Sex Education at Every Age
There are few topics that engender anxiety among parents quite like talking to kids about sex. For many, the time for “the talk” is seen as some future milestone that we will one day reach, don’t know how to prepare for, and consequently dread. However, educating our children on this topic is one of the best ways we can equip them to take charge of their health and relationships. (And, fortunately, reality may not be as hard as we imagine it to be.)
Communication is Key
A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) finds that parental approaches to conversations about sex have a big influence on children. According to the report, “Parents who are engaged and comfortable talking about sexual health have teenagers who are more knowledgeable and may even be more proactive in seeking reproductive health medical services.”
Sharla Owens and Heather Duvall work with the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which launched in 2013. In addition to providing educational resources for parents and teens, the Campaign also supports the implementation of sex education in schools.
Duvall advocates being proactive. She says the number one misconception about talking to kids about sex is that by bringing it up parents are giving implicit approval. “The research shows that teens who have information actually tend to delay sexual activity and are safer when they choose to be sexually active,” Duvall says.
That’s important because becoming a teen parent can dramatically alter the course of a person’s life. According to the United Health Foundation, Oklahoma ranked third in the nation for teen births in 2015, which means that “our kids just aren’t getting the same opportunities that kids in other states are,” Owens says.
Experts agree that ongoing discussions can be more effective than waiting for the perfect time to have one major, sit-down conversation.
Parents with young children can start by using scientific names for body parts and answering questions like ‘where do babies come from?’ in basic but factual terms. For older children, everyday moments can become teachable opportunities to discuss the social and emotional aspects of sex and healthy sexual relationships. No matter the age of your child, approaching the topic with an attitude of openness and transparency can build trust and reduce anxiety for everyone involved.
Mom of two Shawna Fain has been open with her children about her own experience with an unplanned pregnancy that resulted in adoption, and she hopes that understanding the real-life impact of unprotected sex will encourage them to make responsible choices.
“I had to make really hard personal choices, and I don’t want my kids to be put through that if they can avoid it,” she says.
Be Ready When Questions Arise
Annette Leon manages the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) at the Tulsa Health Department. She has worked with the Health Department for nearly 30 years, and says that she receives questions from teens, as well as parents. In addition to providing factual information about sex and contraception, she also counsels teens to seek advice from adults they can trust.
“I will direct them to a caring adult in their lives. It might be a parent, grandparent, school nurse,” Leon says. “I ask who is in their circle of trust. [The person asking the question] must feel respected - not ashamed.”
Even well-prepared parents may feel blindsided by questions about sex. Youth Services Tulsa’s Cassidey Streber offers this advice: first and foremost, listen. She says parents should try to remember how it felt to be a young person.
“We’ve all been there. It’s OK to feel shocked that your child is bringing you a question about sex, but try to normalize the conversation,” Streber advises. “Allow the door to stay open for an ongoing dialogue.”
Sex Education in the Classroom
Schools in Oklahoma are not mandated to teach pregnancy prevention, but several districts do. For example, Union Public Schools offers an adolescent pregnancy prevention program in grades 6-11. In 2013 Tulsa Public Schools started offering sex education for seventh- and ninth-graders.
The seventh-grade curriculum used in Tulsa Public Schools is an abstinence-based program that includes information about sex, but also covers topics like how to avoid feeling pressured into sexual activity and how thinking about life goals and dreams impacts decision making. In ninth grade, the curriculum educates students on how to reduce their risk of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy by abstaining from sex or using contraception. Students must opt-in to the program, meaning that parents have to sign a permission slip for their children to attend.
Pregnancy prevention educators that teach the curriculum are provided through Youth Services of Tulsa. Streber says that students are allowed to ask follow-up questions to the material that’s covered in the classroom.
“With the younger kids, we get a lot of ‘Am I normal?’ questions, and ‘Is this supposed to happen?’” says Streber. She says ninth graders are more likely to ask ‘Is it OK to do this?’ or ‘If I do this, what would the consequences be?’
