About birds and bees and PG-13s

About those birds and bees.

The Washington Post - - FAM­ILY - BY MEGHAN LEAHY Send ques­tions about par­ent­ing to meghan@pos­i­tive­ly­par­ent­ing.com.

QCan you sug­gest a re­sponse to a 6-year-old who has read the rat­ing in­for­ma­tion for a PG-13 (I think) movie and asks, “What are ‘sex­ual sit­u­a­tions’?”

AThis is life hand­ing you the op­por­tu­nity to be­gin to speak with your child about sex and his or her own body. And to any­one who asks me to “sug­gest a re­sponse” to a child who is ask­ing tough ques­tions, here is what you need to know: Tell the truth.

There is an age-ap­pro­pri­ate way to tell the child the truth to ev­ery con­ceiv­able ques­tion in the world. The an­swer is not the is­sue; our parental dis­com­fort is the prob­lem.

And trust me, the first timemy child (who was 6 years old at the time) asked me, “Mom, how are ba­bies made?” I be­gan to sweat like I was guilty and on trial. I had coached other par­ents to do this for years. I had spo­ken to chil­dren about re­pro­duc­tive sys­tems and menses and pu­berty for years. But when I was a mom, fac­ingmy child? I froze up. After a cou­ple of deep breaths and fum­bling around, I pro­vided enough an­swers to sat­isfy her cu­rios­ity. But that was re­ally only the be­gin­ning. Now, I have chil­dren with dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties (and one of the brink of pu­berty), and the ques­tions about gen­der, sex­u­al­ity and chang­ing bod­ies do not go away. They just be­come more rel­e­vant, more im­me­di­ate, and it be­comes clearer that I need to be the leader and truth teller here.

So in the spirit of em­brac­ing the re­al­i­ties of life, in the spirit of en­cour­ag­ing truth over em­bar­rass­ment or shame, of be­ing your child’s guide and go-to per­son for this truth, let’s look at this “sex­ual sit­u­a­tions” is­sue.

Sex ed­u­ca­tion for young chil­dren is not re­ally about sex. It is about bi­ol­ogy. We don’t shy away from telling our chil­dren about their hearts or their liv­ers or their brains, but as soon as we get to their “pri­vate parts,” we feel weird. We make it sex­ual. But un­til we par­ents make it weird, the kids don’t see it that­way. They are fully in­te­grated into their bod­ies, and noth­ing is bad or wrong or taboo. So, when chil­dren are very young, ad­dress ev­ery part of their bod­ies by its real name. Sim­ply do­ing this goes a long way in help­ing chil­dren feel more com­fort­able with ask­ing more ques­tions later.

Na­ture is also a beau­ti­ful way to in­tro­duce chil­dren to re­pro­duc­tion. (They don’t call it the birds and bees for noth­ing.) From books in the li­brary to lit­tle videos to sim­ply go­ing to the zoo, it is easy to find win­dows to show chil­dren that sex­u­al­ity and re­pro­duc­tion are a nor­mal part of life, for many crea­tures all over the world. In­clud­ing hu­mans.

But you don’t have to overdo it. Too much in­for­ma­tion too soon can make chil­dren feel ner­vous, in­se­cure and over­whelmed. It’s best to fol­low their lead and an­swer their ques­tions hon­estly. The more ques­tions they ask, the more an­swers you give. If you don’t know the an­swers, you are al­lowed to say, “I don’t know; I have to look into that!” You are also al­lowed to change the sub­ject if you feel like the wa­ters are get­ting deep and hard to nav­i­gate.

Of­ten we as par­ents are not sure how we feel about cer­tain sub­jects, and if you feel like you are get­ting cor­nered, you have the right to say, “Hmmm, this is com­pli­cated. I will need to think about that some more . . . .” As long as you don’t shame the child, make her feel guilty for ask­ing ques­tions, or em­bar­rassed for won­der­ing about nor­mal things, you are not go­ing cause any long-term psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age.

A par­ent doesn’t need to be an ex­pert. A par­ent sim­ply needs to be will­ing to lis­ten and com­mu­ni­cate. Again, no per­fec­tion, just a will­ing­ness to try.

When the child brings a di­rect ques­tion that cul­ture has handed him (such as “What are sex­ual sit­u­a­tions in movies?”), you an­swer it. “Well, it means that there is kiss­ing and long hug­ging, and it is only for adults to watch.”

Chances are pretty good that the av­er­age 6-year-old child will stick out his tongue and make a face, maybe even run away. But wait for a re­sponse. Al­low the child to think. He may ask more ques­tions. It may go to the level that it did withmy 6-year-old: “What came out of Daddy’s pe­nis to make the baby in your uterus?” Even typ­ing that sen­tence gives me the va­pors, but years later, I amso grate­ful that I mus­tered up the courage to be brave and tell her the truth.

So, be age-ap­pro­pri­ate, be brave, fol­low your fam­ily val­ues and trust in your wis­dom. This seems to be about one small ques­tion, but this is an in­vi­ta­tion to step into your role as a coura­geous guide. You can do it.

If you need a lit­tle help, these books have been help­ful to me:

For chil­dren:

“It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Ba­bies, Bod­ies, Fam­i­lies and Friends” by Ro­bie Har­ris and Michael Em­ber­ley.

“Amaz­ing You: Get­ting Smart about Your Pri­vate Parts” by Gail Saltz.

For adults:

“Talk to Me First: Ev­ery­thing You Need to Know to Be­come Your Kids’ ‘GoTo’ Per­son About Sex” by Deb­o­rah Roff­man. (I highly rec­om­mend any­thing that Roff­man writes.)

“Ev­ery­thing You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask): The Se­crets to Sur­viv­ing Your Child’s Sex­ual De­vel­op­ment from Birth to the Teens” by Justin Richard­son and Mark A. Schus­ter.

“Sex ed­u­ca­tion for young chil­dren is not re­ally about sex. It is about bi­ol­ogy.”


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