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Getting Smart About Sex Education

The talkThis article was originally published in May 2005

The first time I walked into the restroom of my daughter’s single-sex college dorm, I got a real education in safe sex. One wall was covered with informational pamphlets and hanging baskets containing all sorts of condoms and other barrier protection products to encourage safe sex. I didn’t even know what some of the stuff was and had to ask my daughter. Clearly, my sex education was lacking.

Spin the bottle used to be the edgy party game for cool kids, the kids experimenting with their sexuality. Then it was truth or dare, egged on by Madonna’s video, pushing the limits even further. Now there are rainbow bracelets. For every sex act a girl performs, she gets a jelly bracelet. The color of the bracelet signifies the act performed.

Urban Legend or Is This Really Happening?

A frank discussion with Pam McFarland and Patty Kirby of Planned Parenthood of Maryland revealed that they aren’t actually seeing kids who participate in rainbow parties or collect jelly bracelets. What they are seeing are higher instances of younger kids engaging in oral sex, and parents are scared.

“Parents think that oral sex is more intimate than intercourse,” Kirby explains, but “kids think intercourse is more intimate, and they have been told to abstain from having sex.”

Does it Depend on the Definition of Sex?

“Given the suggestion that adolescents do not view oral sex as sex and see oral sex as a way of preserving their virginity while still gaining intimacy and sexual pleaseure, they are likey to interpret sexual health message as referring to vaginal sex,” says Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a pediatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, and lead author of a report released in the April 2005 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The good news is that teen pregnancies are down and so are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The bad news is that as many as half of all adolescents experience oral sex before intercourse, according to Halpern-Felsher. Adolescents as young as 13 and 14 who engage in oral sex rarely use any sort of protection, even though STDs and the AIDS virus can be transmitted orally. According to Anne Biddle of Anne Arundel County Depratment of Health, “even older kids are saying that they are concerned that younger teens are sexually active at an early age.”

What’s A Parent To Do?

“Talk,” says Kirby. When your child comes home from the movies and says that a couple from his eighth grade class was having oral sex in the theater ask, “What do you think about that?”

“Then listen to what your kids say,” she says. “They will give you lots of information if you ask the right questions.”

Kirby advises that parents address sex and sexual awareness early. As middle schoolers become more independent, they need to know how to negotiate their way out of uncomfortable situations. Tell them why they should delay sexual expereinces, how to avoid putting themselves in the situation in the first place and most of all, what needs to be in a relationship before having sex. Broken hearts take a long time to mend.

If parents don’t teach their children about sex and relationships, kids will form their own ideas from information heard at school, on the bus or from the older siblings of friends.

Create an open relationship with your children while they are young, Kirby advises. Kids receive messages about sex from the minute they are born: how we hold and dress them, the toys they play with and their relationships with parents.

Sex education is part of the school curriculum, but “parents are still their children’s primary source of information and values,” Kirby says. “Even in high school, parents are usually the ones kids go to when they need help or information.” Teach your kids at an early age to come to you when they have questions.

If my discussion with 14-year-old boys is any indication, they really don’t want to talk directly with their parents about sex in any form. They know they aren’t ready yet, but they want to know what to expect and they want the information – just not from mom.

To encourage discussion, watch television shows together and talk about exhibitied sexual behavior. Talk in the car – when your teen doesn’t have to look at you, and also can’t escape. Talk any time you have the opportunity to casually bring up appropriate behavior.

Kids grow and mature at different rates. Educating your children about sex, and the consequences and emotions that come with it, is a important job that shouldn’be left to someone else. Don’t be caught off guard. With some luck, one day you will be a grandparent. Just let it be at a time when your children are prepared for it.

Age-by-Age Guide

When talking to your kids about sex:

  • Use simple terms
  • Use correct terms
  • Offer only as much information as they are ready for
  • Ask questions such as, “What to you think?” “Have your heard?”

Although children may be ready for information at various ages, here’s what most children should be able to do or know about sex and their bodies based on age range.

By Age 5

  • Use correct terms for all sexual body parts
  • Understand biological femaleness and maleness
  • Say “no” to unwanted touch
  • Talk privately at home about sexual issues, questions and concerns.

6 to 9

  • View the health-care system as non-frightening and supportive of their health and well-being
  • Take an active role in managing their body’s health and safety
  • Develop, maintain and end friendships

9 to 13

  • Age range and normal differences in timing when developmental changes begin for girls and boys
  • General stages of the body’s growth
  • About menstruation and wet dreams
  • Emotional changes that are to be expected during this time

13 to 18

  • The impact of the media’s depiction of sexual involvement
  • Range of different sexual behaviors, including celibacy, marriage and partnering
  • Contraceptive choices
  • Causes, prevention and cures of sexually transmitted infections


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