Saturday, May 30, 2009

Let's Talk About Sex

Education that is.

This topic was brought up, rather inadvertently, in my book group the other night. The group is affiliated with RS Enrichment, so we mostly do a good job of sticking to the topics in the book. As when I'm with (most) any group of LDS women, I've learned to just bite my tongue when snide comments are made about the global warming "hoax", Barack Obama being a commu-muslo-terrorist and the latest blog news from Glenn Beck. As much as I hate it when people assume I agree with them about politics because we have the same religion, in person I'm much less confrontational than my writing suggests and I don't like the argument that political discourse often engenders. Discussion yes, but argument, no. Besides, in our group there is a woman who is Canadian, a former social worker, and was a rabid Hilary supporter. She isn't afraid to have a little go-time.

But back to the subject. I only said the other to give a little bit of background into our group and its dynamic. One of our younger sisters was very angry about some diversity posters that were going to be hung at her son's elementary school. Coming into the conversation a moment late, I thought that she was perhaps over-reacting, but then she was specific about the content of some of the posters. A couple of them were about transgender and homosexual individuals with blunt vocabulary. I think some kinds of information, particularly presented in such a sound-byte fashion, merely give children more tools for mocking one another. Also, since homosexual and transgender lifestyles are so wrapped up in sexual behavior and not just inherent identity (like race), the teaching of such should be handled the way sex education is at schools, not the way mulit-cultural education is.

My friend, incensed, wrote a letter to the school. A second mother in the group, who has some older children, also indicated that she has had trouble with the sex education programs at area schools. I kind of cornered mother #2 later and tried to get specifics about her issues with the programs, but she wasn't really able to say. Only that when given the choice, she opted her child out and was promised he'd have other work to do at his seat. He did not, and ended up doing most of the worksheets the rest of the class was doing. Again, no idea about the age of the child in question or the content that was so disturbing to her.

Before I hit you all with my barrage of questions, let me give you a bit of my own history. My first knowledge of sex came from two sources: I was staying with a friend for a few days when I was about 8 years old while my parents went on a trip. While bathing together one night, she told me how babies were made. I was shocked, horrified and disgusted. She told me that it was true and if I didn't believe her I should ask my mother. How could I say ANYTHING like that to my mom!? I'd be in so much trouble. Looking back, I can see that this experience has turned me into a mother that is pretty much anti-sleepover. Don't even get me started on why her mother put two eight year old girls in the tub at the same time.

The second source was a cousin, my age, who loved to entertain us with dirty jokes while all of the cousins stayed up late in the huge tent set up on Grandma's lawn every Labor Day. When I first heard his naughty potty mouth, and his awful jokes were pretty much confirming in their perverse way what bathtub-girl had said, there was no possible way for me to talk to my mother. It was too embarrassing and too gross. Years later I would learn that she was waiting for me to ask, just as my older brother had asked questions while she was pregnant with my youngest sibling.

Then mom forgot to come of the second of our two maturation films at school. She was the only absent mother in the entire sixth grade class. Okay, like I can really know that. But it sure seemed that way. This has been a running family joke for years, but at the time it probably really affected my willingness to approach my mom about girl stuff. I was embarrassed beyond belief when I had to tell her I had started my period, and for years I wanted to die whenever I had to ask her to buy pads. And tampons! Let's not even go there.

Fast forward to junior high health. Our sex education unit took a whopping 45 minutes. Our lame-o health teacher showed a movie about the miracle of childbirth while the boy behind me made snide comments the entire time. I tried desperately not to keep my head on my desk so that I could pass the quiz later. I willed myself to disappear, but not having any magical powers, it was no good. When the movie was done--10 seconds before the bell rang--our teacher said, "If you have an questions, go home and ask your parents."

I did not.

