Breaking Our Silence about Sex

e="font-family: Verdana;">I watch my daughter peruse the magazines at the supermarket checkout line. Her eyes fix on the cover of Mademoiselle, which reads "10 DATES BEFORE SEX?! & Other Secrets of Love That Lasts and Lasts." I wonder what her 11-year-old brain is thinking.

Talking about Sex

Part I Setting the Stage for Talking about Sex challenges parents to include sexuality as part of how they teach their children about all human feelings and desires.

Part II, Breaking Our Silence About Sex focuses on how parents can begin and sustain a dialogue about sexuality that includes values, meaning and morality.

Related Reading:
The Stages of Sexual Development

A Time/CNN poll conducted in 1998 showed teen-agers getting 45 percent of their information about sex from their friends and 29 percent from television. As our children's bodies mature at an earlier and earlier age (puberty is beginning an average of one to two years earlier in girls), we face a situation in which 12-year-olds are having to make decisions about sexual behavior. Magazines, television shows and pop lyrics constantly deliver sexual information and guidelines for sexual behavior - and our children are listening.

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In a 1998 survey of adolescent dating attitudes by The Sexual Assault & Trauma Resource Center of Rhode Island, ninth-graders were asked if they believed that a person has "the right to sexual intercourse against their date's consent, if they have dated a long time." Sixty-two percent of the boys and 58 percent of the girls answered, "Yes."

The issue is no longer when to have the "big talk," but how to start talking with our children about the power of sexual feelings and the standards of behavior that we use to control and direct those feelings.


Taking Charge of Our Desires

Parents who follow clearly defined religious rules of conduct must continuously interpret and explain those rules in the context of a culture that often operates with opposing values. Parents who don't accept the sexual ethics of a conventional religion need to develop their own guidelines. Regardless, one of our primary parenting tasks is teaching our children to have control over the immediate demands of their senses. Learning how to wait and learning how to choose the best time, place and manner of satisfying their desires is crucial to our children's development.

Unfortunately, children constantly receive the message that instant gratification is best. Success is defined by how fast they can get what they want. But being dragged around by the demands of their most recent desire does not build children's self-esteem. It's when we choose not to gratify the immediate desire to hit someone or to scarf down another donut that we develop respect for ourselves. Teaching our children how to control their desires Ð and helping them understand and feel the power that comes from this discipline Ð is a major responsibility of parenting.

But this work cannot start at age 14. We cannot indulge our children's every desire throughout childhood and then in adolescence tell them to "just say no." The ability to self-discipline develops through constant interaction with a parent who understands the individual strengths and limitations of their child. Learning to control our sexual feelings takes the same sort of discipline as controlling our anger or our appetite.


Talking about the Power of Sex

At age 12, our daughters want to know why they cannot wear belly shirts to school. They accuse us of stifling their creativity and denying their freedom of expression. Pre-teens are beginning to feel the power of their bodies, and looking sexy can feel very powerful. Our daughters and sons are experimenting with this power. How does it work? What can they do with it? What should they do with it? It's scary and exciting all at the same time.

When we talk with our children about sexual desire as a normal and powerful source of energy, we give them the language to express their feelings and concerns. We can then help them understand how their sexual feelings can be manipulated by what they see, hear and smell. We can help them see how they have the power to manipulate other people's sexual feelings by how they dress and act, and we can start an on-going dialogue about how having sexual power comes with the responsibility of directing that power in a positive way.


Discussing Our Sexual Choices

There will come a time in each of our children's lives when they will have to make a choice about sexual behavior. The only thing we know for sure is that we will not be there. Discussing these choices before the fact is our best shot at having them use their heads and not their hormones. The more concrete the discussion the better.

0in 0in 0pt">They have the choice of releasing their sexual energy in the context of a relationship. That choice brings with it serious responsibility to both themselves and the person they are in relationship with. They can choose to release sexual energy by themselves, through masturbation. They can choose to abstain from releasing their sexual energy and learn to transform it into an energy that can be directed toward any goal they wish to achieve. The self-respect and power that comes from abstinence is discussed by every major religion and understood by most athletic coaches. Why is abstinence so often presented to children as a form of deprivation or punishment? When we teach our children to hold the power of their desires and transform that power into directed activity, as we do with anger, sexual abstinence can be discussed as an intelligent choice among many.

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0in 0in 0pt">It's Hard to Teach What We Don't Know

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The truth is that most of us are very confused about sex. We've grown up never discussing our sexual feelings, thoughts and desires with anyone who is any more knowledgeable than we are. No one ever taught us to honor our sexual power and make thoughtful decisions about how to use it. Like our children, we were and still are constantly being teased by a sexually stimulating environment. Many of us don't know how we feel about desire and sex, or what's appropriate to do when. It scares us to see our children becoming sexual beings because we are not at all sure what to tell them.

