Is it possible that your child could actually start puberty at seven or eight years of age? It’s kind of hard to believe, isn’t it? Yet there is a growing concern that the development of secondary sex characteristics in girls, such as breast growth and pubic hair, is starting at increasingly earlier ages. Suggested causes range from environmental factors that involve hormonal influences to childhood obesity to the hypersexualization of young kids. While most experts believe that the age of onset of menses in girls and the development of sperm in boys have likely remained relatively unchanged over the past couple of decades, there are increasing concerns that secondary sex characteristics in girls are beginning earlier.1 From a purely empirical standpoint, I think we really don’t know what’s going on out there, but it’s probably pretty safe to say that some fundamental change is under way.
What is most important for us as parents, however, is to understand that we need to begin to have some serious discussions and conversations about the physical and emotional changes of puberty beforeour kids start these changes. So, because you don’t know whether your child will start puberty at eight, nine, ten, eleven, or twelve years of age, I recommend that you start discussing it at eight; this way you’ll be fairly certain of starting before puberty has begun. Before proceeding further, let me mention seven-year-olds briefly as I do not want you to think I’m avoiding that age group. I think of the seven-year-old as an “in-between” age. That is, we need to continue to reinforce with them what they have learned as six-year-olds, but they are still a little too young to be hearing what we will say to our eight-year-olds. However, be on guard. Should your child begin puberty as early as seven, you will of course have to begin addressing it.
We’ve talked about a whole bunch of important stuff up to now, and, if you’ve followed what I’ve laid out, you and your child are in an excellent position to have some big-time talks about the coming journey through puberty. From now until your child reaches young adulthood you need to make absolutely certain that you are the number one source of sexual guidance for your child, because things are really going to start heating up.
In this chapter I detail some of the information that I think is most important to highlight for your child as she or he prepares for and moves through puberty. It may seem like a lot, but I cut through the fat and lay out for you the critical pieces you’ll want to focus on. I give you facts about puberty and sexual behavior in relationships, because you need to have a basic understanding of the physical changes that occur and some of the concerns your child will have about those changes—but I urge you to keep it simple. By no means do you have to be a walking, talking sexual-facts encyclopedia. This is not rocket science! You also need some understanding of how to help your child feel normal throughout puberty’s duration, and a feel for the sort of peer pressure a child can expect and how to best deal with it. You need to know how to help your child use critical thinking to make responsible decisions, and how to help your child reflect on values that are life enhancing and enriching. This chapter will provide guidance on how to accomplish these tasks. I just don’t want you to feel overwhelmed. Don’t feel you have to go to the library or do research on the Internet on puberty and teen sexuality. I have aimed to provide what you need in this book. It’s okay to feel embarrassed when you have these conversations with your child, but there are some basic things you can do to feel more comfortable. The more comfortable you are, the more effective your communication with your child can be.
I highlight some of the more important issues that I think require your use of authentic instruction—using actual life situations that involve sexuality to help your child better relate to what you want him to learn. There are many moments when you can choose to be authentic in your instruction, but there are some when you absolutely must be. Ultimately, your most effective tool for leading your child through the minefields of puberty and adolescence is your ability to communicate your values, consistently reinforce the boundaries of sexual behavior, and teach your child how to make good decisions about sex and sexuality. This chapter shows you how to package it all for your eight-year-old and then for your nine- and ten-year-old.
I repeat my earlier observation: we are a sex-stupid society. Most of us have had virtually no formal sexuality education or parenting education in our lives, yet we (and our parenting partner, if we have one) must be the number one sex educator for our children. I think it is much easier to get away with a minimal understanding of the body and how it functions sexually when our children are very young, but as they go through puberty and adolescence we have to kick it up a notch. There is absolutely no harm in having to tell your children that you don’t have an answer to one of their questions but will find it out and get back to them; however, you must try to stay at least one step ahead of them in your knowledge of how the body functions sexually, especially during the latter part of elementary school and through middle school. By the time your kids are in high school they need less factual information from you, but of course will continue to need your moral and ethical guidance on how best to navigate their sexual world.
What Kids Really Need to Know About Puberty
So many of the concerns that kids have throughout puberty arise because they simply don’t realize that the changes they are going through and the issues they are confronting are indeed normal. We adults can forget how difficult it is to go through puberty. There are so many developmental, psychological, emotional, and social changes going on that it can get overwhelming for our children. Any way we can help minimize our children’s anxiety and stress will go a long way toward helping them manage these tumultuous years.
Kids at this age are prone to feeling like they stand out, almost like they have a scarlet letter on their chests, when they think they’re different from others. It’s likely that your child will frequently feel inadequate and out of place. He’ll worry that whatever he’s experiencing is only happening to him—that he’ll be the only one at the party with a pimple on his forehead. Peer acceptance becomes even more important as a child progresses through adolescence. The more a child feels out of the norm, the harder the struggle for that acceptance. So expect to spend time just helping your child to feel normal.
Kids also have the major developmental task of negotiating newly discovered sexual feelings and urges. As parents, we need to remember not only the pulse-pounding, butterflies-in-the-stomach sensations we experienced from these new sexual feelings, but also the mixed bag of intense emotions—feeling confused, nervous, anxious, and scared—that often came along with the feelings. Let’s face it: our journey through adolescence was a long, strange trip indeed. It is probably even more of a dramatic journey for young people today.
I have consistently found that if you establish yourself as an approachable parent prior to your child’s puberty, the entire puberty and adolescent experience becomes far more manageable for your child and for you. Look before you leap should be your motto. If you know what lies ahead, you will be better prepared when you get there. So you tell your daughter about menstruation before she comes to you with blood on her fingers. And you tell your son about wet dreams before he awakes one morning with semen stains in his PJs and on the sheets. And you help them to explore the sexual feelings they can expect to have for other kids when in middle and high school before they actually experience them for real.
So take out a pen and paper or turn on your computer and start to take some notes. What follows are the most important pieces of information and words of wisdom about puberty that I believe you need to know and share with your children, followed by commentary as needed. We’ll get to more specific responses to these concerns in the following chapters.
Body hair, pubic hair, voice changes, sweating, oily skin, and pimples are some of the changes experienced by both genders. Breast development, widening and padding of the hips, and the ovulation and menstruation cycle are the unique changes for the girls; broadening of the shoulders, increased muscle mass, enlargement of the testicles, growth of the penis, and sperm/semen development are the unique changes for the boys.
When puberty begins. No one can predict when puberty will begin for any child. Some kids begin earlier, other kids later. Whenever it begins for your child is the right time. Also, no one can predict the particular order in which the various changes will occur. You should caution your child not to compare himself to his peers with regard to who started puberty first or who is developing faster or slower; every child’s progression of puberty is different. If your child is either developing earlier than peers or lagging behind them, stay on guard for other kids who may be making fun of her or even bullying her. Being “overdeveloped” or “underdeveloped” makes a child an easy target for other kids. Keep your lines of communication open with your child and stay in touch with your child’s teachers; you can also get a sense of how things are going by paying attention to how your child’s friends are acting.
Body image. Even if your child appears to be progressing through puberty in a typical way, you should still be on guard for any disturbance in body image. Being concerned with how one looks is normal. But you don’t want your child to become overly obsessed with thoughts about not measuring up to peers’ (or the media’s) standards; nor do you want the opposite—the child thinking he’s so hot that he’s just to die for. Start early to set the right tone on this issue with your child.
Hormones. Most of the physical changes of puberty occur because the body is producing more and different hormones than previously. These trigger changes in various body parts. Boys and girls actually share many of these hormones, just in different amounts.
Hair in new places. Both boys and girls will notice new hair growth. The amount and location of hair adults end up with varies widely among individuals, but one thing we all have in common is the pubic hair that grows around the genitals. Its purpose is to help keep that area of the body clean and to protect from chafing.
Perspiration. Puberty causes changes in the sweat glands; the increased perspiration, along with the growth of pubic and armpit hair, means that both boys and girls need to wash more frequently. They may want to start using deodorant, too.
