When a 5-year-old asks where babies come from, most parents would like to think they can cover the basics with wit, wisdom, and just a little squirming. But when a 9-year-old starts asking for more specifics, wit and wisdom evaporate while the squirm factor starts to go way up.
Despite that inherent embarrassment, most parents generally try to do the right thing, says Dr. Robert Blum, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Adolescent Health and Development at the University of Minnesota. But they aren't always articulating the message as well as they might think.
In a study done for the California Wellness Foundation, for instance, 65 percent of the adults said they had talked about sex or birth control with their children; only 41 percent of kids agreed that any kind of discussion about sex had actually taken place. And while 90 percent of parents said they believed their teens could come to them with questions, only 66 percent of the teens described their parents as being that approachable.
Americans pay a shocking price for this miscommunication. For one thing, the United States continues to have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. And according to "14 and Younger," a new report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonpartisan nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., a staggering one in five kids aged 14 and under have had sex, says Sarah Brown, the campaign's director.
"When parents wait until their kid is a freshman in high school to start talking, it's way too late," says Jenny Eddington, a 17-year-old high school senior in Slidell, Louisiana. "Parents need to realize sex happens much younger than it used to." The daughter of two obstetricians, Eddington works part-time in her parents' office, where a parade of pregnant teens reminds her constantly about what happens when kids don't get guidance. "A lot of my friends go to each other for advice, because they feel they can't talk to their parents about how they feel. Kids don't want parents to sit down and bombard them with information -- they don't want to hear a 'talk.' They want to have a discussion."
In fact, information is probably the least important thing parents pass on to kids in such discussions. Adolescent health researchers say what protects kids most is a secret weapon most parents don't even know they have: a bond researchers call "connectedness." Certainly, all parents want a close connection with their children, but a 2002 study reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health substantiates the power of that closeness to protect kids. The closer you are, the less likely your child is to have sex before she should. And it's not about how well and how often you communicate with your child, but also how much you know about your child's friends, their friend's families, and what they watch, read, and do in their spare time.
Another secret weapon? Your disapproval. The more a child believes that Mom and Dad disapprove of them having sex, the less likely they are to do it, according to research from the University of Minnesota.
The family-values speech, naturally, will vary. But for many parents, a simple statement gets the message across: "I will be very disappointed in you if you have sex when you are too young. Kids get swept up in what feels good at the moment, but sex has serious consequences -- and I don't just mean diseases." From there, you can go on to explain, in your own terms, that if someone is not in a stable, adult relationship with someone who really loves and respects him or her, the intensity of sex leaves young people open to feelings of remorse, shame, and sexual jealousy. So often, kids can't tell when they are being used sexually, or even when they are using someone else, and they wind up getting badly hurt. Then reemphasize your position. "If you do choose to go against my wishes and have sex anyway -- which is a decision I won't support -- you need to be responsible, practice safe sex, and make sure to use contraception."
What prevents some parents from speaking up, though, is the concern that talking about sex too much will put ideas into kids' heads; others fear that giving specific information about birth control will be construed as giving their teen permission to experiment. In fact, the opposite is true: The more sex is discussed in a family, and the more the child understands the parents' stand on sex, the more likely the child is to delay the onset of sexual activity.
"By talking about sex at every opportunity, whether it's something you hear about on the news or a question you ask your kids about school, you're sending an important message," Blum says. "You're saying, "Sex -- and the right and wrong way to behave in relationships -- is something this family takes very seriously, and we want you to understand what we expect."
When should your conversations about sex move past the birds and bees and into the real world? Answering any question as soon as it's asked -- no matter how old your child -- is important, Blum says, and sets the tone for open communications about sex.
By the time girls are around 9 and boys are 10, the very beginning of puberty, family conversations should address issues of sexual behavior -- perhaps a song lyric or something on a sitcom will give you the opportunity to ask kids questions, get them thinking, and give you a chance to comment. Ask about what's happening at school. The ideal is to get to a level of knowledge where you'll know, for example, if there's an early developing girl in their class, whether or not anyone is "dating," and other social minutia.
By age 12, or seventh grade, the grim reality is that you need to turn up the intensity: At this age, Blum says, one in 10 of your child's classmates is sexually active, and the kids are talking about it, even if you're not. Ask pointed questions about boy-girl relationships at school, and then ask your child's opinion. Once you've heard theirs, you can offer yours.
The idea here is to take every possible opportunity to restate your viewpoint: "In this family, we expect you to refrain from having sex."
Adolescent health experts say these conversations may feel a little less awkward if you use these guidelines:
Admit when you're embarrassed. Almost all parents find these conversations tough -- or even excruciating -- but make sure you tell your child that you are merely embarrassed, and not upset or angry. "If your child thinks, 'Mom is mad that I brought this up,' he won't ask again when he needs information," Blum warns.
Explain what oral sex is. An alarming trend among younger teens is an increase in kids having oral sex, and the belief among these younger teens that it is no big deal. While no one looks forward to explaining oral sex to a fifth or sixth grader, it's vital that you tell your child what it's called (although by 10 or so, your child probably has heard more names for this than you have), why some kids believe it doesn't "count" as sex, and why it's dangerous. Certainly, it's important to explain that diseases can be transmitted during oral sex. But it's also a chance to explain the psychological risks: Your child should understand that oral sex IS sex. "These behaviors are not benign and no one will tell your child that if you don't," Blum says.
Don't sweat the facts and figures. Experts say what stymies many parents is that they are afraid they will get their facts wrong, and inaccurately convey information about the effectiveness of various contraceptives or specific details of disease risk, especially AIDS. That's okay: "Parents aren't supposed to be biology textbooks -- they're supposed to be parents," Brown says. "Our job is to convey family values, family standards."
Be honest about your own history, to a point. Looking back, many parents realize their own sexual development is not necessarily something they want their child to emulate. But if you're creating an open environment for discussion, you have to be prepared for your child to ask you pointed sexual questions, such as when you lost your own virginity. Blum's advice is to be truthful without overdoing it. "I'd say something like, 'I don't mind saying that I made decisions when I was young that were not great. And while I don't feel comfortable going into all the details, I hope you can learn from me and make better choices.'"
Remind them that they can say no -- even after saying yes. If you learn your child has already had sex, don't assume he or she is happy about it. Of those surveyed in "14 and Younger," 81 percent of the young teens regretted their decision. So if you discover the horse is already out of the barn, so to speak, take the opportunity to again express your disapproval, your fears, and your hope that your child won't go charging into another sexual relationship. Tell them: "Don't feel that just because you've slept with this person a few times that you have to continue. It's enough to say that you've changed your mind. And just because you've had sex with one person you've dated, doesn't mean you have to have sex with the next one."
You can lose the battle, but win the war. For many parents, no situation is more troubling than knowing a child is continuing to pursue a sexual relationship even after the parent has forbidden it. (Short of moving to another state, experts concede there's not much the average parent can do.) This is the moment to switch your focus from prevention to safety. "Be clear that you aren't happy," Blum suggests, "but you might say something like: 'I am now most concerned that you don't get pregnant or an infection, that you not be abused or abusive.' That way, at least your children know they can still come to you if they need your help and guidance."
Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, July 2003.