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The Sooner Kids Understand Sex, the Better--for Them and You

September 11, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last year, 7-year-old Zack Mayeda of Encinitas gathered books detailing the lives and habits of pachyderms for a school report. But one photograph, which showed a male elephant with a curved penis that was about as obvious as the elephant's leg, gave the boy pause.

Dawn Mayeda waited while her son read the caption, which dryly stated that the penis was curved to facilitate entry into a female elephant's vagina.

"He knew the word vagina because we had always used anatomical words for body parts," recounted Mayeda. "He asked, 'Does that mean the penis goes into the vagina?' I said, 'Well, yeah.' He said, 'Why does it do that?' I said, 'That is how you make babies. The female has the egg, and the male has to fertilize it.' "

He pondered the photo incredulously. "Is that how it works for all animals?" he asked. "Yes," his mother replied.

"People too?"

"Yes."

He burst out laughing. "You and daddy too?"

"Uh-huh."

After he stopped laughing, his mother quietly advised him not to share the information with everyone. And that was that.

How and when parents begin to talk to their children about sex varies based on many factors. Sex educators advise parents to start early, paving the way by using correct anatomical names and offering facts about human sexuality in the toddler years and throughout a child's life.

"My personal philosophy is that there is not an exact science as to when to talk about it or how," said sex educator JoAnne Owens-Nauslar, director of professional development for the American School Health Assn., founded by a pediatrician to advocate children's health education in schools. "People always ask, 'When should I be ready to talk about it?' I say, 'You better be ready by age 2.' The sooner we give correct information and terms, the more stable and comfortable kids will be with their own sexuality and their own body."

The first opportunity often arrives in the form of a pregnant woman, which prompts many children to say something like: "Look, she has a baby in her tummy." This is a teachable moment. "You can say, 'Actually, the baby is in a special place in a woman where a baby grows--called a uterus, which is pretty close to the tummy,' " suggested Owens-Nauslar.

Conversations about sexuality are easier when a child asks, or when a situation, such as the elephant photograph, prompts a chat. Sex educators admonish parents against waiting until their children bring up the subject, as that may never happen. Parents' feelings of discomfort about their own sexuality can also be an obstacle. "It is all right to be uncomfortable, but it is not all right to let being uncomfortable keep a parent from addressing these very important topics," said Ellen Rosenberg, sex educator and author of "Get a Clue! A Parents' Guide to Understanding and Communicating With Your Preteen" (Henry Holt, 1999).

It is important to share information on what changes will take place in a child, she says, before the child begins to experience them. That helps diminish anxiety and embarrassment, emotions that erupt as a child's body matures.

Human sexuality films, which are often shown at school in the fifth or sixth grade, provide facts, but parents should try to engage children in discussions about sexuality, even if they have to trap them in the car to do it, said Rosenberg.

After one of Kerry Cline's three sons saw "the film" in fifth grade, she asked her son and his friend if they had any questions. "They said, 'No, no,' " said Cline of Santa Monica. "Later, I said to my son, 'I know that things are starting to happen and your body is changing. Maybe you don't want to talk to me about it, but do you want to talk to your dad?' It was, 'No, no, no.' "

When a child won't talk, Rosenberg suggests posing an open-ended question: "What were your feelings when you saw the movie? How did the kids react?"

The opposite of the taciturn teen is one so comfortable with his or her parents that no topic is taboo. One Redondo Beach father of two girls, 15 and 12, said he and his wife have always talked openly about human sexuality. His older daughter has come to him and said such things as: "Hey, Dad. Have you ever had oral sex?"

"When she asked me about oral sex, first my Coke went up my nose," said the dad. "Then I said, 'Obviously, you have heard about oral sex from your friends. It exists; you can imagine what it is. I don't think you need to worry about it.' "

The father understood his daughter's question as an inquiry on whether he was savvy about oral sex.

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