For many of us, "the talk" went something like this: Mom and/or Dad sat you down at the age of, say, 12, announcing, amid sighs and seat shifting, that it's time to learn about "the birds and the bees." The conversation takes about two minutes because everyone's so uncomfortable (remember, you're in puberty, so you pretty much exist in a state of discomfort.) Mom and/or Dad may explain, in bizarrely unsexy terms, the physical mechanics that happen between two loving adults, and then leave you with an approximate nanosecond for questions. "Ok, I think that went well," Mom and/or Dad may say to you, each other, or themselves, after another major exhale. The end.
What's wrong with this picture? Um, all of it. It's no one's fault, really. We're left with a centuries-old legacy that has made sex taboo, says Deborah Roffman, teen sexuality expert and author of Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' "Go-To" Person About Sex. However, kids who grow up in families where sexuality is openly discussed are not just healthier and happier, but they also postpone participation in a range of risky behaviors including sexual activity, Roffman says. "Talking with your kids is protective ... a buffer against what goes on around them."
As we know, today's youth live in a highly wired world, in which media exposure brings an onslaught of sexual subjects, oftentimes presented in superficial and distorted terms. "They're seeing sex divorced from intimacy" and "from critical thinking," Roffman says. So what are kids actually doing these days?
According to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted every two years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse, down from 54 percent in 1991. By their 19th birthday, 7 in 10 Americans have had sex, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank focused on sexual and reproductive health.
Teen pregnancy rates in this country have dropped—in 2008, there were 68 pregnancies per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19, down from 117 in 1990. However, those numbers reflect one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world, Guttmacher reports. And, while 15- to 24-year-olds comprise one-fourth of America's sexually-active population, they contract almost half of the 18.9 million new cases of sexually-transmitted diseases each year.
Despite those stats, parents often believe their child is not yet sexually active but fear that "their peers might lead them astray," according to research by Sinikka Elliot, assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University and author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers. In other words, something doesn't add up here.
Plus, the age of puberty has dropped while the age at which one commits to a long-term partnership has risen, so it's typical, nowadays, to be single for longer periods of time. "This is a brand new ball game," Roffman says.
With that said, how exactly should you approach "the talk?" Well, first of all, it's not just one talk. Get ready for a whole lot of them. "Give the information on a consistent, ongoing basis, because one talk is definitely not going to do it," says Laura Berman, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and author of Talking to Your Kids about Sex: Turning "The Talk" Into a Conversation for Life.
Below, some do's and don'ts to help you teach your child about this critical subject:
Do clarify your own values about sex.
"Before you even begin thinking about talking to your kids about sex, get really clear on what your own attitudes are and perspectives, and that could mean asking yourself, 'what is the ideal circumstance under which I want my child to have their first sexual experience?'" says Berman. Ultimately, parents "want their child to have loving, intimate sex that's satisfying." Once you and your partner reach an understanding of the optimal context for your child, those values frame your conversations, she explains. "You can't just shoot from the hip."
Don't wait until they're teenagers to talk about sex.
"You don't wait to have the big sex talk until they're 15," says Jay Homme, assistant professor of pediatrics and director of the pediatric residency program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "Start young with age-appropriate discussions" and prepare them for what's ahead. "Before their own bodies change, they need to understand what's going to happen," Homme says. "Talking about sex should come in the context of having already talked about puberty," he says. "Most families are kind of kidding themselves if they think their children won't get information from somewhere ... they're going to get it from their peers, and what do they know?"
Do make yourself available.
"It's parents that kids are looking to first, and they only go elsewhere when their parents don't seem approachable," Roffman says. "Adults who are not engaged with their kids need to examine the reasons why, get past them, and jump in with both feet," she says. "Whenever young people are engaging in behaviors that are beyond their developmental capacity, whatever it is, it's almost always an issue of lack of adult supervision."
Try to create comfort and openness around the issue, Berman says. "I would say 90 percent of being a good sex educator of your kid is being someone that they're comfortable coming to with questions and concerns." Even if you are uncomfortable. "You don't have to be perfect at it ... you don't have to always say the right thing, and you can always ask for a redo," she says. If you don't know the answer, you can promise to find one, and that "gives you a chance to regroup and think about what you want to say," Berman says.
Finally, don't get hung up on having a parent talk to a child, Homme says. The goal is to create a caring environment where a "trusted adult," be it a grandparent or caregiver, can provide guidance, he says. "Accurate information coming from an adult whom the teenager feels really cares for them is going to probably be the best resource."
Don't use pet names for private parts.
Who remembers the hullabaloo that happened after a character on Grey's Anatomy referred to her vagina as "va-jay-jay"? Oprah adopted it, and the term went viral. "It sounds warm and familiar and it almost makes the vagina feel like a little cartoon character with eyes that walks around," said John McWhorter, a linguist quoted in a story on the nickname in the New York Times. The problem here: Cartooning private parts isn't exactly a lesson in realism. And that's what's needed, say experts. Using the correct names for body parts helps to create comfort with one's body as opposed to shame, Berman says. Also, nicknaming private parts "kind of adds to the mystery of things," rather than creating that critical open environment, Homme says. "Secrecy is not a good thing in the adolescent years."
Do consider the setting for your conversations.
The car can be a great place to initiate this conversation. Not only do you have a captive audience, but the seating arrangement avoids eye contact, which can make you both feel more comfortable. But don't go overboard, he says. "You don't want them to feel like every time you get in the car, you're going to start talking about sex." Boys especially respond better if you are engaged in some kind of activity together, like throwing a ball or washing the dishes, Berman says. "There's a lot of nonverbal communication among men," Berman says. Another good way to broach the subject is on a walk, which also avoids eye contact.
"The rule of thumb is you don't answer more than they're asking," Berman says. If a 7-year-old asks where babies come from, "you don't give them the full graphic description," she says. "A baby grows in a special place in a mom's tummy, and it becomes a baby," you might respond. Responding in an age-appropriate fashion is important, since information will resonate differently at different ages. You could have the "exact same conversation with a kid at age 10, 12, and 14" and "they will hear completely different things." Also, use your child's questions as an opportunity to understand where he's getting his information about sex. "Ask them a lot of questions," Berman says, suggesting a response such as, "Well, that's a great question. What made you think of that?"
Do explain their rights, responsibilities, and what's at stake.
Despite their physical developments, kids still have a lot of growing up to do. In fact, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with rational decision-making, does not fully develop until age 21, Berman says. "You combine that with raging hormones, and the fact that they see themselves as immortal and infallible ... it's not a great combination."
All the more reason to communicate to your child the consequences of sex. And it's not just intercourse. Experts suggest that other kinds of sexual activity may be prevalent and put kids at risk for contracting diseases. "Try to help them understand that it's a responsibility ... they shouldn't let somebody else push it on them," Homme says. You can present your values while explaining that, "ultimately, it's your body" and advise your child to make wise choices.
According to Roffman, most parents want their kids to understand that sexuality should be connected to a relationship. Studies support the notion that "sex in the context of intimacy is what leads to lasting satisfaction and happiness," says Roffman. "Sexual intercourse is, in my estimation, the most fundamental, powerful behavior there is on the face of the earth...It has the ability to give life, potentially take life, and change any number of people's lives forever ... and that's not child's play."