Weak-In-the-Knees About the Birds and the Bees?

Originally posted Dec. 29, 2007

Weak- in-the-knees about the “birds and the bees?” Me too. Facing the big “sex talk” means facing the fact that our kids are growing up. You might be surprised by how much your child already knows, though, and by how much you’ve already taught.

Educating your child about sexuality is a process, not just a plumbing lesson, and you’ve probably been laying the foundation for years. Surprised? Using the words “penis” and “vagina” to label our parts was a smart start. When your kid was three and asked you where kittens come from, unless you gave her a load of bunk about the stork you may have simply told the truth: that they grow inside the mother cat. Later, when she concluded that since she came out of Mommy’s belly she must be related to Mommy but not to Daddy (my daughter Holly insisted this was true), you probably explained that it takes both a mother and a father to make a baby. That the sperm inside the father joins with the egg inside the mother, and a baby starts to grow. You didn’t confuse her with tales about some magic hug (little kids take things literally), and the details of intercourse weren’t yet on her radar. You’ve demystified the facts of life and lowered the taboo quotient. Nicely done.

When the time finally comes to get into the nitty-gritty, grab a good sex education book and cram. It’s less daunting if you’ve prepared by making sure your own questions about puberty and sex have been answered first. Then, let your child know that he can come to you with his – or he might not.

So just when should ‘the talk’ happen? Studies show that girls typically begin menstruating somewhere between nine and fourteen years of age, and boys usually experience their first ejaculation or ‘nocturnal emission’ (‘wet dream’) between the ages of ten and twelve (note: not all boys have them). But get this: though rare, the earliest documented cases of wet dreams occurred at age eight. I mentioned this fascinating factoid to a friend over lunch and she nearly choked on her chicken. And I quote: “My eight-year-old son still ropes us into wiping his butt after a BM and now we gotta have the talk?”

In a word, yeah. You don’t want him unduly rattled by his first wet dream, or your daughter worrying that a spot of blood on her panties means that something’s wrong with her, right? Most kids hear details about puberty and sex from friends, television and school programs, but let them hear your voice, too. Ask your librarian for helpful books and read them before passing them on to your child to make sure you agree with their message, but remember: there is no substitute for a good talk with you.

The conversation doesn’t have to happen all at once, and it shouldn’t. You might start by asking your child what he (thinks he) knows already – but you’re not off the hook when he says, “It’s cool, Dad, I know all about it.” Situations presented on television and in music lyrics can be convenient segues, and speaking informally over a milkshake or during a walk can ease tension. Kids will open up more readily if quality time with you isn’t freakishly rare and you’ve already forged an easy rapport.

Go on and admit to your child that talking about sex makes you tongue-tied. This serves to normalize his anxieties, and models how to express them. Sometimes kids drop hints about their readiness for certain details. My nine-year-old son, Noah, makes the time-out sign and says dryly “TMI, Mommy, TMI (too much information),” if I’m heading somewhere he’s not ready to follow. When he happened upon me thumbing through my favorite go-to book for children about sex, the warm and witty It’s So Amazing by Robie Harris and Michael Emberly, he grimaced and announced, “That’s gross. I’m outta here.”

Just as important as teaching the mechanics of sex is communicating our values about it. Our kids eventually need to hear our views on love, premarital sex, homosexuality, birth control and the prevention of abuse and sexually transmitted diseases – which are all addressed without bias in another book by Harris and Emberly titled It’s Perfectly Normal. Our children may ultimately adopt values unlike ours, but our insights can enrich their journey of sexual and spiritual development.

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