Forget the Birds & Bees
Kids look to parents for straight talk about sex, which isn’t always easy. Therapists suggest you start ‘the talk’ early and often, and prepare for the flock of questions that may come as early as preschool.
By Dwain Hebda
Maureen Skinner remembers the moment she was jolted to reality on the subject of discussing sex with her son.
“When my son was in the fifth grade there was a pregnant girl in every class from the fifth grade all the way through senior year,” she said. “That’s not as uncommon as we might think. So it becomes really important that we start those discussions early enough.”
Now a behavioral health care professional with Little Rock-based Chenal Family Therapy’s Conway office, Skinner didn’t mess around with the subject. She bought a box of condoms and proceeded to have a no-holds-barred talk with her youngster.
“I told him, ‘I want you to read this box and read the packages and open it and look at it and put it on yourself, appropriately,’” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t want the first time you open one of these to be crunch time somewhere in the future.’”
If Skinner’s frank and unedited sex talk seems like overkill, current statistics beg to differ. Last fall the Guttmacher Institute reported the average age for first-time sexual intercourse among U.S. teens is about age 17. Between 2011 and 2013, a little more than one in 10 girls and nearly two in 10 boys under age 15 reported having sex. And while the overall percentage of sexually active teens age 15 to 19 declined slightly in recent years, it’s still been near 50 percent since 2002.
One need only look at Arkansas’s ranking fourth in the nation in teen pregnancy for girls 15 to 19 and first for 18- to 19-year-olds to see how well we’re doing as a state.
Equally interesting is why teens do—or don’t—decide to have sex. About 89 percent of girls and 95 percent of boys who had sex before age 20 reported their first sexual experience as something they consented to; the majority of the time this was with a steady partner, reported 73 percent of females and 58 percent of males. Among sexually inexperienced teens, 41 percent of females and 31 percent of males said saying no was a function of their morals and values.
This suggests that when parents take the time to communicate and reinforce such messages, they have staying power. Without them, teens are at the mercy of natural urges and opportunity. Still, most parents balk at the notion of having “The Talk”; a level of discomfort experts suggest is a sign of taking the wrong approach.
“It’s important to not look at this as being a single sit-down talk about the birds and the bees,” said Dr. Nicholas Long, director of Pediatric Psychology at UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “What’s more effective are ongoing discussions and conversations over the years that are geared toward the child’s developmental level. It’s not one talk, it’s more discussion at teachable moments over time.”
Long said parents need to broaden their horizons when they consider what’s a sexual conversation and what isn’t. Preschoolers and early elementary age children bring up sex a lot, but it’s generally centered on their own body or parroting terms they may have heard. These are good “warm-ups” for the heavier conversations to come.
“Parents have a hard time bringing [sex] up out of the blue; it’s easier for parents to bring up different topics related to sex when children are exposed to messages that they may hear on television or the radio or see something in a magazine or a friend tells them,” Long said.
Like it or not, once kids are in elementary school, many are aware of the general concept of sex, even if they don’t feel sexual drive, perse. Popular culture and easy access to information online helps ensure that.
“I think in elementary school it’s still, ‘Boys have germs, girls have cooties,’” said Scotty Smittle, a therapist with Rice Clinic in Conway. “They may be aware of sex, but it’s just a behavior. It’s this activity that adults do.”
The parent’s goal at this age is to be the voice that rises above the din, particularly when the child reaches middle school and hormones kick in.
“You have to be honest and you have to essentially beat them to the school bus. They need to hear it from you first,” Smittle said. “Research has shown that teenagers, especially, say that their parents are the No. 1 influence on their sexual decisions. So you are it, which means if you aren’t willing to have the conversation, they’ll seek it elsewhere. They’ll either look online or they’ll ask their friends who also don’t know what they’re doing.”
In addition to the usual biological topics, parents have a prime opportunity to discuss moral or religious beliefs and broader issues of consent, responsibility and respect, said Beth White, psychotherapist and clinical director of Riverstone Wellness Center in Little Rock.
“The most important thing is an open line of communication. That’s of paramount importance,” she said. “Becoming involved in their lives is the first step to lead into discussions that are more about sensitive topics like sexuality, about boundaries, that no one has the right to touch them and make them feel uncomfortable and that they have a right to say no to touch that they do not want.”
Of course, even the best-intentioned parent comes up against the teen years when it seems like nothing one can say gets more than an eye roll and a brush-off. All the more reason to be persistent and creative in one’s approach, White said.
“For teenagers, this is a time when their minds become more sexually aware, dealing with physical attraction, noticing the physical attributes of their peers and their bodies are maturing,” she said. “Teenagers are also coming from a place that is different from where adults come from; the rational part of their brain is not developed yet, so they’re often coming from their emotions. [Parents] have to work pretty hard to get messages about sexuality and anything else across to this age group.”
White said parents shouldn’t jump out of the way when their child is poised to exercise greater independence, such as going away to college. Instead, discuss the impending freedoms that college freshmen are exposed to, which often pose the most severe test to their value systems and, with sexual assault and alcohol abuse an issue on many campuses, their health and well-being.
“There is a wide range of knowledge that students bring in terms of their education about sexual health and family planning. Some have received sex education from their parents, schools or other entities and others come to college with very little knowledge,” said Kristy Davis, associate dean for student wellness at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. “Parents can talk to their sons and daughters about safe sex practices and encourage them to take advantage of the services on campus which will expand their knowledge in this area.”
Like most Arkansas colleges and universities, ATU takes steps to address sexual issues through ongoing programming. Arkansas institutions are required by state law to provide information on unplanned pregnancy, and ATU has shown leadership on this and related topics.
“We provide unplanned pregnancy prevention education for both freshmen and transfer students through new student-orientation programs,” Davis said. “When we provide educational programs related to sexual health and family planning, we often include information about obtaining consent when having sex. We place this message about consent in any program where it seems appropriate in order to increase awareness and create a safe campus.”
START THE TALK EARLY
TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS
Lessons of Consent Start Early
“Regarding consent, it’s best to start talking about it when they’re toddlers. Like ‘No, she doesn’t want a hug.’ It’s also really important as parents that we don’t insist that our children hug or touch other adults if they don’t want to because we’re reducing their ability to consent before they’re even old enough to know what it is.”
Draw From Your Own Experience and Mistakes
“I think that type of discussion is very important because if we appear as if we are infallible and we’re just laying down the way our young people should behave, then we’re not as approachable. Coming from our experience it one of the best ways that we can talk with our children, our teenagers and young adults about sex and anything else.”
Don’t Let Questions Shock You
“You have to remember that your kid is a kid, they have a curious mind. The flip side of that coin is often they’re asking a question as a sort of test to see if you can handle answering honestly. If you react rather than respond to their question it either scares them away or it tells them ‘Well I certainly can’t talk to Dad or Mom about that.’ Take questions at face value and answer them for what they are.”
Stay Age-appropriate, But Don’t Shy Away From Correct Terminology
“It starts really very early with preschool in terms of labeling body parts correctly and parents trying to be very honest with their child at the level they can understand. This is important because it’s laying the foundation for later on, as teens especially. They’ve used the right words over time, they’re aware of the body parts, and that makes things much easier later on.”