Streber says that educators are trained to answer these types of questions by addressing the facts and making sure the child feels validated. Values-based questions like, ‘Am I old enough to…’ are handled by telling the student ‘I hear what you are asking, but I don’t get to decide what’s right for you’ and recommending that he or she talk to a trusted adult for guidance.
The birth rate for teens aged 15-17 in Tulsa County decreased from 22.7 percent in 2012 to 16.4 percent in 2015. “Something is happening here. We are doing something right, and we can’t stop now,” Leon says.
Shawna says that it was a very easy decision for her to allow her son to participate in the sex education program at school
“I want my kids to be informed,” she says. “And sometimes it’s just easier to talk to other people [who aren’t your parents]. As far as I am concerned, any factual information is good. I just feel like the more education we give our children the better.”
Lisa DeJarnette is a Tulsa mom of three, and she agrees. Lisa says she definitely appreciates the program’s approach of discussing medically accurate information while steering clear of values discussions.
“Our family is pretty conservative,” Lisa says. “But it’s important to me that we don’t judge people, which is why I prefer the school to not talk about [sex] being wrong or right. Teaching my kids about our family’s values is my job. I think it’s good that they focus on the facts.” That’s not to say that Lisa did not cover the facts at home, too. She says ongoing discussions with her kids began around third grade.
Whether parenting a child in grade school, high school, or preschool, adults should remember that they are uniquely positioned to help shape their children’s outlooks. An October 2016 survey from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 52 percent of teens under the age of 15 say that their parents most influence their decisions about sex.
“[Your kids] really want to know the truth. They want to know what you as their mom, dad or guardian thinks about this,” Owens says. And for parents who feel unsure, Duvall adds, “You know your own child’s maturity level. You know what they are ready for...and it’s not a one shot conversation.”
Tips and Reading Lists for Every Age
Talking openly to young children about their bodies and reproduction can help normalize the topic. Preschoolers can use real names for body parts and understand that a baby grows in a woman’s uterus. They can also appreciate that not all families look exactly the same. Children this age are full of great questions, and it’s important to answer with age-appropriate language and images that educate without overwhelming.
Every age tip: Let your kids know that healthy relationships include trust, respect and kindness.
- How Are Babies Made? by Alastair Smith
- Amazing You! Getting Smart about your Private Parts by Gail Saltz
- When You Were Inside Mommy by Joanna Cole
- Who Has What?: All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies (Let’s Talk about You and Me) by Robie Harris
- NO Trespassing: This Is My Body! by Pattie Fitzgerald
At this age, kids can understand the basics of intercourse and egg fertilization. They can also understand that personal boundaries and health are important. Some parents will find this is a good time to introduce the concept of mutual consent. (“Sex is a part of many loving adult relationships, but it’s never OK to force someone to have sex if they don’t want to. That’s wrong, and it’s illegal.”) Continue talking to your child often to build a foundation of communication and trust.
Every age tip: Take advantage of everyday moments. The media is full of conversation-starting messages about love, sex and relationships.
- The Care and Keeping of You (American Girl Library) by Valorie Schaefer
- I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Your Private Parts Private by Kimberly King and Sue Rama
- What’s the Big Secret?: Talking about Sex with Girls and Boys by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
Experts advise teaching children the basics of puberty before they get there. Tweens and young teens are dealing with a lot of physical and hormonal changes, and giving them the knowledge and language to understand those changes is important. Don’t wait for your child to come to you with questions - be proactive.
Every age tip: Help your child set meaningful goals for the future, and talk about what it takes to make future plans come true.
- It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley
- It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H Harris and Michael Emberley
- What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents and Sons by Lynda Madaras and Area Madaras
Ages 14 +
Whether your teen is asking questions or not, it’s a safe bet that he or she is getting information and messages about sex from the world outside your door. Communicating your own values about sex and proactively providing accurate and specific information about pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted infections will help your child make informed choices. If your teen doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you, consider asking another trusted adult to act as their sounding board.
- Every age tip: Be clear about your own values and attitudes when it comes to sex.
- Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and Judy Norsigian
- Changing Bodies, Changing Lives by Ruth Bell