Being a nurse, conversations about sex and even sexuality should have been doable for my mom, but she just kept waiting. It's crazy, really, we talk about all kinds of things now and have a really positive and wonderful friendship. But I was the oldest girl and my mom's own family had been fairly dysfunctional; it seemed like everything I did was uncharted water. Well, about the time I turned 16 and was taking AP biology, Mom figured that she'd just missed the boat. After all, she reasoned, I was exceptionally bright--I'd certainly put two and two together. (Or, in this case, one and one; though my experience was all cerebral and the thought of even kissing a boy terrified me.) As for the chastity stuff, well, I was getting plenty of teaching in church; my dad did give me some kind of object lesson about a boiling frog. But you had to be dating anybody more than once, and they had to be marginally attracted to you, to get anywhere near boiling. Chastity was not a problem.

When I was a senior in high school, my youngest brother went to the maturation film for boys. My mother did not forget to attend with him. I took him on a long walk that night and told him all about the girls' movie. I told him that he wouldn't get this talk from mom but that he was mature enough and smart enough to understand some things, and that I didn't want him to be one of those idiot boys who teased girls about things they didn't understand. I think I knew that afternoon that he would eventually be a doctor.

On to college. I learned a lot, again all academic knowledge, about the mechanisms of sex and birth control and anatomy and physiology and vocabulary and . . . . well, you get the gist. Biology girl, remember? My older brother and his sweet fiance gave me a ride back to school one weekend and in a conversation that must have required him to swallow a lot of pride and mortified her, he asked ME about birth control options. I was 19. I was very blunt. I still wonder if her reticence towards me stems from that single conversation.

I was nearly legal age before I really kissed a boy. We won't go into the depths to which I was naive and stupid about what certain kinds of kissing can do to a man, or how cruel it is when a girl ignorantly starts the launch sequence. The early days of marriage were a long, slow learning curve; and yes, for all my book learning, I was pretty embarrassed about nearly every aspect of intimacy.

My own views of what the schools should or should not include in their sex education curriculum has no doubt been heavily influenced by things I've seen as a teacher. I was 23 and a single student teacher when a gorgeous Hispanic senior came to me and asked me about fifty questions about pregnancy; she was a few months along and I was the first adult that she'd told. I was 24 and teaching 7th grade when some foster parents told me the girl that had guardian-ship for was dealing with the aftermath of a sexually abusive stepfather and an abortion the previous summer. As for my eye-opening experiences at my inner-city school in Texas, well, let's just say that I'm a big advocate of giving people some kind of a license or test before they engage in sexual activity, let alone pro-create! ;)

Permanently damaged by my convoluted sex education? No, of course not. But I would like to do better for my own kidlets. And don't go saying "Get your spouse's support" because we'd been married about twenty minutes when Plantboy said, in no uncertain terms, "you are talking to the kids about sex; you're the science teacher." He has a point, from my painfully bashful beginnings, I never miss a beat when I say sperm or egg or sex or mating or reproducing or penis or vagina or whatever in front of a group of 13 year-olds. It's just science.

But with my own (and my oldest is just five months away from that magic age of accountability), it doesn't feel like science. It feels like how they will normalize themselves to the opposite sex, especially because they don't have sisters. It feels like their understanding of sacred principles. It feels like their future chance at an eternal marriage. The facts are the same, but what my little ones DO with these facts will literally make or break their lives and spirits.

My cornered friend from book group talked about how she opens up the conversation by talking about stranger touch, private parts, etc. The rest kind of evolves from there, over time, as you children are ready for it and ask questions. This is the approach advocated by the Cub Scout Manual. But I remember how poor I was at asking questions, even in an atmosphere of love and trust that my mom always inspired. And my boys are such boys--so mechanical and busy and practical--I don't know if they ever even think about babies, let alone where they come from. I also wonder if by jumping right to the molesting conversation, we rule out any possibility for such touch to be good and wonderful and necessary? Of course, all that affirmation stuff is not really appropriate or desirable for quite a number of years still . . .

What are your thoughts here? Things your parents did well? Things that have worked with your older kids? Didn't work? And most all, funny stories; sex is serious and sacred, but it isn't ALL bad. ;)


Janssen said...

My parents were somewhat open about it, I think, but I too was so so embarrassed to ask them any questions. I just could not.

Genjunky said...

No funny laughing on today's post! I miss that.

