The debate in many towns continues throughout this country about who should hold the responsibility of educating young people about sex and sexuality. On one side of the spectrum there are those who believe that parents and only parents should be teaching such sensitive and value-fill information to kids. On the other side, there are those who say that not enough education is being done in the home and that the schools need to step up and do the right thing by kids.
To further the debate and increase its complexity is the question about what exactly kids need to know and when. President Bush has issued his own view on the matter by granting government funding for those schools and programs that provide "abstinent only" education, meaning that there is no discussion about anything but abstaining from sex until marriage. Many people believe, and most research proves, that this message severely short changes children and could potentially set them up for making bad and or even life threatening decisions.
Many parents that I talk to believe in comprehensive education (talking about all aspects of sex and sexuality including abstinence), and are always comforted to hear that research is firm in showing that kids want to hear it from their parents and often make better choices when they have had those parental conversations.
But?..parents as sex educators?. This prospect for some is almost as frightening as the concept of kids having sex. Take it from me; it doesn't have to be frightening. There is so much information available that anyone, even parents, can do a great job. There are just a few things to keep in mind in order to be successful.
A. Be honest and open. The rule is that if a kid asks a question, he got the idea from somewhere and needs to have an age appropriate response. Ignoring the question or telling a child that he/she shouldn't be asking about such things sends the message that certain questions are off limits and they will take those questions elsewhere, school friends for example, who don't always have the correct answers or have the family values that you would want articulated in mind. Keep in mind the "age appropriate" part of this tip. As parents we don't want our kids to know to much to soon, but developmentally, they may be more advanced and ready to hear more than you think. If you aren't sure, look it up.
B. It is ok to share your values and morals and what you expect for your family. I think that often parents feel like they can't express their own expectations for their children when they educate about sexuality. You can talk about methods of pregnancy and disease prevention at the same time that you are talking about abstinence and relationship building. One is not exclusive of the other.
C. It is also ok to set limits and boundaries where you need. Talking about a penis in the middle of the grocery store is not appropriate. Those types of situations can easily be handled by telling a child that his or her question is valid and important, but would be much better dealt with at home. The thing to remember here is that you must go back to your child with the question when you said you would. Thinking that your child will just forget and you'll be off the hook does nothing for your credibility. And trust me, your kids will not forget, they will just remind you that you forgot when it suits their needs.
D. Often times a parent will get a question about a topic or a situation that they are not comfortable with or have very little information about. It is critical for parents to know and believe that they do not have to be experts in sex education. They must be able to, however, know their limits and know where to get the resources they need to refer their children for the right answers. It is also ok to admit to your child that you aren't the best person to talk about this topic, but that you know the person who is.
E. As difficult as it may be, it is also important to completely understand what your child is asking and why he/she is asking the question. I heard a story once that a little girl asked her Dad what secs was. Hearing this, Dad automatically assumed that she was asking about sex and went into his whole birds and bees lecture. When he was finished he asked his daughter why she had asked the question. The young daughter stated that mom said that dinner would be done in a couple of secs. She just wanted to know what that meant. Clarifying the question is vital to making sure that you are answering their questions thoroughly and completely.
F. Bone up on your own education. It is not enough that your children know about the latest method of birth control, you should also know. Know what it is that kids are talking about and thinking about when it comes to sexuality. Go to teen websites, read teen magazines, have conversations with your kids. The more information you have the better you can educate your kids.
G. Take advantage of teachable moments. Kids won't always want to talk to their parents. Especially if you haven't set up your home environment this way. So you may have to bring up a subject out of the blue. Use situations that you see on television shows or articles that you have read to get kids opinions. Ask them what they think. Share with them what you think and why. For example, you are watching the latest episode of The Bachelor. Ask you child how they feel about having intimate relationships with so many people in such a short time. Discuss the messages that you think the show sends, find out what messages your child is receiving. How do they feel about group dates? Anything to open up those lines of communication.
So, what do you do when the big day comes and your child asks you a tough question? You can start by using the C.A.L.M. method of answering.
C- Clarify the question. Ask the child why the question is being asked. Where did the topic come up? What does the child know about the topic or what does he/she think the answers are. This will definitely make sure that you are staying on the right track.
A- Answer the question basically. I like to think about building blocks when answering tough questions. You start with the most basic answer and then build on that answering from the next level and so on. Try to avoid the tendency to lecture. Kids, especially young ones, rarely listen to a long explanation; they only are listening for they think they want to hear. This could become problematic in that kids will not hear the correct answer or they will interpret incorrectly what you have said.
L- Listen to your child response. By answering basically you allow your child to let you know if he/she got the complete answer they were looking for. If they ask you another question, you know you need to go to the next building block. Don't forget to watch for body language too. Some children may not have the words to ask more questions. But you know your child and you will know when his body language shows that he isn't clear or in completion with your answer.
M- Motivate your child to continue to feel comfortable to ask more questions. Letting kids know that you are a safe person to come back to and that you will continue to answer their questions will keep them doing so.
We all want to do what is best for our kids, and for most of us, their safety is priority one. Use these tips to approach sexuality education in your own home with confidence!
Kim Dziobak is a personal coach dedicated to working with individuals and families to improve health and wellness.