Love Lessons

Everything you need to know about love and sex.

Sex Talks: Timing is Everything

Talk to kids about sex when they're ready to hear it, not when you are.

If you missed reading about the Harvard study published in Pediatrics this week, you missed a small, but important study. The study studied a group of 13 to 17 year olds and asked them about their sex lives, what they had done-and at what age they had done it. Then the researchers asked both the teenagers and their parents what kind of talks they had about sex together. The same questions were asked at three, six and twelve month intervals.

These liberal parents pretty much missed most of the critical sexual moments in their children's lives. Although they wanted to be their children's guide and friend, their kids faced tough situations, such as being pressured to have sex or not knowing how to talk to a partner about wearing a condom, way before their parents ever broached these subjects with them. The majority had never told their daughters about birth control options- and many of these girls were having sex already. A co- author of the study, Dr. Mark Schuster, head of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Boston, chalked up some of the reluctance or late timing of these conversations to the parents discomfort with their children's potential and actual sexuality-and their worry about saying the right thing. As a result, 40% of this sample brought up the issue of their children's sexual life only after their child was already sexually active-and many of them had been through some harrowing experiences.

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This isn't what the parents wanted for their children- it's not what any parents wants. We want them to be safe; we want them to know how to make good choices and manage tricky interpersonal interactions. Most parents want their children to postpone their sexual life until they are at least out of high school- but realistically, that isn't going to happen. It still amazes me how many parents say people should talk to kids having sex in their teens, but insist "not my child"-even when statistically, it has a very good chance indeed of being their child. In fact, long ago, when my kids were in high school, I remember parents telling me their child was not sexually active when I knew their child was having sex. I had been sworn to secrecy, so I suggested to the parent that perhaps their child was sexually active but afraid to talk to them about it- and that perhaps opening a dialogue might put them in a position to get information-and therefore be able to give advice. The parents- to a person- vehemently insisted that wouldn't be necessary.

This kind of denial is unfair to young boys and girls. We have already learned that abstinence education- even abstinence pledges-do not keep the majority of teens abstinent. While good sex education, late development or strong religious commitments may keep a large number of the them virginal until age 17, by age 16 the numbers of teens having sex really ratchets up, it increases significantly by age 17, and gets to about 75-80 percent by age 19. Just when is it safe to assume one will be having talks about sex in time to prepare these teenagers for their sexual attractions, emotions and decision making skills?

The time to start talking about sexuality (at least in general) is when children are toddlers, and the developmentally appropriate talks should continue, right up through young adulthood. If parents are squeamish- and apparently most are- there are terrific parent-child workshops at many Planned Parenthoods across the nation that encourages dialogue between parent and child. No values are preached- just open communication on tough topics.

There are also books to get things going. Am I Normal? is a terrific book for young children, Dr. Shuster, author of the study in Pediatrics, has written a book called Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask) and , immodestly, I have written a book (with Dominick Cappello) called Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children about Sex and Character. There are a lot of other good books on the subject as well- some coming out of distinctly religious frameworks for people who feel most comfortable discussing this issue within a larger ethical and spiritual context. There really are resources for everyone-and our children really need for us to step up, one way or another, and deal with their sexual questions and quandaries.

But this means we have to look at our quite young children and realize they are sexual beings, and they will soon be in sexual situations. This is difficult for all kinds of reason-but just because it's difficult doesn't mean we should avoid facing our duty as our children's protectors and counsel. No one loves them like we do, and they are going to act in ways that often go against our own comfort level and/or values. But when we refuse to acknowledge their sexuality- or tell them that sex is so sinful or so inappropriate that they would rather die than tell us about what they are doing- we often place them in truly dangerous territory.

This study shows what happened when loving well intentioned parents let their kids down. They don't want to- but nonetheless, they are not tuned into an important part of their kid's lives -and without permission and trust between parent and child on this subject- the children suffer. We have to accept that they will be sexual before are we comfortable about it and before they are emotionally mature enough to handle it without our good advice. We need to give them our best information, and our learned wisdom-and we need to do it before it's too late to help them.

Pepper Schwartz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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