But seriously, you've hit on a very sensitive issue. With a 13.5 yr old, a 3 yr old and a baby on the way, living in a townhouse/rowhouse built in 1957, I have to admit I'm glad there is a room between us and the older boy now! How did we approach it? Much like you said your friend did. He's seen the famous PBS show Miracle of Life - probably about age 8. I think that was a good place to start dialogue. The "don't let anyone touch you where your underwear is" until you are married with the caveat that Heavenly Father gave us these feelings and such to be obedient to his commandments and to be attracted to each other always followed. I think he may have heard about sex from friends first. It is scarry to send them to someone else's house! I don't think he's ever asked us questions...but dad is the scoutmaster and teases him mercilessly about Mikayla Bastian still!
Thankfully he has always noticed who was cute and isn't interested in "dating"; I was by then and in over my head. He's too into scouts, thankfully!

My mom talked about sex one morning in her bed while she was pregnant with my brother - but I remember so little of it. In fact, it was probably her who told me that was our "discussion" aside from the aforementioned PBS flick. And I was mortified at getting my period and it still drives me crazy - this "Becoming a woman" thing - baloney. I think it causes me more embarassment than anything.

You've got the right idea...don't tiptoe around the words and the facts and the For the Str...Youth suggestions. Be clear and loving like you are!

FoxyJ said...

OK, one funny story. My sister got my daughter a very cute book about a sperm and his journey (it's called "Where Willy Went--I really like it for teaching about conception in a fun way) and S-Boogie has been in love with it since we got it. A few months ago in Sharing Time the theme was fathers. The other counselor started out by asking 'what do daddies do for their family that no one else can do?' My daughter raised her hand and yelled "they have the sperm to make the baby!" Everyone died laughing.

A few thoughts:

My parents are very open about sexuality; they did home birth, they've always used correct terminology, etc. In some ways this is good because I feel like I grew up with a fairly healthy understanding of sexuality and a good example of a marriage in which sex is something fun and valued. But I was still embarrassed to ask my parents about anything and most of my information came from reading encyclopedias and from health class or biology class. I was especially mortified about my period and never talked to my mom about it; I had jobs throughout high school so I bought my own tampons and other supplies. In my ideal world I'd like to have a better, more comfortable relationship with my kids and be better able to talk to them about things. At the same time though, many teenagers/preteens are naturally embarrassed and may not want to talk.

I've also heard that you should wait until your kids ask you, but I don't always think that's accurate. Some kids will be more inclined to ask and others won't be. Maybe you should ask your kids what they know? I've heard from a few people that they initiate the 'talk' somewhere around 8 or 9. I also think we shouldn't assume that one talk is enough, but that talk about sexuality and other stuff like it should be part of our usual conversations with kids (with some consideration for siblings of younger ages). If you aren't already in the habit of talking with your kids about stuff, sitting them down for a 'talk' is scary. We sit with our kids when they are going to bed and talk about their day, so I think a time like that would be very natural for teaching them about sex.

Like I said, I think that topics related to sexuality should be part of our talk, part of our FHEs, etc. Having a solid testimony of the plan of salvation and the importance of our mortal body is a good way to encourage healthy sexuality. The example of a marriage in which parents value each other and each others bodies. Little lessons like privacy when kids get old enough to use the potty on their own (I try and emphasize that our bodies are 'special' so to avoid the idea that they are dirty). When our daughter turned 4 and started preschool we had a FHE about "my body is for me" and talked about how her body belongs to her and that she shouldn't let anyone touch her, tickle her, etc. without her consent. And they should never touch her private parts. We had a book we used that talked about 'my body is for me'

Anyways, this is probably too long already. I think that sex and education about our bodies should be part of our teaching for our kids all the time. They need little bits of information carefully given when they are ready, and we should follow up to make sure that they are understanding and getting the right ideas about things. When it comes to sex education at school, I will probably let my kids go since it will likely be stuff we've already covered at home. I do want to know before hand what they are teaching, but I feel that home is the best place of all learning and that school is really just a supplement.

And you'll have to ask me how all my idealism plays out in the next few years since my kids are still pretty little :)

Jenny said...

