Editors' note: Cynthia Gorney's children are now adults, but her remarkable articles about teaching them kindness, curiosity and respect for other people are timeless.
What's the best way to initiate a conversation about sex with my child?
First of all, give up on the idea that it's going to happen the way you plan it -- fruitful conversations with adolescents rarely take place when and how their parents want them to. If you're the one who brings up sex, don't be offended when your child looks horrified that you did so. At least now she knows you're willing to discuss it. Remember how much she both does and does not want to talk about sexuality with you of all people -- who, as her parent, are not supposed to have any of your own. Try to stay open to her overtures on the subject because when you least expect it -- say, at 11:30 at night, as you're trying to get her to turn off the stereo and go to sleep -- you may find yourself answering an important question or exploring a delicate topic. (These conversations also frequently take place in cars, which have the advantage of being private spaces in which you don't have to look at each other. Indoor staircases are great too: You're close together, the walls around you feel protective, and you can each hug your knees and study your feet as you talk.)
Another useful gambit is to buy a good, readable book for teenagers on sexual development. Before buying, skim it to make sure you like its approach. One excellent series is the What's Happening to My Body? books -- one for boys and one for girls -- by Lynda Madaras. Another source of answers to tricky questions is It's Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley. Subtitled Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, it has detailed coverage of intercourse, male and female sex organs, contraception, pregnancy, AIDS, and everything else kids need to know to stay healthy and become sexually responsible adults. An invaluable guide for girls is The Period Book: Everything You Don't Want to Ask (But Need to Know) written by Karen Gravelle in consultation with her 15-year-old niece, Jennifer. Positive and practical, it covers tampons, pads, pimples, mood swings, and all of the other things girls wonder and worry about as they learn to deal with their menstrual cycles.
Leave the book of your choice in your child's room, where she can read it in private. Casually let her know that you put it there and that she can check it out if she feels like it. You can be sure the book will be read, and it may ease her fears as well as her discomfort about talking to you about sexual issues and feelings.
What issues are likely to be on my child's mind at this age?
By the time your child is in middle school, she knows the mechanical details of sex even if you weren't the one who explained them. Now the information she needs is more complicated but just as important. "What's date rape?" "What's sexual harassment?" "How does the morning-after pill work?" "How long should I wait before having sex?" "Is it normal to think about sex all the time?" "Am I still a virgin if it was only oral sex?" "What's a transsexual?" "How do I know if I'm gay?"
It's better not to wait for Big Discussion moments to explore these tough topics. Introducing them matter-of-factly in the course of other conversations lets your child know that she won't have to endure a big awkward scene if she asks you a highly charged question. You may also find conversation-starters in television dramas, movies, newspaper articles, or even works of literature assigned in school. (Remember, the precipitating event in To Kill a Mockingbird is an accusation of rape.)
How do I talk to my child about birth control and protection from sexually transmitted diseases without implying that I approve of sex at her age?
Almost all parents grapple with this question at some point. Many teenagers become sexually active before they think seriously about protection, and a single incident can force a youngster to confront pregnancy or life-threatening illness. You may be deeply convinced that abstinence is the best course for your child, but if she thinks you won't forgive her for losing her virginity, she may be afraid to talk to you and end up in big trouble.
Thinking about your own adolescence might be your best training for this, if you can remember how mixed up you felt. That doesn't mean filling your child in on the details of your teenage love life, which she absolutely does not want to hear. It means letting her know that you remember how tough it was to be 14 and how many questions and turbulent feelings you had. If you show your child it's safe to come to you for help, then it's easier to convey important messages: "Respect yourself." "Know how much responsibility sex carries with it." "Don't let anybody pressure you into doing something you don't want to do." "I love you." "You can count on me for support."
The area in which you can make the most difference may be helping your child cope with the peer pressure to have sex - or, at least, to appear sexually sophisticated. Beyond the abstractions of sex education, dating involves a lot of tough choices and moment-to-moment decisions. What your child might really like help with, for example, is how to say no without hurting someone's feelings. Or what to do when her friends smirk and giggle about how far they went on their Saturday night dates. If your child is open to this, you might talk about ways she might respond to pressuring suggestions or even role play particular situations.
If you're sure that your daughter is having sex or intends to, no matter how much you disapprove, then you're doing her a terrible wrong if you don't guide her toward securing the best birth control and disease protection she can get. If you don't feel comfortable about taking her to a physician or a Planned Parenthood clinic, have an adult female friend or relative do it, or at least give her the information she needs to go on her own. And make sure she has some condoms too, as the pill and other birth control methods for women don't offer protection from disease. This doesn't mean you have to stop talking to her about the importance of waiting until she's older -- it just means she's protected from disaster right now.
Parents shouldn't be any less concerned about boys, who need to understand that failure to use a condom -- even once -- could endanger their lives. Your son may need some practical help. Make sure he knows where he can buy condoms and feels comfortable enough to do so, or -- if you think there's any chance he'll try sex -- buy some for him. And don't shrink from reminding him of the tremendous responsibility he'd incur by getting a girl pregnant.
How do I talk to my child about oral sex?
First of all, if your child asks you about it, try not to run out of the room, which is challenge enough. The good news is that you probably won't have to discuss mechanics, since she most likely knows what oral sex is -- the recent crop of teen gross-out movies have put "blow job" into most teenagers' vocabularies. It's certainly wise to have this discussion because, unfortunately, many teenagers now think of oral sex as a low-risk, no-responsibility alternative to actually Doing It -- the same way people now in their sixties used to categorize "heavy petting."
Look for an opening, perhaps using one of these awful movies, to introduce the general topic. Make sure your child understands that oral sex is not a casual business -- that it can transmit diseases, that it can make one or both parties feel used and cheap, and that it should be done only with respect and as a sign of mutual love.
How should I respond to my child's questions about homosexuality?
Many adolescents worry about their own sexuality as they come of age. Your child needs to know that having a same-sex attraction, or even a same-sex physical encounter or two, doesn't mean she's a lesbian or that he's gay and that such experiences are not uncommon among heterosexual people. Even if she is gay, she probably won't know for sure until she's older.
This is also a chance to talk with your child about respect for others, since kids can cruelly harass gay peers or those rumored to be so. Your child needs to understand that homosexuality is not a disease, a curse, or an invitation to hatred, and that using words like "fag" is akin to using racial epithets. It may help to mention that someone they know and like is gay, such as Aunt Joan or that nice neighbor down the street.
Katherine Griffin, Sex Education That Works. Health: 62-64.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Facts for Families.