandez shares the following tips:
1. Take it seriously. Don’t say, “You are too young to talk about this.” Instead, show the child that no question is too trivial. But don’t be too serious that the child gets bored.
2. Use words properly. Avoid using vague words such as “down there,” “your you-know-what,” etc. Don’t be afraid to use proper words such as penis and vagina. These are not dirty words and using them shows kids you are comfortable with discussing the topic, and they will be more likely to discuss it with you again in the future.
3. Be age-appropriate. Don’t talk over the child’s head. The younger the child, the simpler the answers -- otherwise, the child will lose interest. Avoid overloading the child with too much information.
4. Use examples. Draw from the child’s life experiences. Keep within the context of movies he has seen or people whom he knows.
5. Discuss more than just the birds and the bees. Especially for kids who have reached puberty, talk about the emotional aspect of sex —- that it involves caring, concern and responsibility. This will help him be better informed to make decisions later on and to resist peer pressure.
6. Communicate your values. Share the principles by which you live. Let them be aware of them as they struggle to figure out how they feel and want to behave as they mature.
7. Don't make them feel guilt or shame. Tell your children that their ability to have sex -— or create life —- is a beautiful gift and that it is nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty about. Teaching them to treat sex with respect, and that their bodies are precious, encourages them to behave responsibly.
8. Relax. Don’t worry about knowing all the answers to your children’s questions; what you know is a lot less important than how you respond. If you can convey the message that no subject, including sex, is forbidden in your home, you’ll be just fine.