I know for SURE that there is no right answer and no singular correct way to do this. KNOW YOUR KIDS. Some want to know by age 7 and others are dodging you still at 12. I look for captive audience time in the car, and I become the audience, leading out with a question like "So what do you want to know about periods?" (To my 10 year old daughter) and this opens up a multi-faceted discussion that SHE leads, so she is prepared to receive the information I'm handing over. I LOVE that you're thinking about this. More parents should, and parents should stop being afraid of using correct terminology around their children, so that they are not afraid to use it. If the time is right and your child is ready to talk, you're not making direct eye contact at first, because you're driving. Kids are more likely to ask an uncomfortable leading question when they're not making eye contact. Then when the atmosphere becomes safe and more comfortable, you can stop, park the car and have a real heart-to-heart, and your child will thank you. For girls? I love "my little red book" by rachel Nalebuff. Funny stories, and touching communication. There should be more of that.
the end. (unless you want more!)

AmyJane said...

My mom had literally no sex ed at home, and resented that, so she had vowed to do much better. My dad is kind of painfully shy about saying these things, so she knew it was up to her, and she kind of planned on the "wait till they ask questions" approach. Only, I was NOT a question asker! Far too embarassing. I remember her finally sitting me down, around age seven (? I think.) and just starting up a conversation about the very basic stuff. The really great part though, was that my little brothers were all in the vicinity and overheard this chat. Over the years, as there were older and older kids involved in these discussions, the youngers were always welcome if they were interested. I think that was key. Because as she held these little chats (about every six months, never scheduled for real, but probably in her head) the older kids got to hear a review of material intended for the youngers and the youngers heard the answers to tougher questions as some of the older kids started asking about things they heard at school. I think this worked really well because, while I hadn't heard of, say, oral sex, until high school, my younger sister had a boy suggest that to her in the 5th grade! Luckily, I had asked, and she had heard the answer at home already that it was simply not ok. If my mom had been having private, "on level" discussions with each of us, she never would have heard about that at such a young age. However, I do remember having a quite private, personal chat with just me and my mom around the time I started having periods, and that was much appreciated at that particular time.
There's a good book by Brad Wilcox called "Where Babies Come From" that shares a great gospel perspective and is appropriate for maybe 5 and ups. It also give conversation starters and such in the back for older kids. I got it in paperback at Deseret Book for less than 10 bucks. I think it would be a good springboard for the first big chat.
Good luck....I'm just starting to think about this topic a lot myself. My 3.5 year old is starting to be more and more aware and I see the day coming when he'll want some answers!

Jessica said...

i've heard that a great book on the subject is "how to talk to your child (or maybe it's kids?) about sex" by richard and linda eyre. i haven't read it yet, but my sister-in-law has and said it was really great for talking to her kids. it is also recommended by laura brotherson who is the author of "and they were not ashamed" which was by and far the best "sex" book i've ever read for lds couples. far better than "the act of marriage" or "husbands and wives" in my opinion.

Dovie said...

My oldest daughter when she was four going on five came to me very matter a fact and said, "Mommy I understand about where babies come from how the grow and are born but I do have one thing that I don't understand, what do the tadpoles have to do with it?"

A few weeks later (that's how long it took for me to muster my courage and find the right materials from the library) I sat her down and we had a very good lengthy chat.

My second daughter the more emphatic, less concrete scientific thinker started her period at 10 before we had the "talk." I don't think she knew what was happening. I just found incriminating underwear in the laundry two days in a row. With four girls there are a lot of girl underwear that come through and it took me a day to realize that they were not her older sisters. I sat her down and we had essentially the same talk. She had a little bit of a TMI moment I think and when I ask if she had any other questions. She most assuredly said "NOPE" and ask "Can I go now." The next week we had her first maturation at school. I was glad I caught it and talked to her about it before then. I feel bad about not addressing it sooner. Things are more open now.

When she was about 5 my third child now 11 who I just went to maturation with a few months ago. Told us about our flightless duck whose mate had flown away, in his loneliness was getting a little to amorous with the chickens, "Mommy we need to get rid of Dan the duck he keeps trying to mate with the chickens and it is driving them crazy." She is also very scientifically minded and picks up a lot of things though osmosis. Especially with older sisters. Though we have been to maturation I need to sit down with her and have the TMI talk. It is just a little tricky because I don't want to weird her out. All but one of her friends are boys and I don't want to ad a akward element to those relationships. So I have held off a bit. I don't think there is a cookie cutter time to inform. I do think that open communication is essential.

