You’re in the car with your kids listening to a pop station. Suddenly, the lyrics explode in your ears: And I know you be getting so horny Cause you be sending me texts Like boy just get your ass up in that car …
“Mom, what does horny mean?”
When it comes to sex education most of us suddenly clam up. All sorts of strange questions pop into our head: If I talk about what this means, will they be more curious? Will they want to do it? How much information is too much? At what age should my kid know what horny means?
With the saturation of hyper-sexualized media images surrounding us, it is hard to avoid it. And so you shouldn’t. Experts recommend taking the bull by the horns and addressing their questions head on. The question is not so much when to have The Talk, but how to create a series of conversations throughout children’s lives where they will learn about sex, intimacy, trust and respect in an age appropriate context. As policies on sex education in schools vary from state to state—in 35 states parents can “opt out” on their child’s behalf—it is imperative that parents education their own children.
“We like to say it’s millions of minutes of conversations with your child,” said Elena Pacheco, who teaches classes on puberty and sex called Heart to Heart in Spanish sponsored by Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California. “You need to start talking at an early age. Be open.”
THE EARLY YEARS
By early age, some experts mean as young as three or four. Amy Lang, an educator who holds conferences and discussions for parents and kids on sex and puberty, said it is important to start these conversations before children begin to place a value or judgment on sex. By four, they can be educated on all the body parts by their anatomical names as well as understand what ‘safe touching’ and ‘unsafe touching’ is.
BY AGE SEVEN
By the age of seven, parents should talk in more detail about the mechanics of sex, how the penis enters the vagina, the release of sperm into the egg etc. “They should know what intercourse is and that it is something they talk about only in their families,” said Lang, who holds seminars for schoolchildren and their parents and wrote the book Birds + Bees + YOUR Kids-A guide to sharing your beliefs about sexuality, love, and relationships. “They should learn about it from their parents. By seven they are hanging out with friends and they talk to each other. They should come to see their parents as the sex expert in their lives, and they see that it is okay to talk about this in their family. It is not a big deal.”
TWEENS AND TEENS
As they get older, lest you think your pre-teen or teen doesn’t want to hear you talk, think again. All children want guidance from their parents and so it is important to engage them in frank discussions with proper terminology, such as vagina and penis, not the general catch-all ‘private parts.’ They should know the changes that will be happening to their bodies—from getting their periods and their breasts growing if they are girls, to masturbation and erections if they are boys.
Another point to make is the role of feelings, actions and consequences in relationships, said Julie Metzger, an RN who founded the program, Heart to Heart, the model used for discussions with boys and girls and their parents in Palo Alto, as well as Washington state.
But most important, children look to their parents and observe. Modeling what you preach is the most effective way to get kids to understand the value of good relationships.
“This would go against the tsunami of a trivialized sex that is in our culture. We as adults have to show our children what committed adult relationships look like,” said Metzger, whose company name is Great Conversations. “Great sex is woven together with intimacy and commitment and communication and trust and respect.”
BY MIDDLE SCHOOL
By the time they reach middle school, all bets are off, said Lang , author of Birds+Bees+YOUR Kids.
“Nowadays there is no child going through puberty with access to a computer that will escape watching porn. That is just a fact,” said Lang, noting that often sexually inappropriate screen pop ups appear without consent on a browser. “That is why we have to have conversations about it. By middle school they need to have a basic understanding about sex and relationships that includes sexually transmitted diseases, intercourse, oral and anal sex, pregnancy and condoms.”
Among Latinos, there are still myths carried on from generation to generation, such as you can’t swim if you are having your period, if you use a tampon you will no longer be a virgin and having sex is a sin, said Pacheco. In fact, what prompted Pacheco to get involved was seeing so many Latina girls having babies.
“One of my patients who was very young and pregnant was crying because she didn’t know how she got pregnant. She said, ‘nunca me acoste con el’. She had done it standing up and she thought she could only get pregnant lying down,” said Pacheco.
Not talking about sex with your kids could be hazardous to their health, said Pacheco.
“I always wish I could’ve had the chance to talk to these girls before they got pregnant,” said Pacheco. “It kills me when young girls (and boys) are having babies and getting STDs because it could have been prevented.”