DEL MAR, Calif. — After delivering the "Where do babies come from?" explanation and before grappling with the sexual experimentation of their kids' teen-age years, many parents expect a period when their children's curiosity about sexual matters is temporarily dormant.
According to this theory, pre-adolescents are predominantly interested in developing friends of the same gender. The last thing on their minds is sex.
But that's not the way it was happening in the home of Betsy and Michael Weisman. Piqued by supermarket tabloids, television, or a phrase overheard at school, the Weisman children were coming home with all kinds of questions. What was all this fuss about abortion? Teen sex? Contraception? Friends with children reported receiving the same types of queries.
Looking for some help, Betsy Weisman found plenty of information about where babies come from and volumes on the physical and emotional turbulence of adolescence. But there was almost nothing at all for kids with an intellectual curiosity about a stage they were a few years shy of experiencing.
The Weismans decided to do the research themselves, and the result is "What We Told Our Kids About Sex," a frank guide to 102 questions that pre-adolescent kids ask. The book was published in February by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Besides information on puberty, sexuality, pregnancy, childbirth and venereal disease, which can be learned in a junior high school health class, the Weismans have included material on toxic shock syndrome, adoption, DES children, transsexuality, pornography, AIDS, prostitution and child molestation.
Written in a language that can be read by a child alone or by parents and children together, the book follows a child's thought patterns and was guided somewhat by questions brought home by 13-year-old Ann Weisman, youngest of the couple's three children.
"With a 9-to-12-year-old child, you're talking about activities that happen to other people; this is the easiest time and the best time to talk to them," said Betsy Weisman, a director of the Children's Museum of San Diego. "Most people wait until they're worried about their own kids. Then when they present it to them, it's threatening to them."
Lenore Lowe, community services director for Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside counties, confirmed that there is little published sexual information for this age level, despite the group's estimate that the average child is likely to see 20,000 sex-related images each year on television.
"There isn't a great deal of information out there for the pre-teen-agers. You would really have to go into a bookstore and order special things," she said.
Few Meaningful Talks
In an era when AIDS presents the possibility of a fatal mistake by an uninformed adolescent, parents cannot afford to be embarrassed about discussing sex with their children, said Michael Weisman, an associate professor of medicine at UC San Diego Medical Center. But according to research studies noted in the couple's book, fewer than 20% of parents ever have meaningful discussions about sex with their children.
"I think the most important thing is for the public to know it's OK to talk to your kids, and not to be embarrassed by your kids' questions," said Michael Weisman, who added that his parents "did not have the confidence" to discuss sex with him. "There is a lot of false sophistication that kids appear to have today. And parents are intimidated. But it's not true that kids know a lot of this stuff."
"There's AIDS out there," his wife added. "People are telling you that you have a responsibility; this is life and death. And yet, you're confused. You're a parent, but you're having trouble talking about it."
The book is intended to be completely value-free, but the Weismans would be the last to recommend that such information should be imparted to children without a discussion of the parents' beliefs on these subjects. The first and last chapters urge parents to voice their opinions, whatever their moral persuasion.
The Best Communicators
"We are confident that all parents have their own set of strongly held beliefs and values; but we also believe that these parents alone can communicate these values and beliefs to their kids. The material in this book has to be placed within the context of these individual parental norms," the Weismans wrote in their final chapter.
Despite some arguments to the contrary, the Weismans are convinced that explicit information on sex is not likely to make kids go out and experiment when they get a little older. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York City, several research studies support the position that there is no evidence that sex education leads to earlier sexual activity.