0in 0in 0pt">We can start by appreciating that we are breaking new ground. Acknowledging our children's sexuality and talking to them about sexual desire is new territory for all of us. It's very easy to get so overwhelmed by our children's pseudo-sophistication and know-it-all attitude that we just busy ourselves with other things. It's true that they know a lot of facts that we never knew at their age, but they are clueless as to what it all means. Our children want to know what's right and wrong; they long for our opinions in the ocean of possibility and stimulation that they are exposed to daily.

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Some days, I take heart at the thought that even in my worst moments, I am a better parent than the television set. Our mistakes alone make us eminently more qualified to be our children's teachers than their peers. We may be confused, but we are motivated by love.

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The stakes are very high. Ask the parents in Rockdale County, Georgia, where in 1996 a syphilis outbreak affected more than 200 teen-agers, involving some as young as age 12. These affluent, well-educated children were having group sex between 3 and 5 p.m. when many of their houses were empty and they could watch and copy the activities seen on the Playboy channel. 

In these days of two-parent incomes and hectic schedules, it's tempting to act as if the end of childhood is the end of parenting, but it isn't. Talking about sex, self-discipline and desire is not something you put on your schedule, however; you have to be available in your child's time.

Where to Start

If you don't know where to start, turn on the TV, open a magazine or listen to a popular song and ask questions. As you watch television, start a dialogue by saying, "That girl doesn't seem like she really wants to have sex but she's doing it anyway. How come?" Or, "The boys on this show seem like they expect a girl to have sex just because they've been dating for awhile. That doesn't seem fair to me." Be prepared to hear some pretty crazy stuff, but take a deep breath and listen respectfully. Remember that as long as they're talking to you, you're succeeding.


Tell your stories of growing up to your kids - they learn from and remember these much better than abstract facts. They love to hear about our mistakes and the lessons we learned. But there's a catch: we need to talk through our stories first with a friend or partner so that we're clear about the lesson we're teaching and its relevance to our child's age. Intimate details are not appropriate. (Parents who have been sexually abused may need professional help discussing sex with their children.) We all have stories about our first kiss. Were we pressured? Were we nervous? How did we know we wanted to kiss this person? Think about what the story can teach your child. Don't be afraid to look stupid Ð that's the part they'll actually learn from. Also, try not to preach. 

At a recent workshop, I asked a group of parents when they had realized that having sexy feelings for someone was not the same as being in love with that person. Sadly, one mother answered, "After I got married." Parents can help children sort out the feelings that come with sexual maturity. They need to understand that desire is not the same as love, that being needed is not the same as love, that possessing or being possessed is not the same as love. So, what is love? What is healthy intimacy? We can address these questions, even if we don't have all the answers. Starting to talk with our children now is their best chance at not repeating our mistakes.

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yle="font-family: 'Courier New';">The Great Challenge

yle="font-family: 'Courier New';">There's a popular assumption that teen-agers are out of control, disrespectful and violent, and that parenting them is an impossible job. Parents blame the media, the media blames the parents, and everyone blames the schools. Meanwhile, our children turn to each other for guidelines and advice.

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Teen-agers are smart, provocative and intense young people who challenge us by expecting answers to questions we've learned to avoid. It's hard to parent someone who is smart enough to realize that we don't have all the answers. I cannot change the cover of Mademoiselle and I cannot pretend that my daughter hasn't read it. But I can ask her about it. I can respectfully listen. I can help her find the language to discuss her thoughts and feelings. I can share my values and experience. I can remind myself that she doesn't know half as much as she pretends to, and that she's working very hard at growing up. Perhaps most importantly, I can remember that she is my best work and my greatest blessing, and that becoming an adult is a lot easier when we share the experience and laugh together - at ourselves and at the whole amazing process.

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yle="font-family: Verdana;">RESOURCES

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yle="font-family: Verdana;">Books

yle="font-family: Verdana;">These books give parents and children explicit facts about sex and puberty, but do not discuss sexual ethics or give guidelines for discussion. Use these books as part of an on-going parent/child dialogue.

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It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex & Sexual Health, by Robie H. Harris, Candlewick Press, 1994. Aimed at pre-teens and teens, this well-illustrated text discusses puberty and sex with humor and compassion.

The "What's Happening to My Body?" Book for Boys: A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Sons (1987), by Lynda Madaras with Dane Saavedra; and The "What's Happening to My Body?" Book for Girls: A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Daughters (1987), by Lynda Madaras and Area Madaras, Newmarket Press. Both books give a reassuring presentation of puberty and sex.

Breaking Our Silence About Sex is part of a 2-part series on Talking About Sex. See Part I, Setting the Stage for Talking about Sex

Sharon Maxwell is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Canton. She lectures and gives parenting workshops on talking to children about sex and nurturing daughters through adolescence.

March 2000