When should I start talking to my daughter about her first period? How much information should I provide my preschooler about the conception, growth, and birth of a new sibling? How come my son thinks he knows so much about the "birds and the bees" and he is only eight years old? The family-rated television show was loaded with sexual innuendoes. Should I have insisted that we turn it off? How carefully should I monitor my children's entertainment in the future?
These are just a few of the common concerns that we parents face as our children interact with a culture that bombards them with sexual messages. Understanding the broader dimensions of sexuality and the roles that family, friends, school, and the media play in influencing children's views of themselves as sexual beings is essential for charting a safe, smooth course through the potential minefields between childhood and adult sexual identity. Many parents wait to address sexual issues until their child enters puberty. Obvious bodily changes in their youngster force some parents to deliver "the talk." Others hope the school will do what they don't want to and are relieved when their child returns home clutching pamphlets handed out during a lecture on sex education.
Moreover, most parents have not had much education in the field of human sexuality themselves. They may have vague memories of awkward speeches by one or the other of their parents; a booklet about a girls' first period, the book about human sexuality tucked in the back of the bookcase; or the week devoted to reproduction in health class. Given this set of circumstances, it is understandable that parents often put off educating their own offspring. Many parents also have beliefs that if they don't talk about sex, their children won't be interested or tempted. But waiting until puberty, or worse yet until your daughter has her first menstrual period, to approach the topic of sexuality is unwise. Sexuality is an important part of the child's life from the moment he or she is born and plays an important role throughout his/her entire life. Providing children with the necessary information that allows them to make informed choices and be the architects of their own lives is the essence of parenting.
Talking about sexuality requires the same communication skills that contribute to healthy relationships in general between parents and children. If parents can cultivate open dialogues with their young children as they explore the topics of sexuality together, this same openness will allow parents to offer advice and guidance as their youngsters approach their teenage years. However, if parents do not begin the process early, the subject of sexuality will feel less natural for both parents and their children, and both may be uncomfortable with this new intimacy and with the sheer magnitude of the issues that must be dealt with in a hurry. But keep in mind that starting late is far better than never starting at all.
As a pediatrician and mother of three children, I, too, have struggled with communication "how-to's," with the various versions of "the birds and the bees," and with the many dimensions of sexuality. The challenge has been difficult. Prior to my oldest daughter's taking health class at school, I casually inquired about the health curriculum. Her answer disturbed me. The curriculum seemed insufficient, to me, and was to be taught by the male gym teacher. Even though he was a nice person, I felt uneasy for my daughter, and I sheepishly volunteered my services. My offer to teach the class was readily accepted, and I felt sudden anxiety as the relieved male teacher showered me with gratitude and handed me the scant curriculum. I faced many hurdles as I prepared to teach the hugely important class about puberty, menstruation and conception. Perhaps my greatest challenge was broadening my own perspective of sexuality. The topic is much more comprehensive than it appears at first glance. Sexuality includes not only the nuts and bolts of human reproduction, but encompasses relationships, values and many life skills as well.
As I taught the health class, I was struck by the students' reluctance to use their family members as resources. Comments such as, "I am too embarrassed to speak to my mom about having my first period," were common; yet these young girl were willing to ask a stranger for answers. There was a chasm between mothers and daughters, between parents and their children. I sensed a need to unite family members in the educative process. This urge led to my establishing a community class for mothers and their daughters during which we reviewed the normal physical and emotional changes of puberty as they both prepared for her first period and all the ups and downs associating this menstruation period.
I discovered that mothers delighted in the opportunity to review the basic physiology of their daughters' bodily changes and were eager to share their concerns with other mothers about the emotional turmoil they experienced with their maturing daughters. Similarly, girls in the class had an opportunity to participate with their mothers, forming a bond, a bridge of communication, during an interactive, educational process. For some families, this class was a start. Although it is best not to wait until puberty to bring up topics like a girl's first period, there is certainly a window of opportunity during these prepubertal years to open the door of communication about sexuality and to share your values with your children. Imagine classes where fathers and sons could share similarly; or, why not a class where both parents attend with their children?