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.
How do I handle the birds-and-bees speech responsibly?
Give up on the idea of presenting the subject in one big talk -- you'll overwhelm your child with more bewildering and even distasteful information than she can process at once. Instead, think of it as a gentle conversation that will take place over several months or perhaps even years. Keep your explanations as simple and specific to the discussion as you can. A 6-year-old wondering what "birth control" means is not necessarily asking you to delineate the mechanics of intercourse.
The hardest part, of course, is staying composed. Try to respond to your child's initial question without turning red or acting as though some momentous exchange is taking place; such a response might unnerve her or suggest that sex is linked to feelings of shame. If you can remain calm and speak naturally early on, you send an important message to your child: "You don't need to feel nervous about asking me about this. It's something we can talk about."
When you arrive at the point of giving a technical description of "the Act," it may help both of you if you say something simple like, "Look, I know this sounds gross to you now, but -- trust me -- it will seem different when you're older." A straightforward and honest approach is the best way to get through this: "When a man and a woman decide they want to do this, the man's penis goes inside the woman's vagina, and sperm comes out of the man's penis. Sometimes the sperm joins with one of the tiny eggs inside the woman's body, and that makes the egg begin growing into a baby. This happens in the special place women have called a uterus."
Once you make it through this, you should expect your child to look both dumbfounded and suspicious, especially if it dawns on her that you may have done this thing at least once. Don't be surprised if she suddenly changes the subject, walks away, or acts as though she hasn't heard a word you've said. She heard you. She just needs time to let it sink in.
When does my daughter need to learn about menstruation?
Earlier than you probably think. Girls now commonly start their periods as early as fifth grade, so even if your daughter looks as though she's nowhere near puberty, her schoolmates' accounts may confuse and upset her if you haven't given her the basic information first. She needs two things from you: first, the physical details of menstruation, and second, the security that when her period does begin (or her best friend betrays her by getting her period first), she can tell you about it without having you get embarrassed or weepy on her. You might want to start this conversation off (or simply let her know that you're willing to have it whenever she wants) with a casual question or remark: "Do you know if any of the older girls at school have started their periods yet?" Or: "You know, when I was your age, I didn't understand about periods and I felt too embarrassed to ask anybody."
Another useful approach for a child who's reached the age of 10 or so is to give her a good, readable kids' book on puberty and sexual development. Before buying, look it over yourself to make sure you like its approach. Then put the book in your child's room, where she can look at in private, and casually tell her that you've left it there for her to look at if she wants to. You can be sure the book will be read, and it may ease her fears and help her feel more comfortable about talking to you about sexual issues and feelings. One excellent series is the What's Happening to My Body? books -- one for girls and one for boys -- by Lynda Madaras. Another 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.
When does my son need to learn about erections, ejaculation, and wet dreams?
Boys may notice the erections of other boys (even babies), wonder about their own erections and physical responses, and hear "boner" jokes or other crude references as early as first grade. So it's a good idea to explain erections even to very young boys in a low-key way, making sure they understand that there's nothing shameful about a natural body response that they often have no control over. This should be easier if you've used the correct terms for body parts from the beginning; if you haven't, start getting your child comfortable with saying "penis" and easing him away from the euphemistic terms he's used until now.
Boys begin to have wet dreams when they reach puberty, usually between the ages of 9 and 15. A boy's first ejaculation may occur during a wet dream, and when he wakes up, he may not realize what happened. Thus it's important to let your son know well before puberty that wet dreams are a normal part of growing up and nothing to be ashamed of, that he can't control them, and that ejaculation is just a physical sign that he's growing into manhood.
What should I say to my child about masturbation?
Talking about masturbation is embarrassing for both you and your child, but it's important to let her know that there's nothing shameful or abnormal about sexually stimulating herself. By this age, your child should be long past touching herself in public, but both boys and girls may continue to masturbate in private, some of them quite often. Your child may feel guilty about this unless you reassure her that it's not only normal but healthy to have sexual feelings, and that everyone masturbates, though they may not talk about it.
How can I find out what my child is learning from friends, school, and the media?
By being as inquisitive as you can, without tipping off your child that you're snooping -- at this age, kids absolutely don't want to feel that their parents are looking over their shoulder. At school, ask the teachers exactly what they're teaching at each grade level. (When and how do they discuss the reproductive system, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual harassment, and so on?) If they use textbooks or handouts, read them yourself.
You probably worry about what comes at your child on the Internet, but watch her television shows, too. Pick up the magazines she's looking at. Be aware of what registers at her eye level on magazine stands, particularly the ones that hold adults-only publications. If you can stand it, listen to your child's favorite radio stations for a while. You'll probably see that from school age on, kids are inundated with sexual references -- most of them sniggering, disrespectful, or misleading. The more you know about what your child is seeing and hearing about sex from other sources, the better equipped you are to make sure she knows what you want to tell her.
Does my child need to know about condoms and sexually transmitted diseases before she's reached puberty?
Unfortunately, she probably does. She's likely to be hearing or reading references to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the news and from her schoolmates; if you live in an urban area, she'll notice all the billboards and ads on the sides of buses invoking the importance of "safe sex." You might as well make sure she's getting information that's accurate and no more scary than it has to be. And answering her questions matter-of-factly is one more way of reassuring her that she can trust you to discuss sex calmly with her.
Do I have to explain oral sex to my child when she's this young?
If she's 6 years old, no. But by the time kids are in fifth or sixth grade, "blow job" has likely become part of their vocabulary -- we can thank the latest round of popular gross-out movies for that. So you'd be wise to prepare yourself for a question or conversation about oral sex, especially since it continues to be a fascinating and perplexing subject for kids in middle and high school. It's not too early to start talking to your child about the important connections among sex, love, and responsibility. You may want to explain that kissing another person's private parts is another way of having sex; that even though a girl can't get pregnant this way, it's possible to transmit dangerous diseases through oral sex; and that oral sex, just like the other kind, entails feeling love, commitment, and regard for the person with whom it's performed.
Edward L. Schor, Editor, American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5-12. Broadway Books.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Facts for Families.
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