Acne. In puberty there’s an increase in facial oil, which helps to keep the face healthy. But if a child doesn’t wash regularly (and sometimes even if she does), skin cells that shed from the face can mix with the facial oil to clog pores in the skin, causing the infections known as pimples or zits. Every adolescent will likely get some pimples.
Voice changes. Both boys and girls experience voice changes, but boys will experience a greater degree of change. It is common, when the voice is undergoing changes, for it to “crack.” This can occur when a boy least expects it and can be embarrassing if it happens in front of a lot of people. The voice transition generally takes several years.
Breasts. Girls may be distressed to find that one breast is becoming slightly larger than the other. This is normal. In fact, there is some asymmetry in everyone’s body; hands and feet are often slightly different sizes too. Media images, especially of women with breast implants, don’t help us to have realistic expectations of our bodies. Breasts come in different shapes and sizes; they’re all good breasts.
Nipples. Both girls’ and boys’ nipples can become hard, particularly when rubbed.
Penises come in all different sizes; they’re all good penises. They are all big enough to do the job they were intended to do.
Circumcision. Most boys in the United States are circumcised. All boys are born with a sleeve or hood of skin called the foreskin covering the head of the penis. If parents choose to have their baby boy circumcised, in a procedure in which the foreskin is removed, it’s done within a few days after birth. Boys who are not circumcised need to pull back the foreskin to clean underneath when they shower or bathe every day; otherwise bacteria can grow and cause an odor.
Testicle changes. One testicle will usually hang lower than the other. Sometimes when a boy is really anxious or feeling really cold, his penis can shrivel up somewhat and the scrotal sack that holds his testicles can as well. Sometimes the sack shrivels so much that his testicles seem to rise up toward his abdomen and almost disappear.
Erections. The penis becomes erect when more blood enters it than leaves it. A boy can have an erection many times during the day and can have them for no sex-related reason whatsoever. In fact, when least expected—boing!—an erection can occur. Tell your son that if this happens in front of people, just be cool and relax, and it will eventually go down.
Ovulation. Ovulation occurs when a mature egg cell emerges from an ovary. The egg cell lives for about twenty-four hours after ovulation. If not fertilized by a sperm cell, it dies and is flushed out through the vagina. Women generally ovulate about twelve to fourteen days before the start of the next period. Most have no sensation associated with the event.
The uterine lining. Every month the uterus prepares itself for a pregnancy, creating a thick, blood-rich lining to support the implantation of a fertilized egg. If a sperm cell fertilizes the egg cell, it completes the journey down the fallopian tube to the uterus and burrows into the lining to receive nutrients as it develops into an embryo and then a fetus. However, most of the time the woman is not looking to become pregnant. If there is no fertilized egg cell, the uterus’s lining is flushed out of the uterus through the vagina. This is called menstruation or getting her period.
Menstruation. When a girl first starts having menstrual periods it is fairly common for it to occur somewhat irregularly. She may skip a month, or at times she may have what appears to be two periods in one month. A menstrual period lasts about five or six days, during which about a half a cup of fluid flows from the uterus through the vagina. Most girls use a sanitary pad when they first start menstruating. As they grow older many will begin to use tampons. Menstrual periods and ovulation end sometime in a woman’s fifties, on average, over a period of years called menopause. Many girls and women experience some discomfort when they menstruate. This usually involves some mild cramping, some feeling of bloating, and maybe a little moodiness beforehand. Should a girl experience any severe pain or discomfort she should inform her parents and they can consult their health care provider.
Wet dreams. It’s common for boys to occasionally ejaculate while sleeping; that is, semen (a liquid that contains sperm cells) comes out of his penis. This is commonly called a wet dream. The boy does not necessarily have a sexy dream when this happens; he may simply ejaculate.
Masturbation is the term for the practice of stimulating one’s own genitals to create pleasurable feelings, which may include orgasm (and, for boys, ejaculation). It’s normal to masturbate, and it’s normal not to; it just depends on the individual. When a man ejaculates, the semen he releases through his penis contains 300 million or more sperm cells. He makes millions of new sperm daily and always has a considerable reserve of sperm within his testicles. He can never run out of sperm because of the number of times he masturbates. Even if a boy or man decided to masturbate several times every day this would only result in his semen containing less sperm. Sperm cells that are not ejaculated live in a man’s body for about ten days and then die. When sperm cells die they are absorbed or discharged in the urine.
Sexual feelings. Perhaps the biggest change of puberty is the development of sexual feelings. For the first time your child will have to learn to respond to emotions triggered by sexual stimuli. Although children are capable of sexual response prior to puberty, this doesn’t necessarily include an emotional response. Now it does. A significant developmental task for your child is to understand how to manage, control, and ultimately adjust to these newfound sexual feelings.
Starting to Talk About Puberty
Puberty includes all the physical and emotional changes that the body experiences when transitioning from a child to an adult. Puberty usually ends by the age of nineteen or twenty. Again, one of the most important things to tell your child right from the outset is that no matter when your body begins to change, whenever it does, it is the right time for her. The right time isn’t when her friends start the changes of puberty or when her friends and peers say it is the right time. Whether she starts earlier, later, or about the same time as most others, her time is the right time.
I find that puberty talks with the nine- and ten-year-olds go over very well, with each group having a pretty keen interest in hearing about their expected bodily changes. Eight-year-olds need a much more abbreviated talk but will also show interest, with perhaps a little more trepidation.
When you begin your discussion, particularly with the nine- and ten-year-old, if you are somewhat shy about describing the changes that are more sexual in nature, then feel free to start with some of the more benign changes that occur. You start first with a little intro into hormones—chemicals produced by the body that cause many of the physical changes of puberty. You can then start a discussion about how the body begins to fill out and become more robust, or a conversation about how the body will begin to perspire more and how they must now wash and bathe more carefully than when they were younger or bacteria will remain on the body, causing body odor. Or you can begin with a talk about pimples and how washing the face with mild soap and water and patting it dry with a clean towel helps reduce the chances of developing the dreaded zits.
While all of this information about puberty is important for your child to learn, providing specific information about sexual behavior within a relationship is vital. Below are my suggestions for what you will want to convey to your child about sexual relationship behavior.
The Important Facts of Sexual Relationship Behavior
As you continue your puberty conversations you can start to weave in discussions of behavior within a sexual relationship, managing sexual feelings, and how to behave responsibly. I will offer ideas for doing that as we move along; for now, acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with some of the important facts you will eventually share with your child.
You will begin to share some of these facts with your child when she turns eight years of age. Certainly by ten years of age you will want to have shared all of these facts as well as having started some authentic instruction around making good sexual decisions.
It Takes Practice to Get Comfortable
There is no better way for a parent to become more comfortable when discussing puberty related issues with your child than practice, practice and more practice. This is true of most things in life, isn’t it? The same holds for when you talk about sex and sexuality with your child. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will become. And you don’t necessarily need to have someone else to practice with. That’s right, you can practice alone. Just take whatever it is you want to say to your child and say it to yourself. Create the scene in your mind and go right to it. You can also practice in front of a mirror; then you can get a feel for your words but you can simultaneously see how you look as you say it. You can get a sense of the type of body language and hand gestures that you might want to use when you talk, as well. You can also videotape or audiotape yourself. I know this may seem a little extreme but you will want to do whatever it takes to get comfortable.
No matter how much you practice on your own you should make every effort to practice with someone else, too. Get your partner, your friend, or a relative—anyone who can give you some objective and reliable feedback and practice with them. It would be very helpful if this person could pretend to be your child and reply to what you are saying. Role-playing like this can be especially helpful, as it forces you to have to respond to the unexpected statements and actions the other person could pose to you. If taken seriously by the other person, this is a very effective way of practicing.
Of course, the best practice is to actually talk with your child. You can get some of the jitters out of the way by setting up your talks with your child beforehand. Before you actually get into the gist of your puberty conversations you can say, “You know, this isn’t easy for me. My mom and dad never really talked with me about sex and I haven’t had much practice. So bear with me. I may be nervous; I may not have all the answers to your questions. But I want to talk with you about this stuff because it is very, very important, and I love you, and I want you to be safe and to grow up happy and healthy. So hang in there as I talk. Listen carefully and please share with me your thoughts on what I say.” Do what you need to do to establish your comfort level for your talks. Just giving yourself permission to admit to your child that this makes you uncomfortable may help immensely. But remember, the more you have these talks with your child, the more comfortable you will become.
