Sunday March 10, 2013
The birds and the bees
By Datin Dr ANG KIM TENG
Talking to your kids about sex is one responsibility many parents dread. Read on to learn how you can approach this topic with intelligence, sensitivity and tact.
CHILDREN have become much more intelligent and inquisitive. This is not surprising considering the abundance and availability of easily accessible information on any subject they are curious about.
Modern innovations such as social media, television, and the internet have vastly changed the way children communicate and obtain information. It is certainly right to say that our children know a lot more than we think they do.
Chances are your child is continually coming across and learning new ideas even without your active involvement. Do not then be surprised when one day your child comes to you asking about babies, where they come from, or even about sex.
Some children you can turn loose with just a book and then field their inevitable questions. Others can be more hesitant. Some questions may even catch you off guard – as you backtrack and start looking for the right sentences (and the most appropriate way possible) to explain them to your kid.
Having said that, it is relatively important to seize the opportunity to educate your child and correct any misinformation they might have picked up from elsewhere.
Knowledge is power
What you need to do, as a parent, is to arm your child with knowledge that will guide them well into adulthood.
A point to note is, parents should never avoid a “teachable moment” with a child. Go ahead and dive right in – whenever and wherever you feel appropriate.
Whenever your child approaches the topic of sex, be ready to offer accurate information. Nevertheless, you must be prepared, read and learn how to approach the topic. You must be confident and comfortable enough to talk to your child about it.
An important tip: always try keep your answer confined to what is asked.
When parents communicate with their children, it is important to come down to their level – both verbally and physically. Using age-appropriate language that children can easily understand helps in easing the conversation.
Likewise, lowering themselves to the level of the child creates better eye contact – portraying a “calm and less intimidating” atmosphere.
Parents often ask, “How old should a child be before we start talking about sex?”
The answer? “Younger than you think.”
You want to start these conversations early with your kids – before they find themselves in circumstances where they have to make those healthy sexual decisions. In addition, the rationale behind this is – if you talk about sexual matters from the beginning of a child’s use of language, there will be no need for the “big” birds and bees talk.
The idea is to have a series of “small conversations” spread out over the years. And you, as a parent, will be (without a doubt) the obvious go-to person whenever a question bubble pops up in your child’s mind.
The focus of your discussion, however, will depend on the age and maturity of your child. Children have different levels of curiosity and understanding, depending on their age as well as level of maturity.
A five-year old may be happy with a simple answer that babies come from a seed that grows in a special place inside mommy. Daddy helps when his seed combines with mommy’s – and that’s how the baby starts to grow.
And if you think you can get away with the exact explanation with a 12-year old – think again. He or she may want to know more. Perhaps, parents could help by talking about how a man and woman fall in love, before going into the sex talk.
Opportunity to teach
While you’re on the topic, it is also important to share with your child the responsibilities and consequences that come from being sexually active. You may opt to focus on the point of protecting the child from sexual abuse, averting teenage pregnancy and preventing sexually transmitted diseases, or handling pubertal changes (not just physically, but also emotionally).
Even if your child doesn’t approach you, you should still find the right opportunity and occasion to broach the subject as it is important to do so before it’s too late, or before they get the wrong information from other sources. Take the initiative. And if they do come to you with questions, do not shoo them away with responses like “Erm, you’re still too young to know about that”, “If you don’t know, you don’t need to know”, or a despotic “Don’t ask”.
Gone are the days of such parenting styles. It’s all about being an “askable” parent these days. Parents who are prepared to answer their kids’ list of questions are more likely to be less uncomfortable – and more willing to talk with their children.
In order to be prepared and to approach the topic adequately, you will need to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. If you’ve never given it much thought, perhaps now would be a good time for you to consider composing your thoughts and ideas.
The topic of sex is a highly complex web of biological facts, social taboos, as well as religious and moral standpoints. All the same, it is imperative for parents to understand the ultimate goal of any sex talk – to “communicate” that sex is not a taboo subject and is a natural thing.
