How To Talk To Your Teens About Sex
By Ellen Bari
One of the dads brought up the subject at a dinner party the other night. When his daughter was in the seventh grade, she asked him and his wife a very direct and intimate question about whether they ever engaged in a particular sexual act. He categorically denied it. I was struck by his response, which I suspect was typical for the parent, but not productive for the daughter. In a room filled with parents of ninth graders, the lack of clarity about how to respond to sticky questions about sex was striking. I thought about an interesting workshop I had attended about this very topic a couple of weeks before at Babeland on Bergen Street in Park Slope.
The ’coolness’ factor of the intimate group that had gathered for How to Talk to Your Teens About Sex was tested right from the get-go. Each participant was invited to introduce herself while speaking into a 12” neon-green, hygienic silicone phallus, pretending it was a microphone. Most of the participants were parents of teenagers, but there were two basketball-bellied women who were much too young for that and seemed somewhat out of place. We quickly learned that they had miscalculated the date of the Sex, During and After Pregnancy talk but decided to join us nevertheless. It turned out that both women offered an incredible amount of insight as they were involved in educating teens AND were also not that far in age from our teenagers.
The first thing I learned is that inadvertently, teachers are often the second line of defense, and sometimes the first, on the topic of sex. Some kids feel more comfortable talking to a teacher about an intimate subject than asking a parent. Every teacher present described situations in which students asked them for condoms, pregnancy tests and even questioned them about things they felt they could not ask anyone else, such as whether certain sexual acts were actually fun! Teen pregnancy is rampant in some inner city schools and we learned that one of the participants’ husbands, who works in a city high school, has Planned Parenthood’s number on his speed dial!
Dr. Judith Steinhart, a health and sexuality consultant and educator, led the workshop with assistance from her colleague, Ariele Le Grand, sexuality educator and meeting coordinator with Choices in Childbirth. Dr. Steinhart’s unique combination of warmth and expertise facilitated an interesting and personal dialogue, despite the fact that Babeland remained open to its customers throughout the evening. I noticed that some of the casual shoppers were intrigued by our discussion. In fact, I got into a conversation on my subway ride home with a thirty-something shopper who was inspired to reflect upon her own experience of talking to her mother about sex. Who doesn’t have a story about dealing with her mom about sex? It seems like an easy subject to talk about it at this distance, however every woman in the group reported having had to fend for herself when it came to getting information.
That was then, and this is now. Or so it would seem. But it became clear that even hip Park Slope moms did not find it so easy to talk to their children about sex. The topic is so deep and complex that it is hard to cover in an hour’s talk, but I think Dr. Steinhart conveyed 3 strong messages:
You are imparting your values. Judith pointed out that no matter what we say and how we talk about it, it is our values that we are imparting. Each family’s approach may be different and in that sense, there is no right or wrong, but remember to be clear about what your beliefs are on the subject. I would take the message one step further and say it is also about conscious parenting. Each discussion is a ‘teachable moment’ and viewed in this way, encourages us to seize the opportunity to share our thoughts on issues that are intrinsically important to the health, safety and well-being of our children, despite our possible discomfort.
The conversation starts at birth: The reality is that you do begin talking about sex and gender almost immediately upon your child’s birth. The moment you start naming body parts, and the comfort or discomfort you display in doing so, essentially lays the foundation that will give your children a language and attitude towards their own bodies and sex.
The Morning After Pill: This next point surprised me, as it was not so much about language but a very practical tip. Judith said that the Morning After Pill, or emergency Contraception, should not be a well-kept secret, but rather something that every mom must know about and be aware of how to get her hands on. It is safe, legal, and regular birth control prevention, which can be taken up to five days after unprotected intercourse or birth control failure. The sooner it is taken, however, the more effective it is. 1-888-Not 2 Late is the phone number for additional information, in English and Spanish, including local pharmacies that stock it. While it can be purchased for about $65 at a local pharmacy, teen clinics offer it for free. This in no way replaces protected sex, which, of course, is your message to boys and girls, but accidents do happen for any number of reasons and the pill offers an immediate and safe solution.
For those who feel that they can’t start the conversation, no need for despair. Resources abound. Here are a few books that you can give your kids, or place strategically in the house: Changing Bodies, Changing Lives: The Book Every Teenager Should Have by Ruth Bell; It's So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families by Robie H. Harris; It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris. There are also numerous websites with tons of useful and clear information: sexetc.org , sex education by teens, for teens; http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/ourwhole which is the Our Whole Lives curricula website; goaskalice.columbi.edu co-created by Judith Steinhart for Columbia University’s Health Education Program and smartsexstuffforkids.com.
So if you’re at a dinner party and the subject comes up, or you’re feeling a little queasy about having that conversation and keep putting it off, rest assured you’re not alone. It’s never easy, but avoiding the subject completely is not in your child’s best interest. Try to look at this as a great (and uniquely timed) opportunity to share your values about a subject that is central to his or her life now and forever.
Ellen Bari, a freelance writer and creative consultant, is the co-founder of Momasphere, which creates innovative programs for moms in and out of the workplace. Ms. Bari has developed award-winning multimedia, exhibits and programs for children and adults for clients including Sesame Workshop, US Holocaust Memorial Museum and American Express. Jumping Jenny, her upcoming picture book (Lerner Publishing) will be out next spring.