A year after her first period arrived, Miriam Cruz began to wonder what sex was like and how she would know when she was ready. But she hesitated asking her mother. "I was afraid she might think I want to do it," she said.
Miriam was 10, and when she finally found the courage to ask, her mother was surprised. But to the girl's relief, her mother answered without judging her, telling her all girls are different.
Now 13 and aware that some of her classmates in Lennox Middle School are having sex, Miriam said she still wonders, "What kind of girl am I?"
Today's children have grown up in a culture steeped in sex, violence and substance abuse, and yet, a new national poll affirms that they still want more information than they are getting about some of the most serious challenges they will face.
What's more, according to the poll, they need that information much sooner than most parents realize.
According to the survey, 80% of 10- to 12-year-olds want to know more about being safe from violence, 73% want to know how to protect themselves from AIDS, 66% want information about sexually transmitted diseases, and 58% want to know how to deal with pressure to have sex.
Many parents have a false sense of security because they supervise their children or set strict curfews, said Encino pediatrician Dr. Howard Reinstein. But he said, "I'm amazed at what young adolescents do, like having sex in cars, at parties, at the mall."
Released Wednesday, the poll was sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the advocacy group Children Now and the Advertising Council as part of a national, multimillion-dollar campaign, "Talking With Kids About Tough Issues." Through print, television and radio public service ads, and referrals to Boys and Girls Clubs, the campaign aims to encourage and help parents begin talking to children about the toughest issues before they reach the risk-taking, lecture-averse teen years. A free parents' guide is available, and community forums are being developed.
The poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, which interviewed 1,961 parents and children in a national random sample in October. "We've always known parents are uncomfortable, unwilling or unable to talk about some of these tough issues," said Reinstein, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, one of the campaign's consultants. But, he said, the poll clarified the best window of opportunity for these conversations. "The reality is, kids [between age 8 and 12] would like to talk," he said.
But most families wait too long to start sensitive conversations, according to parents interviewed in the survey. The survey noted that 62% of parents of children between 8 and 12 talked to their children about sex, for instance, only when children raised the issue. Less than a third had had specific discussions about handling pressure to have sex, becoming sexually active or how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.
Parents aren't the only ones who squirm when the issues come up at home. Half the children between 10 and 12 told researchers they try to avoid talking with parents about delicate issues. But Reinstein said that if parents start early, "It indicates it's really OK, there's not as much emotional depth charge attached to it. It's just a normal subject for conversation, like crossing the street."
Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., said the campaign sidesteps the political minefield of "family values" and aims simply to encourage families to talk openly about sensitive issues and to give them some tools.
Said Altman: "There's no one way to do it. Every kid is different. Do it in a way that meets your own values. Our bottom line credo is, the only big mistake you can make is never to talk to them at all.
"It's time to get over our national squeamishness to deal with these issues and prepare kids for how to deal with the real world," he added.
The advice in the parents' guide is geared to parents of children younger than 12 and is based on a consensus of about 200 mainstream professionals in child-related fields.
But it stops short of the most controversial parenting issues: whether to base talks on moral or health and safety issues, or whether it's best to instill zero tolerance policies with severe consequences or let children learn from their mistakes. Other studies indicate that the most effective parenting style in preventing risky behaviors is neither harshly authoritarian nor overly lenient.
Other researchers said no studies have shown whether parental conversations can actually reduce such major social problems as youth violence or teenage pregnancy.
Parents' availability is often as much a problem as their reticence or embarrassment, said Boston psychologist Richard Lerner, former editor of the Journal of Research on Adolescence.