It is useful to bear in mind the age of your child and his or her personal characteristics to get a better idea on how to proceed. While doing so, it’s also your responsibility to let your child know your values about sex.
Communicate your values so that he is aware of them as he finds his way figuring out how he feels and wants to behave. Above all, do not underestimate your child’s intellect and capacity for understanding.
By keeping this in mind, you can avoid coming off as condescending or patronising, which could potentially offend your child, and make him or her “tune out” from the conversation. Let them know you are open to conversations – and answer their questions without judgement.
Tips that help
·Be confident and relaxed
Answer your child’s questions as naturally as you can. This will help you earn your child’s trust, making him or her feel like you are someone who knows what you are talking about.
Try not to be quick to judge or laugh at any questions, even if they seem unusual or embarrassing. If even the thought of talking about sex seems overwhelming, it might help to rehearse your answers and explanations beforehand, either alone or with your spouse.
Your anxiety will lessen the more you prepare and practise answering “potential” questions.
If you’re caught at a wrong time (or wrong place) when your child throws a tricky question – take a “rain check” and tell your child you’ll explain to him when you get back home. This will buy you some time in preparing the answer.
Make sure you really understand your child’s questions and where he or she is coming from before deciding how to respond. Sometimes, it is necessary to prompt them further before answering.
For example, you could say, “I am wondering how you think babies get inside their mother’s stomach.” By doing this, you would be able to get a sense of how much they already know about sex and reproduction.
You would also find out if they have any misconceptions, fears or concerns regarding the subject; which you could help clear up later.
·Keep explanations simple and concise
Most children under the age of six would be content with an explanation that goes something like this: “A man’s sperm joins a woman’s egg in the womb, which is located in the belly – and the baby begins to grow”. You could also explain that when a man and woman love each other, they like to be very close to each other. This would help set up the notion in their minds that sexual intercourse is an act of love.
Now, here comes the tricky part. You have to be careful while explaining to your little ones – as you won’t want to “overload” them with too much information. There is no need to explain the concept of making love to very young children as they wouldn’t be able to understand it.
However, generally speaking, once they’ve reached the age of eight and beyond, they will have more questions due to physical changes caused by hormones and influences from peers, or other sources. At this stage, they are more capable of digesting or understanding the information pertaining to this topic.
Always try to provide them with accurate information, while making them feel good about their bodies and helping them make responsible decisions.
·Use everyday opportunities
Moments that can act as a “springboard” to discuss matters of sexuality could also do the trick. Moments like while you’re watching a TV show together that depicts human relationships, or during a visit to the zoo where a mother orang-utan is seen nursing her baby, or when you pass by a huge billboard ad that talks about safe sex.
Make use of daily opportunities to connect with your child and keep the discussion ongoing. This will gradually make your child feel that sex is a normal part of family life – and not a special subject that needs to be avoided.
·Use a book
A good children’s book about sex and sexuality can be helpful. You can definitely find some good ones off the shelves – fabulous illustrations and direct information that is age-appropriate, covering topics on love, sex, pregnancy and more.
The way how the information is presented makes it easier for your child to grasp what you are teaching. It certainly saves you time and energy throughout the whole process if they had already read up, and had familiarised themselves with the basic parts of the human reproductive system.
From there, you can also help to fill in the gaps and answer any queries or doubts they might have over what they have learnt.
It’s important to try to get a sense of how much your child is ready to learn at any time. Learning about sex shouldn’t be confined to a one-off conversation. It should be an unfolding process where kids find out a bit more about the topic each time, as their maturity grows along with their age.
Exactly how you choose to answer your child’s questions would depend on your own values. All in all, the constant practice of healthy communication about the topic goes a long way in raising a sexually aware child.
> Datin Dr Ang Kim Teng is the president of Malaysian Mental Health Association. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Pediatric Association’s Positive Parenting Programme. The opinions expressed in the article are the view of the author. For further information, please visit www.mypositiveparenting.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.