My fourth when watching some real life birthing stories on cable before they blurred everything out like they do now said, "Mommy what is it called when you get to have a baby but you don't have to have it be born from you?" "Adopting" I said. To which she replied. "That's what I'm going to do I'm going to adopt my babies."

They boys... well lets just say I'm glad that they are still little.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

I learned the basic mechanics of procreation around age 8 from a friend's younger sister. I got the impression that sex was some dirty, guilty pleasure that respectable people didn't talk about, so there was NO WAY I was going to ask my parents about it.

Consequently, when my mom tried to have THE TALK a couple years later, I blushed and told her if I wanted to know anything about where babies came from, I'd read it in a book. She left me to my own devices, which is unfortunate because the neighbors and the kids at school never mentioned anything about what a beautiful, sacred thing intimacy could be. I didn't learn any of that until I was in college.

I've vowed to do better with my kids, but since my oldest is just two I don't have any experiences to report yet. I'm definitely not going to wait for them to ask questions though.

I'm glad so many of your readers have recommended books and videos. I'll probably look into several of them.

P.S. I'm against sleepovers, too, both based on my own experience and what I've heard from others, including a few priesthood leaders over the years.

chris w said...

I know it wasn't your question, but I have to talk about your first paragraph (because you really made me think about someting) really quick then I'll answer the question.

I have been having the very same issues, but the opposite situation - people assuming that everyone thinks W. was the dumbest person on the planet, that the only reason you disagree with anything to do with global warming is you think it has to do with the second coming (you couldn't have a rational scientific reason), and that all conservatives are bigot hate mongers. The crazy thing is, your situation is happening to you in Oregon and mine is happening in Utah - what the heck?! I got kind of an epiphany the other day. I don't think people are always assuming that you agree with them because you are mormon/their neighbor/coworker, whatever (although I'm sure it does happen - we all make stupid assumptions all the time.) I think it might be that they are in a place where they feel a sense of trust and security to open up and share political views with the group because of the fact that you are all mormons/neighbors/coworkers - whatever. It really made me think and I will hopefully stop getting so irritated when it happens. I think we just really need to make sure we talk to each other with respect and stop bashing and cut each other slack. The end.

Now, on to sex! This is such great timing for a post about this. My son (4 years old) kept asking me this week, "How did I get in your tummy?" He is very intelligent and inquisitive, but I didn't think he was quite ready for all that information so I tried to give him very surface answers but he kept asking, "but how?!" "Did I get in through your nose? Did I get in through your belly button?"

I am very comfortable giving him the information but petrified that he will give a little speech in CTR class (he has not grasped that you don't say certain things at certain times). I also don't want to give him so much too early that he is traumatized. I asked some friends for advice and got some very interesting reactions - even some very open people were horrified at the thought of saying anything to him (they think he's too young). So, I am trying to figure out what timeline is appropriate.

I was very naive - I didn't have a clue to what went on until I was in the 6th grade. My parents never said ANYTHING to me and the maturation video didn't tell a whole bunch either. A friend broke it down for me on a walk home. I was horrified.

I wish we could keep our kids naive for a while. It was nice for me to not know all about that and I think I was protected a little bit. It's definitely not wise to do that now. I hate it that the talk has to begin with the "don't touch" places, but it's absolutely necessary for their safety.

At the time, I hated that I didn't date/kiss until the legal age but I think I was spared from a lot of heartache and emotions that I wasn't ready to handle. I wish girls and their parents would really hold up to the 16 years old limit and the no single dating until later. There are very wise, psychologically(not to mention inspirationally) based principles for why that should happen.

Anyway, that is my dilemma - when do I say what?

I have a favorite story from when I had to teach sex ed. My VERY first student teacher experience was to teach sex ed to some high schoolers that were NOT happy I had replaced a very popular teacher. I was watching King Of The Hill the night before I taught and Peggy Hill was subbing for a sex ed class. She was trying to get over her embarrassment of saying the word penis out loud and she was standing in front of her mirror saying happi..ness... over and over slow at first getting faster and faster until she forced herself to say the middle part of the word and she could say penis alone. It made me laugh and helped me teach the class the next day.