Focus on Authentic Instruction
As I’ve mentioned before, using authentic instruction is a very effective way of helping your child learn how to think critically and make decisions that are healthy and wise. Of the many different issues about sex and sexuality where you can use authentic instruction, there are certain issues that absolutely require it. So heed what I recommend here, as you will want to become as proficient as you can in your use of authentic instruction with your child. Some of the choices and decisions your child makes about sex and sexuality will be some of the most important of her life. Authentic instruction will help her learn how to make the right ones. Here are the issues where you must use authentic instruction when working with your child.
Sexual Feelings and Decision Making
Most of our children will become sexually active when they become adults. Determining when and with whom is tough enough; being fully responsible is even tougher. Our children have a lot to think about and plan for to be ready for sex.
You will want to use plenty of authentic instruction when helping teach your child how to manage and negotiate sexual feelings. When your child learns how to do this he will be in a far better place for making good sexual decisions. Part of your task is to help him learn how to make decisions when he’s confronted with intense sexual feelings.
Love, Respect, and Trust
As I’ve said at length already, when you have these in a relationship you just never have to worry about how your partner will treat you. Helping our children understand when these are present in a relationship is a major undertaking. I’ll give you some examples later in this chapter.
When I work with a class of children on the challenge of saying no to one’s peers, I find that many children are surprised to hear how hard it is for other kids to say no. Saying no can conjure intense feelings of being cast out of the group; it can seem that somehow it’s the end of the world to have to say no to your peer group. When kids share their fears about saying no it helps them to know that other kids feel the same way. They come to appreciate that anyone who tries to get you to do something that is not healthy or good for you can’t possibly be someone you should be friends with or hang out with. Understanding this will sustain them during some very difficult peer group moments.
As you will see, using authentic instruction will give your child the best chance to fully understand and integrate information, make better decisions and develop important communication skills, and develop an awareness of crucial values inherent in being a sexually responsible person.
Make Yourself an Approachable Parent for Your Child
The years from ages eight to ten are the time to solidify your identity as an approachable parent on all things sexual. Once your child leaves fifth grade and enters middle school, your child’s peer group will become the one real threat to everything you’ve done right over the years. Yes, the media will be a factor, but the kids our children will associate with from middle school into high school can have a tremendous amount of influence on our children. It is essential that you know who your child’s friends are and who his primary peer group is, and that you continually monitor their activities. If your child turns to a negative and deviant peer group, you are going to have your hands full, and more so if you are not keeping tabs on your child’s social life. However, if your child has friends and peers that are thoughtful and nurturing, and if you have worked hard to ensure that you are an approachable parent, your child will have a far better transition into adolescence. This is why I urge you to talk so much with your child by ten years of age.
If you think the advice in this book has been a little over the top, or that the idea that ten is the new sixteen is stretching things a bit, all you have to do is hear from parents who have lost this battle and you will have a change of heart. Not only is it the right thing to do for your child, helping her transition as beautifully as possible into adolescence, but it will provide invaluable insulation from all the negative influences that can come with being a teenager. It is why I’ve highlighted the need to use authentic instruction when helping your child deal with peer pressure. Coming to terms with peer pressure is a major developmental task of adolescence.
Prepare to Weather the Changes—
and Accept Them
The change from child to adult brings with it many different challenges, not just for the child but for his or her parents as well. Let’s face it; it isn’t easy going through puberty and it sure isn’t easy to help your child as she goes through it. It is truly amazing how our children go from chatty, loving, adorable little human beings into these creatures who at times are barely recognizable. Puberty and adolescence have a way of making every parent on the planet ask the question, What has happened to my darling little child?
One thing is universal: the hormonally charged adolescent’s job in life is to make his parent miserable. That is just the way it is; it’s not because you’re doing something wrong, necessarily—it is just the way of the teenager. Once you accept this fact and realize that it really isn’t about you, you’ll have eliminated a major roadblock as you move forward.
Too many of us parents get hung up on this reality. We just cannot understand what has happened to our kid and we expend a lot of energy trying to figure out how to get our sweet little child back. The big irony here is that we haven’t lost our child at all; we only think that we have. Once we accept that she’s still our daughter, just not our daughter the little child anymore, the quicker we can move on and establish ourselves as approachable to her in this new phase of her life. She is still our child but becoming a teenager day by day, and when this puberty thing is done she’ll be an adult. Let’s get beyond our resistance to her quest for independence, accept that it is her duty to need us less than she used to, and adjust to our new role as a parent of a budding teenager. And we can make our job and our child’s transition to adolescence a lot easier by concentrating on what our child needs now as opposed to trying to keep her the child she was. Let’s concentrate on how we become approachable during our child’s pubertal and adolescent years.
You can start with your eight-year-old while he’s still the child that you’ve always known him to be. Beginning our talks on puberty and sexual intercourse at this age allows us to establish ourselves as an approachable parent before the moon becomes full and our little boy begins to change into something else. By the time he does become that something else you will already have had several years of important conversations and discussions with him about some critical aspects of puberty and sexual behavior. If you do this correctly you will win out over his peers, the media, and any other significant influence on his sexual behavior and sexuality.
Here are some basic pointers to get you started. Again, try to become comfortable. If you already are, then great—you are one step ahead. You don’t have to be “cool,” and you don’t have to try to impress your kid—you don’t want to sound like one of his buddies. Remember, you are a parent, not a friend; you want him to view you as Mom or Dad who just happens to be able to talk to him about sex stuff. Again, you can start with the easy stuff, or you can dive right into the deep end.
Other parents have found the basic approach offered here to be a natural and effective starting point; we’ll start with your daughter and then present a variation for your son.
I also believe that boys need to understand the changes that girls will go through, and girls need to understand all the ones that boys will experience. But this is more important for ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds. For your eight-year-old you will keep your discussion gender specific; again, you only need to touch upon the basic changes of puberty.
A “Basics” Talk with Your Eight-Year-Old Daughter
“You know, I can’t believe how big you’re getting.”
“I sure am,” your daughter says proudly.
“I wonder when you’re going to start puberty.” She may already know what you’re talking about, or think she does. But you want her to hear it from you. “That’s when your body changes and you start turning into an adult. Do you want me to tell you what happens?”
If she seems hesitant, reassure her that this is something that happens to everyone—that it even happened to you—and then maybe name some other adults or older peers she likes and respects.
“There’s no particular age that someone starts puberty. It could be at ten, eleven, or twelve; it could be earlier at nine or even later, like thirteen. What’s important to know is that when it starts, that’s the right time for you. And there are going to be a whole bunch of changes. It’s all because of chemicals in your body called hormones. Your body starts to make a lot of these hormones, and bingo: you start to have puberty changes.
“Your breasts will grow, your shape will change, and your hips will widen a bit. You’ll get your period, your ovaries will start to make one mature or grown-up egg cell a month, and you’ll grow hair around your vagina and under your arms. You’ll probably even get some pimples.”
That’s a lot for her to take in, so say something comforting now. “It’s hard to say in what order these changes will occur, because everyone’s different. But you know you can always come to me with any questions you might have.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever you say.” She looks relieved that the conversation is over.
In addition, I encourage you to highlight the following information for your daughter.
Menstruation. You may want to revisit my earlier description of menstruation (see this page). You want your daughter to appreciate how amazing the whole biological process of preparing for possible pregnancy is. That is why your daughter will get her period—because her body now produces a mature ovum (egg cell) every month and at the same time it must prepare the uterus to receive that ovum should a sperm cell fertilize it. Think about that—a woman’s body prepares itself every month for a possible pregnancy. Her uterine lining becomes engorged with extra blood just before she makes a mature ovum. After it implants itself in the uterus, in its very early stages of development the fertilized ovum will receive its nutrition from that blood-engorged lining of the uterus. If the woman’s ovum is not fertilized the uterus will shed its extra blood and she will have her period. You will want to make sure that your daughter understands that she ovulates about twelve to fourteen days prior to her first day of menstruation each month: “When you start to menstruate it means that your body is now producing a mature egg cell called an ovum every month. Your body is now capable of becoming pregnant. Even though you are way too young to even think about becoming pregnant, your body is capable of pregnancy once you start to ovulate (make a mature ovum). And you will know when you have begun to ovulate when you get your period for the first time. We will have many discussions about not having sex until you are an adult, and about how to avoid getting pregnant when you don’t want to.”
