For some parents it can be a daunting task. For their children, the process is often just as painful.
Perhaps these parents don’t know that the first rule of having “the talk” is not to have it at all.
“We’re really encouraging parents to have continuous conversations about sexual health,” said Jennifer Gibson, sexual health educator. “The idea of ‘the talk’ is that it’s a lot of pressure for the person giving the talk, and it’s a lot of pressure for the person or people receiving the talk. An ongoing dialogue around sexual health hopefully provides continuity in learning and recognizes that sexuality is a part of our everyday life.”
Children are bombarded with sexualized images and messages today more than ever. It’s a reality that may scare some parents, but ultimately provides them with more avenues for educating their children on issues around sexual health.
We asked two educators in Greater Victoria for a few tips and tricks on how to take some of the anxiety out of sex ed.
Gibson, an employee of the Island Sexual Health Society, leads 500 sexual health workshops annually, reaching about 10,000 people – primarily high school students during in-class workshops.
Sadie Greco, one of the many Vancouver Island Health Authority public health nurses to regularly teach middle and elementary school sexual health classes in the Capital Region, also offers practical advice to parents.
And by early, Greco and Gibson mean at diapering, toilet training and bathing. Start by using the correct terminology for genitals. “It all sends a message about bodies,” Greco said.
By preschool age, children should have a basic understanding of conception and vocabulary around body parts, she added.
“Some parents are surprised that they should start that early, but just for the prevention of sexual abuse alone, it’s important for them to have that comfort level. Kids that get the message from their families that this is not a safe topic are the ones that are vulnerable.”
And while an introduction to condoms and their use might seem to be a little much for some parents of four year olds, Greco says it all comes back to teaching safety. No one wants their child to come across a condom in a park and pick it up.
Use television or everyday situations as a jumping off point for those conversations. Gibson likes the story lines on the show Glee for the possibility of opening up a dialogue. One character’s experience with teen pregnancy could be a good conversation-starter, while the presence of another character in a wheelchair might spark a chat about disabilities and sexuality. Following a recent episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians, a student asked Gibson a rather educated question regarding the use of birth control to regulate menstruation based on something she had seen.
The opportunities to talk about sexual health are everywhere – even in the most unlikely places.
Find a comfortable venue
This might be in the car. Greco is on the side of some educators who believe that the lack of eye contact and confined space bodes well for parents hoping to make some headway into a topic not yet out in the open. For Gibson, the car might conjure more of a hostage-like feeling for kids. Walking the dog, washing dishes – Gibson suggests any joint activity that doesn’t require a lot of eye contact as an alternative for the slightly squeamish. Some families have other ways of doing things. This involves text messaging tough questions for some, and for others, leaving out a journal where kids can write down their questions and parents can respond – allowing both sides some freedom and privacy.
Answer all of their questions
“How parents react is going to send a message to children about whether or not it’s a topic that can be discussed,” Greco said. “Even if parents don’t feel like they have all of the information, this is more about sending the message to kids that this is an OK subject for discussion.”
“I don’t know, but I will find out for you,” she added, is a perfectly acceptable answer.
The exception to this rule is answering questions about personal sexual history – an area where parents are more than justified in omitting a response.
Not sure what the kids are talking about? Gibson isn’t afraid to say she’s gone to urbandictionary.com to decipher slang, and she encourages parents to do the same if need be.
You can’t say too much
Kids will only take in the amount of information pertinent to their lives at the time.
This is why Gibson often answers the same questions around birth control at sessions with first-year university students, as she does within Grade 10 health classes.
Meanwhile, preschoolers will invent information in the absence of it, Greco said, adding that older kids will often fill in the gaps with myths or rumours picked up from classmates. Two terrible rumours still circulating schools, according to Gibson, a self-described sexual myth-buster: that Mountain Dew doubles as a spermicide and that girls can’t get pregnant from their first time having sex. This segues nicely into another belief the two share: to maintain a sense of humour about sex.
Greco balks at the idea that talking about a subject with children introduces to them suggestive thoughts. “The more information we give them, the more protected they are,” she said.
Becoming a reliable source of information for children is key. Leave books out on the coffee table. Unblock useful websites.
If children aren’t interested in finding resources together – i.e.: shopping for books together – show them where to find this information on their own.
The Island Sexual Health Society has a thorough list of resources available.
For parental resources, the books of former nurse Meg Hickling, come highly recommended by both educators.
“We need to continue having those conversations because it helps kids become healthy adults,” Gibson said. “I can tell you that youth want to talk to their parents about this. The ones that are (talking) say it’s great and the ones that aren’t say they wish they were.”
* “That’s a good question”
* “I don’t know, but I will find out”
* “I’m glad you told me that”
* “Tell me more”
* “You are too young.”
* “Where did you hear that?”
* “You don’t need to know that”
* “We will talk about that when you are older”