Parenting isn’t for sissiesA reader responding to my August 2008 column,"The talk got you worried?” (also posted on my blog, Parenting Isn’t for Sissies, at chicagoparent.com) raises some interesting concerns related to educating kids about sexuality:
My son is 9 years old. I feel he is ready for"the talk” because, you’re right, I’d rather he hear about it from me. Here’s the kicker: I was a single mom with him before my husband and I married, which my son doesn’t know. He has always thought of my husband as his father. I would like to discourage premarital sex, but is that hypocritical? Should I divulge this information all at the same time? I worry that he will ask about his real father, but I was seeing two guys at the time and honestly, it could be either one. Neither of them has any idea.
It’s smart to be sensitive to the possibility that kids can be overwhelmed by"too much information” if all of the particulars are volunteered right off the bat. This is true no matter how uncomplicated our family circumstances might be. I generally recommend that after initiating"the talk” parents follow their kids’ lead and answer questions as they come up. In some cases, though, a discussion about"the birds and the bees” may inspire questions that lack easy answers.
I remember talking to my son about sex for the first time."So you and Daddy…?” he began, wincing at the visual as I nodded, wincing with him. But what if your kid’s daddy didn’t father him? Is your first conversation with your child about sex the right moment to say so? While I’m inclined to go with the old‘honesty is the best policy’ idea, consider first, perhaps with some professional help from a counselor, what your child can handle and when. Bear in mind, though, that kids typically take their emotional cues from their parents. They’re more likely to handle news well if information is dispensed in a gentle, clear and reassuring manner.
Be prepared for some anger and resist the temptation to react defensively. No matter when their parentage is revealed, children may feel lied to, even by lies of omission. It may take some time for them to sort it all out for themselves, so be patient and steady while they get their heads around this revelation. Expect things to be rocky at times and don’t hesitate to enlist the support of a family therapist.
So what if you’ve revealed the big news but that’s just the tip of the iceberg? If you’re unsure of your child’s paternity, I urge you to consider sparing your child a case of the wonders by determining who the biological father is (via DNA testing, etc.) before the question even comes up. I realize that doing so could unearth a minefield and that involving old boyfriends in your search for your child’s biological father can be awkward (which I wouldn’t pursue if safety is a real concern). Keep in mind, though, that children have the right to someday learn their parentage and have access to their medical history, which may come in handy in a medical emergency.
As for the hypocrisy conundrum, this is a quandary faced by lots of parents, whether the issue is premarital sex, drugs or alcohol. What do you do if you‘did the deed’ but want to discourage your own child from engaging in the same risky behavior? I don’t believe it’s duplicitous to do this. Our life experiences often lead us to reconsider our values. Our children can benefit from our insights about potential consequences as they wrestle with their own choices. It’s OK to confess that you wish you had made different choices. The ability to admit vulnerability and humanness are priceless attributes in a parent and is a wonderful model for our children, who are so often bombarded with messages that they must be perfect or flawless to gain love and acceptance. Be careful when expressing regret about premarital sex if your child is the product of a premarital relationship, however, as this can sound like regret that he exists.
No matter how you proceed, reassure your children that they are loved and have always been miracles in your life.
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Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at chicagoparent.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.