Body image. This is such a big issue throughout the adolescent years. Your daughter will need to hear from you that she is lovable and capable inside and out. Help her to understand the limitations of physical attractiveness. Help her to see that the core values of a person, along with the good deeds the person has done, mean far more than any reflection in a mirror. She needs to learn to be herself and not to try to become what someone else is.
Make sense of sexual feelings. Your daughter has no doubt experienced some sexual feelings, most likely from masturbation. She may have some thoughts about another child being cute or appealing, but she likely has very few reference points for understanding sexual feelings for another person. I suggest you start a conversation with her about these feelings in a matter-of-fact manner. Here’s a possible script:
“One of the changes you’re going to go through during puberty is that you will begin to develop sexual feelings for other people. I know you’re still several years away from having those feelings, but they will come. There’ll be that certain someone who will kind of make your heart flutter and give you a butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling. I know it may seem a little weird but these feelings will be part of what will make you want to have sex one day with another person. You know how you like to masturbate sometimes? The feelings you have from that are similar to the feelings you’ll actually have for another person. There are many people, teenagers and adults, who have allowed their sexual feelings to get the best of them. That is, they have sex when they really weren’t ready for it or really shouldn’t have done it. That’s a major reason why so many teenagers get pregnant in this country every year. These kids were not able to control their sexual feelings.”
Lay this foundation now, and it will be easier to continue similar discussions by the time she’s ten—and even easier when you are getting into some very nitty-gritty talks at ages twelve and thirteen.
BEAUTY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP
One way I help kids better understand the limits of physical attractiveness is to highlight for them how we perceive people’s physical looks after we have gotten to know them personally. It never fails that should we view a person as nice their physical attractiveness improves. If we view a person as a jerk their physical attractiveness lessens. The reason for this is that we come to see that the soul of a person, not his or her physical aspects, really does define who that person is.
A “Basics” Talk with Your Eight-Year-Old Son
With a son, these are the changes to cover:
“Your penis and testicles will grow larger, and your testicles will start to make sperm and semen. Your voice will change and your penis will change! That’s right; it’ll start to grow larger and will probably get stiff and hard a lot for no reason at all. In fact, I bet your penis even gets stiff and hard now; it’s totally natural you know, even if it happens for no sexy reason at all. But during puberty it’ll happen a whole lot.”
Your son may be amazed at this point. He gets erections often, but he’ll be stunned that you’re calling him out on it. He’ll think you are a genius for sure; he thought no one knew! Your son needs to have discussions with you around sexual feelings, body image, and the notion that puberty occurs for each individual when it is the right time for that person.
In addition, your eight-year-old son also must hear about the following:
Erections. Have a talk with your son about getting erections regularly; refer back to what I said about this earlier in the chapter. Tell him that if it ever happens in public he should remain cool and calm and it will go back to normal.
Wet dreams. Give him some insight into the fact that one day he’ll likely have a wet dream. Explain to him that his testicles are making sperm and his body is making semen, and that at any time during puberty he could experience a wet dream. It’s no big deal and it could well happen more than once.
Shrinkage: it’s normal. I think it’s important to mention the fact that the testicles and penis can really shrivel up, temporarily. The first time it happened to me I thought my testicles wouldn’t come back down. I realized on my own that my fears were unfounded. But this is one of those things that can cause a young boy some real concern, so help him through this.
What Your Nine- and Ten-Year-Old Needs to Know
Simply stated, you want your ten-year-old to know everything that you would want any child going through puberty to know. Something happens when your kid gets into fifth grade. She is now part of the “senior graduating class” of an elementary school and there is a built-in sort of belief that she is now on the threshold of being a young woman. The same can be said of the boys as they are now about to go on and become young men. You can see budding boy-girl relationships starting to take hold, group-dates actually start popping up, and no doubt similar awakenings for the gay and lesbian kids (except they realize there’s no public outlet in which to express their nascent sexuality).
So much developmental change occurs from September to June of fifth grade; just ask any fifth-grade teacher. Students come in the first day of school pretty much kid-like and leave as little grown-ups. “It’s the hormones, Dr. Fred,” so many teachers say to me. “They are far more aware in the spring than when they first came into my class.” It is abundantly clear that many ten-year-olds start to develop newfound sexual feelings. The girls for the most part start to develop them earlier than the boys do, but there are plenty of boys who do as well.
Having said all this, let’s get to the really important things that you should discuss with your nine- and ten-year-old about puberty. You will want to cover as well all the points I stated earlier, but these are the really important ones. I am not separating out the issues specific to either gender. They can now hear changes that are relevant to both genders. You can make the decision about how much you want to focus on the other gender’s changes, but you should certainly go over them with your child.
Body image. Your ten-year-old has likely started some pubertal changes, particularly if she is in the later stages of her tenth year. As her body changes you want to keep her on an even keel with regard to how she perceives herself. So you need to keep coming back to talking points that tell her she is normal; she needs to eat well and exercise regularly; she should be proud of her uniqueness; physical beauty is truly only skin deep; and it’s one’s values and soul that defines a person. Explain to your child why she is lovable and capable, and highlight for her the things she does well. When you compliment your child make sure you explain why you are complimenting her. The goal here is to keep your child as comfortable in her skin as is possible.
Personal hygiene. Work with your child on establishing good habits. Important points to cover are the increase in sweating; bacteria growth on the skin; washing every part of the body every day; washing under one’s foreskin of the penis if uncircumcised; and the connection between facial oil, bacteria, shedding of skin cells, and pimples.
Sexual feelings. Your conversations about understanding and managing them will become more frequent over time. You won’t talk them to death but you will over the next several years want to impress upon your child the major responsibility one has to behave sexually in a healthy and risk-free way. One primary way your child will do that is by moderating his sexual feelings.
Reproduction basics. Elaborate more on the reproductive parts of the body and what happens when a sperm cell meets an egg cell. I’ve found that ten-year-olds love to hear about the whole process. Encourage looking at a book that depicts the internal reproductive parts of a woman and man. Both boys and girls need to be able to visualize how various organs are configured. You can explain the following:
You can compare and contrast these facts:
I hope you can see that covering pubertal changes and reproductive facts is really rather easy. The harder part comes next: discussing and having conversations about sexual relationships, sexual intercourse, and how to actually manage sexual feelings. I will take you through some of the different scripts you can use, along with some examples of authentic instruction.
Age Eight: Introducing a More Detailed Discussion of Sexual Intercourse
What I have to say here is relevant for kids ages eight through ten. I think the concept of sexual intercourse is something that an eight-year-old can handle not only from a cognitive and intellectual standpoint but also from an affective or emotional point of view. For the most part, eight-year-olds still think sex is kind of yucky. They’re getting there but they still are mostly removed from having any interest in sex. “Oh, Dad (or Mom), that’s gross and disgusting” is a comment that you’ll probably hear when you broach the subject. But do not be dismayed; you are continuing to open the door to being a wonderful, approachable parent, and a discussion of sexual intercourse now will lay a strong foundation for the additional information you offer when your child turns nine and ten and beyond.
At eight, children are in third grade and kind of considered part of the upper grades. Their social thinking is starting to develop and as a result some things that are sexual are beginning to pique their interest. But it is still very likely they will think all of it is yucky, or at least pretty weird. Nevertheless, they are capable of digesting the basics of what sexual intercourse is, why people have sexual intercourse, when and under what conditions people should have intercourse, and with whom they should have intercourse. They just don’t want to be overwhelmed with your talk. They are, after all, some time away from actually having to think about having sex.
