Baltimore-based sex educator Deborah Roffman has a tough but important job: talking to tweens and teens about sex. Phew, some parents out there might be thinking, Maybe I can get her to come to my kids’ school and I’ll be off the hook! But that’s exactly the wrong move, according to Roffman, because parents should be their kids’ primary (first AND most important) sexuality educators. “Data consistently shows that conversation helps postpone the age of first intercourse and it slows kids down,” Roffman says. “Same with all other risk-taking behavior. Parents matter.” Here are some of her tips for making those conversations more helpful and honest, and less miserably awkward:
- It’s better to talk than to not talk. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing, Roffman notes. There’s no perfect approach or correct speech to give; instead, it’s more important to open the doors of communication and talk, talk, talk.
- Pretend you’re talking about something else. You can talk to your kids about chores, homework, television, and brussel sprouts — but when they start asking how babies are made, you clam up. It’s understandable but also avoidable; just think of sex as a topic like any other. As Roffman points out, “How did I get here?” is basically a question about transportation. How would you answer your child asking about how airplanes fly, or where buses go? Try to keep that level of calm and you’ll be fine.
- Give age-appropriate information. Use anatomically correct terms (no need to get all coy and euphemistic) and truthful answers, but remember that talking to a ten-year old is very different than talking to a sixteen-year old. When talking to a younger child, feel free to give them as little information as possible and see if they’re satisfied with that answer. If they are, great. If they want more information, they’ll ask. This is a good way to let your child help you figure out what information they’re ready for.
- Remember that teens actually know very little. The media gives kids the message that sex is simple and one-dimensional. Roffman suggests using news stories, movies, or political events to open up a more complex conversation about the issues involved.
- Offer unconditional love and acceptance. If you’re open and willing to listen to your child’s questions and concerns, you send the message that he or she can approach you about potentially difficult issues. Don’t shut discussion down, no matter how uncomfortable it may make you.
- Don’t just talk; listen. Maybe you’ve written the world’s best five-minute intro to sexuality, and that’s great. But make sure you’re not the only one talking. Be sure to leave room for your child’s questions, concerns, and comments.
- If you don’t talk to your kids about sex, someone worse will. If parents have a hard time talking to kids about sex, the media and marketing companies sure don’t.
- Need more help? Check out Roffman’s new book, Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ Go-To Person About Sex, and listen to her presentation at the Friends School on October 29.
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