As I stood outside the hospital nursery after the birth of my daughter, a little girl and her brother, both about 10 years old, were excitedly peering through the window at the new addition to their family. Turning to her father, the little girl asked, "Daddy, how can you tell if the baby is a girl or a boy?" The father, looking a bit flustered, stammered slightly and answered, "Girls have pink blankets, and boys have blue blankets." His son immediately replied, "What happens if the blankets get switched?" The father, giving me an exasperated look, led the children away.
Most parents realize the importance of educating their children about sexuality, but, as this story illustrates, many of them find themselves unable to address the subject comfortably. They want to be helpful but are unsure what, when or how to discuss sexual issues. Some believe they don't know enough, feel embarrassed or are not clear about their own sexual values and attitudes. In addition to their own discomfort, many are concerned about how their children will feel about discussing sex with them.
Whether or not they have explicit discussions with their children, parents transmit their attitudes and values about sexuality to them. From the moment of birth, children observe and learn from their parents' behavior in everyday life. For example, parents who express affection for each other are, in effect, modeling the open expression of love. The way parents answer questions and discuss issues related to sexuality also conveys a great deal. Do they hesitate, act uncomfortable or avoid the subject entirely? Parents who are unwilling or unable to discuss this important and sensitive part of life with their children present sexuality as a negative and a taboo rather than as a natural part of being human. No sexuality education is sexuality education, and the message received from this education may be a negative one.
If young children receive a negative message about sexuality from their parents, they will be highly unlikely to turn to their parents to discuss sexual matters as they get older. On the other hand, positive communication about sexual information, feelings, attitudes, values and behavior when children are young often leads to ongoing discussions as they mature. Establishing an environment conducive to open and comfortable communication is therefore extremely important.
Children's curiosity about sexuality is a normal part of growing up. Today's media—computers, books, radio, television, magazines, movies, music, videos and advertising—stimulate this curiosity further. Refusing to discuss sexuality—and thus stifling children's developmental need to learn and understand—can result in fear and embarrassment. These feelings, in turn, may lead to ignorance and misconceptions if children lack accurate information or seek information from inappropriate sources.
Although it may become more difficult to open lines of communication as children enter their teens, it is never too late to try. Professionals working with parents to improve their ability to educate their children about sexuality should emphasize the following messages:
•Be askable. Askable parents generally understand what a child is developmentally capable of understanding, have a sense of humor and are good listeners. Such parents raise "asking" children. Children who have been encouraged to communicate openly with their parents are much more likely to ask their parents what they want and need to know, leading to "teachable moments." When children initiate a discussion, they are often more receptive than they are when the parent addresses a topic simply because the parent believes the child "needs to know."
It is not always wise, however, to wait until children exhibit interest in sexuality. They may never ask or comment. There are numerous issues and topics that may need to be discussed prior to a child's asking. Parents must judge their children's readiness and needs for information about sexuality just as they would if the topic were arithmetic or reading, and when appropriate initiate a conversation.
•Be accepting—an important part of being askable. An accepting parent does not convey a negative attitude or exhibit negative behavior when a child's natural curiosity leads to a question or comment. They convey the impression that all questions are good ones and all comments can be discussed.
•Discuss issues and answer questions simply: Parents often "overanswer" questions because they interpret them as much more complex and profound than they actually are. Parents should make every effort to try to understand questions and comments by repeating them and clarifying any words or phrases that are subjective and open to misinterpretation ("sex," for example). It is best to answer questions and discuss issues as factually, clearly and concisely as possible. After discussion, it is helpful to determine if a child is satisfied with the answer or comment. If not, repetition and additional clarification may be necessary.
Frequently, parents are concerned that their children will not understand and as a result do not respond to a comment or question. When a response is too complex and technical—whether the subject is sexuality, arithmetic or photography—the child simply will not understand it, but will not be harmed.
*Discuss issues and answer questions honestly. Because of embarrassment or a lack of knowledge, many parents find it difficult to answer questions about sexuality or discuss sexual issues honestly. Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to believe that we must be experts and are reluctant to admit that we are not. When parents do not know an answer or are not sure how to comment, they can simply say, "I don't know," "I'm not sure" or "Let me think about it." Then they can seek the appropriate response, perhaps with the help of the child. Exploring books or Internet sites together, for example, is an excellent way to promote dialogue. It is most important that parents not use evasive tactics in an effort to convince their children that they are all-knowing. Evasiveness conveys a negative message about sexuality and diminishes trust.
Parents do not realize that most questions and comments about "sex," prior to the age of 10 or 11, are primarily about biology. Basic and simple information about anatomy and physiology is usually all that is necessary. If children were curious about the workings of the knee or heart, most parents would attempt to discuss it or research the information for discussion. This should also apply to the anatomy and physiology of sexuality. Questions and discussions that focus on values give parents the opportunity to express their beliefs and guide their children in what they deem to be the appropriate direction. It is unlikely that these opportunities will present themselves if the lines of communication have not been opened by discussions about simpler factual information. If parents realize that conversations about sexuality are basically about love, relationships and biology, they will probably feel much less threatened and will welcome opportunities to communicate.
Programs sponsored by local schools, civic organizations or religious groups can help narrow the communication gap that exists between parents and their children concerning human sexuality.1 For example, an after-school program for 10-12-year-olds, together with their parents, on a topic such as puberty can be very effective. Led by a sexuality educator or a health educator trained in sexuality education, these sessions can open lines of communication that can last a lifetime. Participants may compile lists of anonymous questions to be answered by the group, solve problems posed in case studies and engage in role-playing exercises. As they work in teams throughout the program, parents and children learn that they are able to discuss sexual issues simply and honestly in a climate of acceptance.