So what exactly should you say, and when should you say it? Over the next few pages, you’ll read the way I normally answer those questions for parents. You don’t have to treat my words as a script, of course. You can go in a different order or choose different scenarios. These are just suggestions to help you get the conversations going. Good luck!
That First Conversation
There is no particular time or place that you need to consider when initiating your discussion about sexual intercourse. Do establish a level of privacy; don’t attempt it in front of anyone else, except your partner. And don’t attempt it when your kid has a gaming device in his hand or is watching a movie and could become easily distracted.
Don’t worry too much about how you’re going to sound; just be yourself. The key is to get the conversation going; once that happens everything will fall into place. As for the actual words, you can try some variation of this:
“I want to have a really important discussion with you. I hope you know you can talk about anything with me, and that includes sexual stuff. I want to talk to you about sexual intercourse because I love you, and I want to make sure that you get this information from me or your dad (or mom).”
Make sure you’re looking your child squarely in the eyes. Lean in to let him or her know you want to connect, and ensure that your body language signals comfort and reassurance. “Do you remember when I told you that to make a baby the man’s sperm cell and the woman’s egg cell must join together?” Feel free to draw a picture if it helps, and then continue.
“Well, have you ever wondered how those cells get together? It’s like this: The sperm cell gets into the woman’s body when the man puts his penis into the woman’s vagina. It’s called sexual intercourse. The man’s penis becomes stiff or erect and he is able to then put it into the woman’s vagina. And while the penis is in there, sperm cells and a fluid called semen come out of it and the sperm move like crazy toward the egg. It’s a race for them, because whichever cell gets there first is the one that makes the baby.” Turning it into a fun competition at the cellular level may take away some of the discomfort of what you’ve just described, without glossing over it.
Finally, explain that a woman’s body makes one egg cell a month, and, if she has sexual intercourse when the egg cell is released, that’s when she’s most likely to get pregnant.
There, you’ve done it! It wasn’t any harder than explaining the rules of a game. How do you think you did? You may still have a lot of smoothing out to do, but the part you were most worried about is done. Sure, your kid is probably rolling her eyes right about now, or maybe even making some noises indicating her discomfort, but you have just had your first “doing it” talk and nobody burst into flames. This is the first of many, but the first is always the toughest. So take a second to congratulate yourself.
Pay Attention to Your Child’s Response
Notice how your child is doing. Chances are you can keep things going right now. But if she is feeling too uncomfortable, then you can tell her it’s okay to stop for now. Be sure to share how much you care about her, and express how glad you are that you can talk like this. Then all you have to do is say you’ll continue your discussion at another time. Invite your child to bring it up whenever she’s ready.
With eight-year-olds, it’s pretty hard to tell how they’re connecting with some of these sex talks. You’re discussing sexual intercourse, sexual feelings—things they have few reference points for, and reasonably have some difficulty relating to. This is very similar to you telling them about how drugs and cigarettes are bad for them; they’re not there yet in their own lives, so they don’t necessarily get it. But we all know now how important it is to get the drug and smoking message across early in their lives. Well, it’s the same thing with sex. So don’t waste any time worrying about whether you said everything exactly right—be glad that you’ve said it at all.
Sex as More Than Just Baby-Making
Whenever you do come back to discussing intercourse you will want to try to introduce the idea that people have sex for reasons other than just wanting to make a baby. That is, when people have sex they’re basically doing it for enjoyment. Up to now you have discussed sexual intercourse within the context of procreation. But let’s face it: at some point you need to tell your child that most people have sex because, well, it’s a whole lot of fun to do. Eight years of age is not too young to find this out: “There are many adults who have sexual intercourse because they love the person they have sex with. Sex can feel good, it can make you feel closer to the person you love, it can provide incredible satisfaction, and it can make a couple’s relationship better. The bottom line is sex can be fun.”
Wow, telling your eight-year-old that adults have sex for reasons other than making a baby! Now, that’s a big statement and a major step forward. But you have to keep your head and remember that you need to define the context in which intercourse should occur and the values that should be associated with it. This is of course just the beginning of many discussions about intercourse, as you will be lending plenty of guidance on many occasions throughout your child’s teenage years. But you want to provide a foundation right from the get-go that confirms the conditions under which she or he should have sexual intercourse. So you might say, for example, “I firmly believe that you will have a happier life if you wait to have sex until you are an adult and you have found a person you love and who also loves you, someone you can fully trust, someone who respects you and whom you respect.”
This message becomes increasingly important as your child becomes older, because there will be many competing messages and challenges to it. But the idea here is to start early and scaffold or build upon what you teach each time you have a discussion with your child. A child who is only eight is not really going to connect with your discussions of sex as well as he will when he is ten. But by starting now rather than later, you have laid the foundation.
Age eight is also a good time to introduce the idea that HIV can be transmitted through sexual intercourse: “You know how I have talked to you about HIV and AIDS; if a woman has HIV in her body she has lots of it in the wetness inside her vagina. If a man has HIV he has lots of it in his sperm cells and the fluid semen that the sperm cells are in. If a person with HIV has sexual intercourse with another person, HIV can be spread to that person.”
Ages Nine and Ten: Beyond Intercourse
You can begin to discuss much more about sexual behavior when your child gets to nine and ten years of age. You will extend your discussions about sexual intercourse; the role of love, respect, and trust; and when and with whom to have sexual intercourse. You can also begin to talk about the use of a condom, oral and anal intercourse, peer pressure, some basic thoughts about dating, and of course sexual feelings. You will want to make sure to cover the points I made earlier on sexual relationship behavior. Your kid may still think some of this is “yucky” and “gross,” but you’ll likely encounter less of this resistance. As your child gets closer and closer to puberty he will become more and more interested in your discussions about sexual behavior. This is an important fact for you to remember. Your child will really want to hear more about puberty and sexual behavior when he’s ten, eleven, and twelve years of age. If you solidify your role as an approachable mentor during these earlier years you will have it much easier as your child transitions to middle and high school.
What’s It Really Like?
I have found that many nine-year-olds and certainly ten-year-olds have heard quite a bit about sexual intercourse, even if what they’ve learned hasn’t come from their parents. They’re still fairly naive about specifics, but for the most part they know that the penis goes into the vagina. Consequently, they are very inquisitive about exactly how it feels to have intercourse and the actual mechanics that go into it.
You can say to your child, “You know how we’ve discussed what sexual intercourse is, and how people who are in love have sex because it makes them feel closer and it feels good?”
“Yeah,” your child says, very sure that you’re going to have one of your sex talks.
“Well, have you ever wondered exactly what the man and woman do and how it actually feels?” you ask her.
“Ah, well, sort of,” your daughter replies, knowing full well that she’s still going to get a talking-to. (One of the really neat things about being a parent who is approachable on sexual matters is that you always get a familiar here goes Mom [or Dad] again response from your kid. He or she just comes to expect that this is a normal part of being with you, and it’s one of many conversations you have.)
“It’s important for both the man and woman to talk to each other about what feels good and what doesn’t feel so great when they have sex. For example, the woman has to take her time a little at first, because her vagina actually has to widen and lengthen somewhat in order to be able to fit the penis inside her. If that hasn’t happened when the man is ready, she needs to be able to tell him.”
“You mean it wouldn’t fit otherwise?” your daughter asks somewhat incredulously.
“Probably not, and it would certainly hurt somewhat. You see, the vagina also becomes wetter when the woman becomes excited and that takes a little time as well. So the vagina has to change size and become wetter in order for intercourse to be pleasurable.”
“Okay,” your daughter says. “What else would they have to talk about?”
“Well, when the penis is in her vagina the man moves his penis in and out and the woman sort of moves with him. Fast, slow, faster, slower, and sometimes it’s pretty important to talk about what feels better in terms of the speed with which the penis moves in the vagina.”
“I think I’ve heard enough, Mom, thanks.” Your daughter gets up to go to her room.
“Okay, honey, it was nice having this little talk. You know how much I love you.”
“Sure do, Mom. See ya.” And up to her room she goes.
