Maybe your mother subtly left a pamphlet by your bed. Or your dad awkwardly coughed through an explanation of hormones. The information seemed too horrifying and embarrassing to ever discuss with your, ugh, parents.
A day in the life of the Linda program
On a cloudy, gray afternoon, a group of 23 fifth-grade girls
gather in a pale green room at the Robert Crown Center in Hinsdale,
clutching remotes. They are clearly shaking. Knowing this, Phyllis
Gorman, a 17-year teaching veteran of the program, warms up the
crowd by making a statement and then waiting for them to plug in
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“‘I am old enough to have started going through puberty.’ Press
‘1’ for yes or ‘2’ for no.”
Soon the large screen in the front of the room lights up with a
bar graph. More than half of the girls don’t think they are old
With that, Gorman launches into her program, gently and often
humorously explaining the mysterious reproductive system.
“Sometimes kids are more comfortable with a stranger. It’s a
safe place here. You don’t know the person giving you the
information, so it’s easier to ask any questions you want,” says
Kathleen Burke, chief operating officer at Robert Crown Center.
Students leave with a booklet to review with their parents,
allowing parents to fill in their values and family beliefs.
Gorman briefly touches on the various body systems before
getting to the reproductive system, “the only system that isn’t
working when you’re born.”
She compares the pituitary gland to an alarm clock, explaining
that everyone’s clock goes off at a different time to get ready for
puberty. When she briefly touches on boys’ time frame, she puts it
in terms of car driving: It takes the boys a little longer to start
their engines, but they both arrive at the same place.
Her matter-of-fact attitude and humor-“take a couple of deep
breaths here, girls”-relax the class, who halfway through, start
She explains menstruation using a life-size cross section model
and also incorporates practical information, such as how to use a
sanitary pad and discussing what they could do if they get their
periods in school.
By the time she reaches hair growth, acne and the need to shower
more frequently, the girls are clearly more comfortable.
When she warns them about changing emotions and surging
hormones, the girls giggle.
As much as we like to think that we are far more enlightened and progressive today, the reality is that it’s still uncomfortable to talk to your kids about puberty and body changes, much less sex.
Children today are exposed to more graphic sexual images and innuendos at a much younger age, making it more important than ever that they learn the facts correctly. Research overwhelming shows that, despite their vehement eye-rolling, kids want and need that information to come from their parents.
But what is the best way to broach the topic?
We went to the experts at Robert Crown Center in Hinsdale to find out. They have been teaching puberty and reproductive education to students throughout eight counties in the Chicago area for more than 50 years.
They’ve heard it all.
Kathleen Burke, chief executive officer of Robert Crown Center, says there is no one ideal age to start talking; it varies from child to child, even neighborhood to neighborhood.
“Ideally, parents should be having an ongoing conversation with their kids and getting comfortable using the correct anatomical names while their children are still infants,” she says. “This makes those words less taboo.”
While some girls reach puberty as early as 8 and some boys at 9, it’s generally a good idea to teach kids by age 11 what changes are going to occur in their bodies.
The Robert Crown puberty programs-“Linda” (for girls) and “Michael” (for boys)-typically are presented to fifth-graders. “Life Begins” teaches reproduction by focusing on science and biology, and usually occurs around sixth grade. Some schools and parents also opt for a more comprehensive program in eighth grade dealing with decision-making and more serious sexual realities.
The center recently rolled out a series of free online video vignettes (robertcrown.org), giving parents specific scenarios to use in order to start a sensitive conversation. Shot locally and using Chicago-area actors, the videos demonstrate suggestions of what to say and how to say it, as well as giving some humorous advice on what NOT to say.
Rather than bracing yourself for The Big Talk or holding up one of those awkward picture books of pollinating flowers subtly followed by two people lying in bed under the covers, look for teachable moments throughout childhood, the center recommends.
“It doesn’t have to start in a big dramatic way,” says Andy Wentling, manager of curriculum and instruction at Robert Crown. “Look for opportunities. During a football game on TV, if you see a deodorant commercial, that’s a teachable moment about body odor and how hormones are changing.”
After you’ve started the conversation, keep it going when the opportunity arises. Follow up with any provocative situations in TV shows, movies or songs, and ask questions about their friends’ behaviors. These talks don’t have to have a formal, face-to-face structure. It’s often easier to share when you’re doing another activity, such as driving, walking the dog, shopping or raking leaves.
Sarah Hoban of Barrington found it easier to have the conversation once she knew her daughter was going to be presented with the information at school. “I wouldn’t have thought school would be a good setting, but it really provided a nice framework and gave me something to start with.”
What to say
It’s OK to be embarrassed and to acknowledge that it’s an awkward topic. Admitting that you feel uncomfortable can even lighten the tension.
Give kids the information in a straightforward manner with correct terminology. Use a matter-of-fact tone and just convey the facts that they need, a little bit at a time. Separate the puberty talk from the sex talk.
“Sometimes parents start rambling,” says Wentling. “It’s very natural. But kids need a little time to process information.”
For Beth Thomas of Downers Grove, that meant reminding her sixth-grade daughter about what she learned a year earlier before she delved into the talk about how babies are made.
“I told her a little about what happens with boys and then after her field trip, we talked more and I was able to prompt her with some questions.”
And this, Wentling agrees, is an excellent strategy. If they come to you with questions, answer them and follow up with more questions, “Why do you want to know?” or “What have you heard?” This will help give you an idea of what your child knows, or thinks he knows.
Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answer or your child comes to you with a complex moral question. It’s OK to tell them that you’ll find out more and report back.
It’s also helpful to clear up misconceptions that arise. After hearing the reproduction talk, Thomas’ daughter later heard girls talking at the lunch table about ways to not get pregnant. When her mother asked her what she learned from that discussion, they were able to sort out the truth from the rumors.
Wentling reminds parents that just because kids are asking, it doesn’t mean they’re doing anything.
Kids today are exposed to terms from French kissing to oral sex and often just don’t know what something means. Likewise, don’t assume that by answering the question, they’re going to engage in the activity. This is the perfect opportunity to insert your family’s moral values.
Once you’re comfortable and the original uneasiness has subsided, continue to spend time talking about the emotional implications of a sexual relationship, as well as the responsibilities and consequences of sex.
“Recognize that the challenging part is just starting the conversation,” says Burke. “There are points in life as they develop when you want them to be able to come to you.”
By starting gradually and touching base frequently, most parents find that while they may not ever be entirely comfortable talking about the topic, they can at least speak clearly and rationally.