Sex Ed for Parents—at the Office

Workplace classes for parents seem to improve the communications.

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Learning how to put on a condom at work can make it easier to talk with your kids about sex.

I read that startling bit of news in the latest British Medical Journal and made a call lickety-split to Mark Schuster. He's the brains behind "Talking Parents, Healthy Teens," a worksite-based parenting program that includes the condom lesson. Schuster also happens to be the chief of general pediatrics at Children's Hospital Boston and coauthor of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid They'd Ask. Once I got Schuster on the phone, I asked a tough, probing journalist question: What the heck? Here's his explanation:

Why on Earth did you decide to try teaching parents about sex ed in the workplace?

Everyone told me it was a stretch. But the parents in my practice were coming to me and saying, "I need help." And with sex ed in the schools, people were really up in arms. The one thing that everyone agreed on is that the parents have to play a bigger role. That's the common ground. Why not just offer a parenting class in the evenings?

You set up a program on the weekend or the evenings, no one's going to show up. Most parents of adolescents are employed, they're busy helping with homework in the evenings or they're wiped out. We thought, well, parents are in the workplace, maybe we can go to them. I just started contacting major employers in Los Angeles. I was pleasantly surprised that they said, "Hey, great." They said parents come to us with adolescent issues, and we don't have anything to offer them. They're also paying for the health insurance for these kids. So you ran eight weeks of lunchtime classes at 13 worksites, and 569 parents participated in the study. What did you find out?

The employers really liked it and the employees really liked it. They would keep coming back. They really felt like they got something out of it. Nine months after the classes ended, the parents and the kids both report a significant increase in communication. They have discussed a lot of new topics for the first time, and they have discussed a lot of topics again. In addition, parents rate the ability to communicate with their kids as much higher. [Topics included how to make decisions on whether or not to have sex, the importance of not pressuring other people to have sex, and how to know if one is in love.] I'd be worried that my coworkers wouldn't share my values on things like premarital sex or contraceptive use. How do you handle that?

That was a big concern. We knew we could easily have some parents who do not believe in sex before marriage and do not believe in the use of contraceptives, and other parents who think it's fine to have sex in high school but just want to have their kids use contraceptives. So we did research, including focus groups. That confirmed what we thought from the start: We had to come up with a program that was open to everybody. The way to do that was to provide the facts and put the focus on teaching communication skills. Any parent can use those skills in interacting with his or her adolescent. What communications skills worked best?

First, parents need to think through what they believe about sex and their adolescent. How would I feel if she had sex in college and she'd been dating the guy for six months? How would I feel if my son had sex with this woman he's engaged to and who I think is great? There's some work to be done to think about what they want to communicate. You want to have a dialogue with your kid. You're not going to be there when they're out on a date, so you need to teach them how to make decisions. You can react and say, "That sounds good, but let me tell you a different perspective, and let me tell you why I think this." He will not always make the same decision as you, but he will learn from you.

And what's with the condom-on-the-finger lesson?

Parents should at least know how a condom works, so they can answer questions if their children ask them. We taught them all the steps, starting from how to open the package. We did that on the same day that we taught parents how to teach their kids how to say no to sex if they don't' want to do it. Right after the program, 18 percent of the parents said they taught their kids how to use a condom, compared to 3 percent of the control group. By nine months, it had gone up to 29 percent for the program families, and only 5 percent for the control families. A lot of parents said, this is really scary, but I am going to teach this eventually. In reality, they did. You don't have funding yet to expand these classes to workplaces around the country. What can parents do now?

Parents should start talking with their kids about sex early and often. If they know you don't want to talk about it, they'll go to their friends, and when they're older, they'll go to the Internet. Much better to give simple answers when they're young, so they know you're the person to go to with those questions. When they hit puberty, then you can start talking about issues of love and sexual attraction and dating. Do it in little bits as it comes up. You're watching a TV show together, or you're talking to a neighbor and you mention that your friend got pregnant and it's an accident. What does that mean? You can talk with your kids about that. What if my kids are already teenagers and I've been avoiding the issue for too long?

What you don't want to do is, your daughter's about to go out on a date and you sit her down and start talking about sex and contraception. That's the worst time. You want the conversation to be dispassionate. You at least have to let her know that you wish you'd started earlier, and you're not referring to anything in particular, but you read this article online and it's right, you should be talking about this. You can say, "I want to get started because it's my responsibility as a parent." Parents are afraid that they'll make a mistake. You can even say, "I've put this off because it embarrasses me and I'm afraid I'll make a mistake. But if I do make a mistake, I'll come back and correct it. We can start by looking things up on the Internet together." You can also just wait for your kids to ask questions up to a certain point. Certainly when your kid is entering puberty, he or she should know about sex. They should know about responsibility. They should know about contraception. Even if you don't believe in it, they should know about this stuff. And they should know your views on it.