Can you see yourself having this conversation with your daughter or son? Kids this age really do have thoughts about what sex feels like. I’ve had nine- and ten-year-olds ask me many times how sex feels and what the man and woman feel when they have sex. So now is the time to venture into those waters and be approachable on any question about sexual intercourse.
What About Abortion?
You will want to have some discussion with your nine- or ten-year-old child about abortion: “You know, now that I have discussed sexual intercourse with you, it is important that you understand what an abortion is. Abortion is the medical termination or end to a pregnancy. Unfortunately, there are women who become pregnant when they don’t want to be. They have sexual intercourse but don’t want to become pregnant. And, tragically, there are some women who are forced into sex and become pregnant. In the United States today, there are more than one million abortions that occur every year.”5 You will want to discuss your values and beliefs about abortion with your child, and I hope you will encourage her to feel secure in knowing that, irrespective of your beliefs and values, she could come to you should she ever find herself with an unintended pregnancy.
Whether you are talking to your daughter or son, the script is basically the same. You can continue by saying: “Sweetheart, I know I’ve spoken with you about not having sexual intercourse until you are an adult and in a loving, trusting, and respectful relationship. Yet, I need you to understand that I am always here for you. Should you or your partner ever have to face a pregnancy I am here for you. I don’t think anyone ever wants to be faced with the decision of what to do if they or their partner has an unintended pregnancy. You need to learn how to be sexually responsible and avoid unintended pregnancy, and that is why we have our talks about sex.”
Oral and Anal Sex
As you share your thoughts about sexual intercourse—the fact that you expect it to occur in adulthood, when in love, and with total respect and trust with the other person—you can then build in some discussion of different types of sexual intercourse: “Remember that we have talked about sexual intercourse. Well, sometimes adults who are in love will also put their mouth on the other person’s private parts or genitals. The man will sometimes put his mouth on the woman’s vulva and the woman will put her mouth on his penis. This is called oral sex or giving a blow job or giving head. Sometimes the man and woman will have anal intercourse. This is when the man puts his penis in the woman’s rectum or rear end.”
This little talk may bring a “yucky” or two but will be handled just fine by your child. I think most experts would agree that far too many teenagers are engaging in oral sex, not realizing the risks. Not only are there considerable numbers of teens who are engaging in both sexual intercourse and oral sex, but there are teens who have had oral sex as a way to avoid pregnancy or in the mistaken belief that this preserves their virginity. And while anal sex may not be as popular, this behavior nonetheless does occur among some teens and adolescents. I meet a lot of kids who truly believe that oral and anal sex are really not sex and many who think that oral sex is relatively harmless. Many of them believe that you’re still a virgin if you have oral or anal sex. You certainly want to impress upon your nine- and ten-year-old that oral and anal sex are indeed sex:
“It’s real important that you understand that there are a number of kids in middle and high school who are having oral sex. Some are even having anal sex. When you get into middle school you’re going to hear about this and may even be asked or pressured by some people to do it.”
Your son will look at you and say, “Don’t worry, Dad, I’m never gonna do that.”
“Yeah, well, one day you just might. Look, when you’re an adult, having someone you love do that can feel really, really good. I’m not going to lie to you; I’ll bet you’ll want to have it done to you. And giving oral sex is also something that you’ll probably want to do. I just want you to understand that all this stuff is out there and you’re going to have to deal with it at some point. You know how much we’ve talked about waiting until you’re an adult and in love to have sex. Well, that includes oral and anal sex.”
By now your son has probably had enough and is ready to go back to whatever it is he has planned. He may well say, “Yeah, okay, can I go now?” He may well be somewhat embarrassed (and definitely will be if you haven’t already been talking with him about sex). But all of this is ultimately for his benefit, so don’t dismay.
At some point later you’ll be able to pick up the conversation where you left off and make some mention of how anal or oral sex don’t lead to pregnancy but are a way of transmitting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections: “I am so glad we talked the other day about oral and anal sex. I just wanted to say one other thing. Obviously, not having sexual intercourse or oral and anal sex is the best way to avoid getting HIV. But if someone decides to have sexual intercourse of any sort, the next best way to avoid getting HIV is for the man to wear a condom over his penis when he has sex. A condom is made of a material called latex. It comes rolled up in a package and when it is removed it can be rolled onto his penis before he has sexual intercourse or oral or anal sex.”
If you have a daughter your conversations will be basically the same. It’s a simple fact that for heterosexuals there is more girl-to-boy oral sex than there is boy-to-girl (although not a considerable difference), so keep this in mind.
Introducing your nine- and ten-year-old kids to these issues is an important step forward in preparing them for their journey into adolescence. So remember that what you’re doing now gets this wholeconversation going before your daughter or son has to confront anything having to do with oral or anal sex.
How Do Gays and Lesbians Do It?
I get this question often when having these discussions about sex with nine- and ten-year-olds. When I am asked, my answer is rather simple: “Well, they have sex pretty much like a man and a woman. They can have oral sex, and gay men can have anal sex if they choose. Some lesbian women, if they choose, can use a sex toy or dildo that they insert into their vaginas, which is very safe. A dildo is several inches long and kind of looks like a cucumber.” When I say this in a matter-of-fact way, the kids usually aren’t sure how they should react. Most seem rather amazed, others will giggle. I will usually end this talk by saying, “Remember, we must always respect anyone we think is different from us.”
All About Condoms
One day, hopefully not until they become adults, most all of our kids will have sexual intercourse and possibly oral and anal intercourse as well. Irrespective of when they start to have sexual intercourse, they should absolutely use a condom. Even if they have absolute love, respect, and trust in their relationship and their partner is totally honest about not having any sort of sexually transmitted infection, and even if a form of contraception is already being used, it just makes sense to use a condom as an extra level of protection.
Discussing condoms and how to use them will not increase your child’s likelihood of becoming sexually active. I suppose that if you just gave your kid a condom with no meaningful conversation, this could be seen as an invitation to give it a try. But that’s not what you’re going to do, right? If you share with your child your values about when and with whom to have sex and provide meaningful, authentic teaching about making good decisions, simply having a conversation with him about condoms isn’t going to make him go out and try one. It will, however, improve his chances of never having to experience an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.
Yes, Your Kids Are Ready to Learn
My guess is your child will be riveted when you do explain to him how to use a condom. (Your daughter needs to learn this as well. I think she’s too young to learn how to use a female condom, but she needs to be informed about how a male uses a condom.) Whenever I discuss how to use a condom with a group of nine- or ten-year-olds you can hear a pin drop.
Virtually every ten-year-old I have spoken to over the last several years seems to know what a condom is. They have heard that a condom is something a man wears on his penis that captures sperm so that it can’t get a woman pregnant. Fewer of them know that a condom can help stop the spread of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, or that men who have sex with men might use them.
Condoms, Start to Finish
I’ve never liked using a banana or a cucumber to demonstrate how to put a condom on and take it off. I’ve always thought it makes light of a very important subject. I’m all for humor in the sex education classroom, but not when discussing what is such a serious issue as preventing a pregnancy or transmission of HIV. All you really need is a condom and your fingers to demonstrate. So get yourself a condom and let’s show your nine- or ten-year-old how to use one:
“Before I show you how to use a condom I want you to understand that, just like crossing the street or playing tennis, using a condom correctly takes a certain amount of skill. A man or woman can’t just wake up one day and know exactly how to use a condom. It takes some practice to develop the skills that are needed to use a condom correctly.”
Your child will look at you like you’ve lost them a little.
“No, really. There are a number of things that a man needs to do right when using a condom or else it won’t be as effective as it could be in preventing pregnancy or the spread of disease like the HIV virus. So I want you to pay special attention to what I say.
“First, all condoms have an expiration date on the box that they come in. They should not be used past that date. Condoms need to be stored at room temperature and kept out of sunlight or else they can go bad. For HIV protection, they must be made of latex or rubber. There is a variety now that is made of vinyl for people who are allergic to rubber or latex. Some condoms are made from lamb intestines, but only latex and vinyl condoms reduce the spread of HIV. When you open a condom’s package, you will see that the condom is rolled up.” Here you will open the condom package. “Make sure you tear the package at the end or else you could rip the condom.
