But success on this front does not lie with me, or with any pediatrician for that matter. It is best achieved by you: the parent. You need to have The Talk with your kid. And not just once but many times, slowly, over many years. Parents who do it once think it is among the biggest moments of their parenting lives; but when parents do it only once, oftentimes it doesn’t even register with the kids. Literally. When I ask them if they have had The Talk, the one-time-only kids will often deny it. And when their hyperventilating parents remind them about it, they say they simply forgot. Grossly unfair, I know, but it’s true.
The goal of The Talk is not just to teach your sons and daughters to understand what they are getting themselves into physically, with all of its possible consequences, but also (sometimes even more so) to help them understand what they are getting into emotionally. Teenagers fall in love and then suffer heartbreak. They aren’t mini-adults, but they have adult-sized bodies and adult-sized feelings, as well. When parents and kids don’t talk about sex and all that goes along with it, then kids who are sexually active (or who are thinking about becoming sexually active) turn elsewhere for their information and a shoulder to cry on.
Today, more than ever, you want to be that source for your child. When we were growing up, the alternatives to mom and dad were very limited: there was the fast friend who seemed to know a lot about everything (though in hindsight it is clear the information was often wrong) and there was a handful of books or magazines that covered the topic. That was it. Today, we parents are in direct competition with the Internet, a 24-hour anonymous source of graphic over-information. Like the precocious kid from our youth, the web is often flooded with believable but wrong information. But unlike that kid, it’s never unavailable.
I have a 7-year old and a 9-year old at home. They are really different kids, and the ways they process all of this information will be equally different. One is a boy, one is a girl. One is more stoic, the other an emotional puddle. One is curious, while the other is very happy to stay young and not know too much (ironically, that would be the older child). But I do my best to talk openly with them and answer their questions. Right now it’s about basics – seriously, do I really have to go over why you need to take a bath or shower every day again? – but soon enough the subject matter will advance. And I know I will make plenty of errors as I go along, but I also know the more I talk with my kids the less those screw ups will matter. They only make a big impression if you have just one Talk…assuming your kid even remembers it.
Have you started talking to your kids about sex? Let us know in the comments section below!
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Cara Natterson, MD is a board-certified pediatrician, pediatric consultant, and media expert. She is also the author of several books on child health and parenting, including the best-selling American Girl book series, The Care and Keeping of You.