What can a 26-year-old teach you about teaching your kids about sex?
More than you think. After all, Amber Madison was in high school in this millennium. She's also spent the past five years talking with teens and young adults about what they wish they'd known, and with sex experts, health professionals, psychologists, religious leaders and parents about what kids need to know.
We sat down for a Q&A with Madison, whose new book, "Talking Sex with Your Kids," (Adams Media) is insightful, frank, funny, and includes more references to penises than you're likely to be comfortable with.
Nothing is off-limits for Madison, who got her start as a sex columnist for her college newspaper and has written two books and made several TV appearances since graduating in 2005. Her advice ranges from fairly obvious (do not, under any circumstances, tell your child about losing your virginity) to less so (what to do if you find condoms/birth control pills in your kid's room) and confronts sex head-on, in language parents can understand and teens won't find out of touch.
The book includes advice for single parents on talking to opposite-sex kids, answers on whether oral sex is sex (yes!) and whether guys are always in the mood for sex (no!), and a definition of "hooking up" that actually makes sense.
More serious subjects include sexual emergencies, date rape, and what to do if you suspect your teen is in an abusive relationship.
Something to keep in mind: Nearly 9 in 10 teens say postponing sexual activity would be easier if they were able to talk more openly with their parents about it. So starting talking.
1) The question we hear a lot is "At what age do I absolutely have to sit down my kid and have the talk?" Is there a right age and how do you know when your child is ready?
Many parents wait for some sign that their kids are about to actually have sex, and then they sit them down to talk. This is a mistake. You want to start talking with your kids about sex way before they are actually thinking of doing it.
True, most 12 year olds aren't having sex. But are they thinking about sex, talking about sex, and seeing sex everyday in the media? Absolutely. Every child is different, but if I had to put a general age on it, I'd say middle school is the time to start talking about sex as it pertains to your child (rather than more generally "where babies come from"). When your kids are in middle school, start broaching topics like sex in the media, sex and technology, healthy relationships, oral sex, sexual decision making, and body image. As they get older, talk with them about birth control, condoms, STDs, and when sex is a good idea/bad idea.
2) What's the most common mistake parents make when they do decide to have the talk?
The most common mistake parents make is bombarding their teens with one, unexpected, hash-it-all-out, puke-in-my-face conversation about sex. No one wants that. It puts too much pressure on you as a parent, it's too jarring to your teen, and every sex education expert out there will tell you it's not the way to go. Instead, you should have a series of smaller sex talks with your kids. Start these talks when they are very young and you have to explain how babies are made, how bodies work, and continue them up through high school and college as you talk with them about how sex and sexuality will fit into their own life.
3) Once parents have decided that it's time to talk, how do you start? Do 'the birds and the bees?' still have a place in the sex conversation?
I'm a firm believer that adult topics should be handled in adult language. If you want to have a real conversation about sex with your teen or tween you can't use terms like "birds and bees," "private places," or "thingies." If your child is old enough that you are speaking with them about their own sexuality, you have to leave the baby terms out of it, or the conversations will seem irrelevant and out of touch.
The best way to start talking with your kids about sex is to be open, direct, and bring the conversation up at opportune moments. If you're watching TV together and sex comes up, use that as a segue. If you're spending some quality time with your child, and the two of you are really getting along, bring up a conversation then, when they will be more receptive to what you have to say.
4) You're somewhere in between these two age groups. What kind of unique perspective does that give you, and why should both groups respect what you have to say?
Talking Sex With Your Kids is a book for parents, but it's not about what it's like to be a parent. It's about what it's like to be a teen. I've spent the last several years traveling around the country speaking with young adults about sex and sexuality-and I know they tell me things they would never feel comfortable telling someone much older.
It was only 10 years ago that I was 16, and I can easily remember what I was thinking, and relate to the questions and concerns teens have today. At the same time, hindsight is 20/20, and while I understand teens' thoughts and concerns, I have a more mature perspective on them. My goal is to bridge the gap between teens and parents. I want to help parents understand what their teens and tweens are really thinking about sex, and teach them what to say to ensure their kids make healthy sexual choices.
5) There are a lot of parents who think sex is for married couples only. Is it OK to teach that to kids, or is there a bigger responsibility?
If you believe sex should only take place between two people who are married, tell your kids that. Be very clear that is the choice you want them to make. But because your kids' health and safety should always be your top priority, you have to talk with them about condoms and birth control too, just in case.
I interviewed a Roman Catholic priest for my book, and even he felt that there has to be a middle ground between religious values and young adults' safety. The reality is, the majority of people don't wait until marriage to have sex, even many who to plan to do so. So even if you are telling your kids to wait until marriage to have sex, also arm them with the knowledge of how to keep themselves safe if they don't.
And those aren't contradictory messages. I look at it like this: you always tell your kids to wear their seatbelts-not because you condone unsafe driving, or because you're encouraging them to crash into another car-you tell them the wear their seat belt just in case.
6) How does the sex conversation change if you think or know your child is gay?
No matter what your child's sexual orientation, you have to speak with them about healthy relationships, making good sexual decisions, safer sex, positive body image, sex in the media, etc. etc. That being said, if you think your child might be gay there are three topics you should be sure to address (and really, even if you don't think your child is gay, you should tell your kids these things, too).
See more of Liz's stories here.