“Before he can put it on, the man’s penis must be erect and hard. First, the man must figure out which way the condom will be rolled out.” Use your index and middle fingers to determine which way it will roll down. “If the man didn’t do this first and just put the condom up against his penis and started rolling, what would happen if he tried rolling it down the wrong way?”
Using your fingers, show your child that the condom will roll down the penis only one way. Then explain:
“When a man is really sexually excited his penis can leak sperm and semen. This happens before he ejaculates. If the man tried rolling the condom down his penis the wrong way and the tip of the condom touches any sperm or semen that might be leaking from the man’s penis, than there would now be some sperm and semen on the outside of the condom. So if the man turned it around and started rolling it down his penis, the sperm and semen on the outside of the condom could go into his partner’s vagina, rectum, or mouth when he has intercourse.
“The man rolls the condom all the way down over the penis, this way.” Now roll the condom down over your middle and index fingers.
“Now I want you to remember something that may not seem to have too much to do with how to use a condom, but it is very important. That is, when a couple has sex they should keep a light on. Sexual intercourse should happen with the light on! This is because sometimes a condom can rip or actually slide off the man’s penis. And chances are good that he’d never realize it. That’s because it feels virtually the same to have intercourse using a condom as it does when not using a condom. So the only way the man will know if the condom has torn or slipped off is to look periodically at his penis when having sex.
“After the man ejaculates he needs to hold the condom at its base against his penis as he takes his penis out of his partner’s vagina or rectum.” Show how you would hold the base of the condom. “The man does this so no semen spills into his partner’s body. He then should wrap the used condom in tissue paper and throw it into the garbage.”
Your nine- or ten-year-old will likely be amazed at all of this. Of course, you should remind your child about waiting until adulthood to have sex, and the whole love, respect, and trust thing should be mentioned. You should reassure her that you discuss these things because you want her to come to you first with any questions or concerns about sex, and you realize just how important this information for her is as she becomes an adolescent.
Anyone’s Child Could Be Gay or Lesbian
I have discussed some issues that pertain to gays and lesbians already, as I think it’s pretty important to teach your child to have an awareness of homosexuality, as well as to develop tolerance and acceptance for people who are gay or lesbian.
Every parent needs to be open to the possibility that their child is homosexual. Children pick up on the prevailing cultural message that heterosexuality is the norm and homosexuality is not. They also pick up on the many negative attitudes that exist toward homosexuality. So it’s understandably common for gay kids to try to conceal their true sexual orientation. I think that if you work hard at being approachable on all matters sexual, then your child will be comfortable enough at some point to share with you whether or not he or she is gay. You both should understand that as your child enters puberty and travels through adolescence it will become increasingly clear to her whether she is heterosexual or homosexual.
Some parents feel compelled to ask their kids at some point whether they are straight or gay. I personally don’t think it’s such a big deal that you would have to ask. If you are open and approachable, then it is likely she’ll tell you at some point. If you think or sense that she is a lesbian and you want to know, of course you can ask her if you want to. I recommend waiting until she’s in high school. However, try to find opportunities well before then to recount a true story or two about a young gay or lesbian person who struggled with discrimination and how important it would have been for the young person to have gone to her parents for help. There are more than enough true stories about gay and lesbian teens and young adults who have gone through hell because of their sexual orientation. Discussing a story or two with your nine- or ten-year-old and then sharing your perspective as a parent is well advised.
When recounting the story, you could say something like, “I can tell you that if I were her parent I would totally accept and love her whether she was straight, homosexual, or bisexual. I would make sure that my gay son or lesbian daughter would feel safe and secure at all times. This is why I want you to feel totally comfortable coming to me with any, and I mean any, issue concerning sex or anything else that you might be dealing with. Because I love you and will always love you no matter what you do.”
You can also weave in a story or two about young people who are transgender or young people who display their sexuality in ways that are contrary to society’s norms, and the difficulty they have had growing up. (Transgender kids’ gender identity—that is, their view of who they are as male, female, both, or something else—does not match their biological gender that they were born with and in no way is indicative of their particular sexual orientation.) Children whose sexuality doesn’t fit societal norms can be quite varied. The important issue here for our kids is that anyone can express their sexuality in ways they see fit as long as it in no way negatively impacts others.
Seize the Day
Take advantage of teachable moments. They’re more spontaneous, and they often help our children understand things better than one of those formal sit-down talks might, because they happen during the normal course of life.
A Teachable Moment: The TV Show
One way to start a conversation about sexual intercourse, or, for that matter, any other aspect of sexuality, is to use the media as a springboard. Here’s an example: You are watching TV with your eight-year-old and there is a scene where two people meet each other at a bar, have a few drinks, and seem to enjoy each other’s company. Later, as they are getting ready to leave, they decide to go to the woman’s apartment for coffee. Arriving at the apartment, the two engage in friendly talk, the man slides his arm over her shoulder at some point, he leans in and kisses her, they fall back on the couch and start to pull off each other’s clothes … and then the camera pans away and the scene fades to commercial.
You turn to your daughter with an incredulous look and say, “Did you just see what I just saw?”
“Yeah,” she answers, looking up at you.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I think they’re gonna have sex; I mean, they don’t even know each other and they are getting naked and I think they’re gonna have sex.”
“That’s really gross, Dad!”
“Yeah, but what do you really think about it? Do you think two people who just met each other should ever have sex? Really, tell me what you think.”
“I don’t think two people should ever have sex, Dad.”
From her lips to God’s ears, you think. My daughter will never have sex. You then jolt yourself back to reality.
“Well, let me tell you what I think,” you soldier on. “They’re nuts! They don’t know anything about each other, one of them could have HIV or some other disease, and the other could get it. It’s just like how we tell you not to get into a stranger’s car!”
She remains silent, but you can tell she is mulling it over in her mind. “Do you know what other bad things could happen if they don’t know anything about each other?”
“Um, no.” She isn’t entirely comfortable, but she isn’t shutting you down, either.
“The guy could decide to force her or hurt her,” you continue, still maintaining eye contact. “She could become pregnant. Or maybe one of them will decide to never see the other again—which would leave that other person feeling really used.”
“What does feeling used mean?”
Aha! Questions are good! You should always remind yourself to pause often and wait for one—but keep in mind that just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean they don’t still need to know.
“Well,” you answer, “it’s when you share something special with someone, and they don’t appreciate it. If you feel like you’re doing something special, the other person should, too.”
You can see that your daughter is ready to move on from this conversation—she has not only stopped looking you in the eye, but also seems to be looking for a giant “exit” sign to run toward. So you acknowledge that it is okay for her to feel uncomfortable, and wrap it up.
“I can see that’s enough for you,” you say as you smile and nudge her gently. “But I’m so glad we had this talk, sweetheart. I know it’s not easy to hear Dad talk like this, but having sex will be one of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make in life. I want you to know you can come to me or Mom and have a private talk anytime.”
The above example encourages the child to be able to come to mom as well as dad with any concerns. It’s important to highlight here that if you don’t have a partner, identify for your child a trusted adult of the other gender that she can always speak with, perhaps a relative or trusted friend. I recommend this even if you’re a gay or lesbian couple, because hearing from another gender can be important for your child, just for a different perspective.
A Teachable Moment: At the Neighbor’s
Teachable moments can happen anywhere, anytime. Say you’ve just stopped by your neighbor’s home with your eight-year-old son and she is in the middle of an argument with her teenage son after finding him alone with his girlfriend in his bedroom. Now, the polite thing to do would be to cover your kid’s ears, silently slip out the door, and pretend not to have heard anything. And you can still do that! But remember that this is also an opportunity to share your thoughts and values with your child. All parents will confront this issue at some point: at what age do you allow your adolescent to have private time with his or her “friend” in your home? This is a perfect opportunity for discussion: there’s no time like the present to start laying some groundwork on this particular issue.
Once you have some privacy with your child, you can have the conversation go something like this:
“I want to talk with you a little bit about what happened over at the neighbor’s house. She was upset with her son because he had been alone in his bedroom with his girlfriend. Do you know why that might upset his mom?”