Brian and Courtni said...

my oldest is 3, so i certainly don't have any great advice myself...however, i have already had discussions with him about private areas of the body that no one should touch and things like that (i have had extended family that have had to deal with abuse from a young age, so it is a big deal to me to talk to him about it now.)

anyway, whenever i think of sex ed, i think of my dad. his parents NEVER said one thing to him, and he learned the birds and the bees from a single female health/pe teacher (who i later had as a pe teacher!) my mom will joke with my grandma about not talking to him and my grandma just says "it looks like he figured it out." that mentality might have worked in the 1950's, but (and i know you know this because of teaching) when i was teaching middle school i was in absolute SHOCK about what the kids knew, talked about, and did!

i liked your comments about how much that this topic really is going to dictate important parts of our children's future...don't we have a lot of responsibilities as parents?

Science Teacher Mommy said...


I'll read anything scientific you throw me about global warming being a hoax. Anything, as long as it is from actual scientists. The last thing anybody tried to seriously send me in this vein quoted a conspiracy theorist from Eastern Europe and Michael Chriton as anti-global warming voices. People can have whatever opinion they'd like, but you can't base a scientific argument on a novelist, or a pundit for that matter.

I'm not saying that you have: I just am asking for a chance to take a look at your other side sources.

Jenny said...

Thanks for your nice comment--I'd love to chat off line with you. Email me anytime at jhwhit2 at gmail dot com.

Maridith said...

I finally have some down time to chime in!
I would *highly* recommend the book "How to Talk to your Children about Sex: It's best to start early, but it's never to late. A step-by-step guide for parents." by Linda and Richard Eyre . You can find it on alibris or amazon.
I love the approach they use, love the focus they have and love the way they step me through it so I, who had No education from parents feel like I could actually manage to parent naturally without having had the example.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to put my two cents' worth in about my experience (not a lot of experience, my oldest is a 9yr old boy, then 6yr old boy, then 4yr old girl, then 2yr old boy).
I loved the post about an open talk with multiple ages. I really think it's the best way to keep it correct enough for those who won't ask or maybe won't think of asking as well as the kids who want or need to know everything early. The reason I believe that is because you're not just teaching information about sex, you're teaching an attitude that is open and natural, yet very respectful and serious at the same time. Those talks with mom or dad pattern the way to talk and feel about this subject, not just tell the facts about it. That attitude has to be practiced and understood far younger than the mechanics have to be mastered. Kids are going to hear talk about sex constantly in today's world. They need more than one conversation with a loving parent to balance their exposure.
I also wanted to address something someone wrote about being worried about saying too much too soon. It's been my experience that as long as you pray for the Spirit, then respond directly and completely to the questions asked by the child or the thoughts that come into your mind by the Spirit in the most loving and respectful way you can, there's like a filter on the kid and they only retain what they're ready for. I've had far more detailed conversations with my kids (mostly the 2 older boys, but the others were around at the time) than I ever dreamed I would have had at this point. They've had to ask me again some of the things I've already said, and I can see that their understanding is progressive, and you don't really have to worry about saying too much or even too little. They'll come back to have you fill in details, or they'll block out something they're not ready for yet.
For me, again, it's the attitude that I'm training more even than information I'm imparting. I start when they're very small little baby masturbaters (sorry to sound flippant, and I'm not going to spell-check the word, but boys all seem to want to play with that part of their body from a year old). I tell even my two year olds when they get fixated that yes, I know that feels good, but it's not a toy. Heavenly Father made our bodies because He loves us and wants us to feel good. They're so special, though, that our private parts are not for playing with, and I always ask any of my kids if they're being "respectful" when I hear them say something that isn't or when baths with each other get too exploratory.
I've seen some really good understanding from each of my kids at different ages, and so far seen it naturally progress as they age. I can't imagine this approach in general won't continue to work as they grow up, though of course it will need adapt to meet everyone's different needs as they do.