Start off by discussing that and then take it a bit further. “I don’t think they were having sex, but I do think that his mom was afraid that they might.”
You’ve set up why there was tension in the other house, now it’s time to communicate how you would feel in a similar situation. “I would also be upset if he was my son, or if it were you at sixteen. I just think a kid that age is too young to be alone with his girlfriend in his bedroom.”
Now tell him why. “My guess is he has probably developed some pretty strong sexual feelings and as a parent I always worry about teenagers being able to control them. You will learn more about sexual feelings when you get older. And you’ll develop them as you go through puberty. Everyone has to learn how to control his or her sexual feelings—and it’s not easy.”
Teachable moments are a wonderful way to explore issues of sex and sexuality that your child soon may face. When we don’t take advantage of teachable moments we miss golden opportunities to reinforce what we as parents believe to be important information or messages that our kids need to learn. So, for example, if your child is listening to a particular song whose lyrics are disrespectful and denigrating to women, and you don’t ask what the child thinks about the lyrics, or how it makes him feel when he hears someone sing about women like that, or whether he thinks that other kids hearing those lyrics think that that’s how girls and women should be treated, then you are missing a great opportunity to help your child reflect on how misguided and demeaning messages about women can be hurtful and dangerous.
Teachable moments can represent both positive and negative messages about sex and sexuality. The positive messages, like a teacher intervening when she sees a form of sexual harassment occurring, or a character in a TV show who refuses to have sex when pressured to do so, can be reinforced with your child by using a few simple reflective questions: “Do you agree with what the teacher did or what the TV character did? Why or why not? If the teacher hadn’t intervened, what else might have happened? How do you think the student being harassed felt? If the TV character had not stood up to the peer pressure she was experiencing, what could happen if she did have sex?” Likewise, if the teachable moment message is negative, like the lyrics in the above example, you will strengthen your child immeasurably by helping him see the destructiveness of such lyrics. Having him explore what it means to celebrate a music artist who makes money and gains fame by singing at the expense of women will help him to develop a responsible insight into the impact the media have on culture and society.
As I’ve said all along, the biggest change of puberty your child will likely grapple with is the development of sexual feelings. Your nine- or ten-year-old is not quite there yet, but now is the perfect time to introduce them to your kids.
Tell your child that if he was in second grade and you asked him what he thought of the girls he’d probably say something like, “Ah, who needs them?” And if there was a fourth- or fifth-grade girl in the room and she was asked what she thought of the boys back in second grade, she too would probably say something similar. But if you were to ask him and perhaps some other fifth- and fourth-grade boys and girls what they think of the opposite sex now, some would say, “Hmm, they’re really not so bad after all.” In fact, some would say that some of those boys or girls are cute or pretty or sexy. There are even some boys who would think other boys are cute and some girls who would think some of the other girls are pretty. You can say, “That is because some kids your age are starting to develop sexual feelings. Many will have heterosexual feelings and some will have homosexual feelings. When you get into middle school these sexual feelings will become stronger and then even more so when you get into high school.
“So let’s pretend for a moment that you are fifteen years old and in tenth grade. What would you say and do if a really gorgeous guy or girl whom you think is nice came onto you? Wanted to kiss you? Or, suppose you actually know this person and you’re pretty sure that he or she has looked at you on a number of occasions, and in fact, you think he or she actually likes you. What would you do?”
My guess is your nine- or ten-year-old will not be keen on the idea of kissing; some will, but most will say, “I wouldn’t kiss her or him.”
But irrespective of what your child tells you, you continue, “Now remember, you’re pretending to be fifteen, so after wanting to kiss you he or she then touches your leg and tries to touch your penis or vagina. What would you say and do?”
Again, I would bet that your child would say, “Nope, not me. I would say, ‘get your hands off me,’ and then I would leave.”
Your job at this point is to highlight for your child that his sexual feelings would be pretty strong at fifteen, much stronger than they are now, and likely would be compelling him to allow the touches to happen:
“I don’t know about that. Your sexual feelings might be really strong at fifteen. Remember, you like this person and they are showing you a lot of affection and I bet it would be tough not to give in. If youcould speak to yourself in the future what would you say to yourself about being in this position?”
AUTHENTIC INSTRUCTION SUGGESTIONS
You want your child to actually give advice to herself in this future scenario. You want her to talk about being strong and not giving in to her sexual feelings. To talk about how she would say no; what she would do if he didn’t want to stop kissing or touching her; what she could have done right after the first kiss and before he touched her. You want her to think of actions she can take to avoid any unwanted sexual contact even though there may be a part of her (her sexual feelings) that enjoys the kissing and the touching.
The key to having authentic discussions with your child around sexual feelings is to focus on things your child can actually do when faced with those feelings. In this example you focused on what your child would say to her future self about a particular life situation she could one day find herself in. See the sidebar for some other possibilities for authentic instruction.
I mentioned earlier the incredible influence that peers can have on our children as they grow and develop into adolescents. It is crucial that as parents we establish ourselves as approachable before our kids hit middle school, because peer group influence will take on a higher level of significance than our kids have had to confront. Just as we did with sexual feelings, we have an obligation to use authentic strategies to help our kids deal with peer pressure situations.
Create for your child a situation where she is already in middle school and some of her peers have been approaching her lately trying to befriend her. One of the leaders of the group comes up to her one day and invites her to a party. She says that she and her other friends decided to invite her because they think she’d be fun to hang with. The leader says there are going to be boys at the party, and some beer and other alcohol, and the best part is that the parents of the kid hosting the party won’t be home. “You do want to come, don’t you?” asks the leader.
Stop there and ask your child what she would do. Remember, you want your nine or ten-year-old to reflect on the consequences of the decision she will make. Should she go or shouldn’t she? If she says no, what will the leader and the others in the group say or do? What if they make fun of her when she says no; how will she handle that? If she goes to the party, what are the possible consequences? These are the sorts of questions that will help your child understand what can happen if she does or doesn’t stand up to negative peer pressure.
AUTHENTIC TEACHING STRATEGIES FOR PEER PRESSURE
Sexual Decision Making
The same strategies you teach your child to use in understanding sexual feelings and dealing with peer pressure can be used for sexual decision making. Having your child practice making decisions in hypothetical sexual situations will help her when she is confronted with similar situations in real life. When I speak to kids in the fourth and fifth grades I always remind them that some of the biggest decisions they will ever make in life concern sex and sexuality. Making the wrong decision could mean the difference between life and death or happiness and despair. You need to convey this sense of urgency to your child. Here are some possible strategies:
We’ve waded into some pretty interesting territory here. Again, it’s all about being an approachable parent. Practicing these decisions in hypothetical situations like this will arm your child to resist some of the nasty and bad things that can come from irresponsible sexual decision making.
QUESTIONS FROM TEN-YEAR-OLDS
To give you some insight into what your ten-year-old may ask about sex and sexuality, I have listed below some of the actual questions ten-year-olds have written anonymously on an index card prior to my visit to their classroom. (An “m” or an “f” indicates whether the question was asked by a male or female student.)
Keep in mind, the kids asked these questions before I came to their class and before they had any sex education at their school. How do you think you would do in answering these questions? We’ve discussed the answers to most of them already somewhere within this book. Also, keep in mind that it is important that you don’t wait for your kids to come to you. Some kids will never come to you with questions, so it’s up to you to get the conversation started and keep it going.
Final Thoughts on Preparing for Puberty
You will want to have had significant conversations about sex and sexuality with your child before he or she enters middle school. If you wait until then to initiate talks about when and with whom to have sex, it will likely be more difficult to influence your child than it would have been if you had started much earlier. Eight, nine, and ten are the perfect ages to begin very important talks about sexual intercourse. This is because it is always much easier to reinforce the concept of abstinence at a time when your young child has no desire to be sexually active. At ten years of age the prevailing desire and expectation among your child and his peer group is to remain chaste until adulthood—if not until death! When we make a sincere effort to reinforce this belief while they themselves still believe it, we have a better chance that our children will remain abstinent the remainder of their adolescent years.