Parents can’t avoid sex ed, but they can help control it

The final of eight excerpts from the new book Letting Go with Love and Confidence.

TV, movies, peers and the Internet guarantee that you will not be able to shield your child from sex education. Your only choice is to be certain that your child also gets accurate information infused with your values.

Part eight of eight.

Excerpted from the new book Letting Go with Love and Confidence.

Your child has already had enormous exposure to sex “education.” TV shows are filled with titillation and implied intercourse but portray little of the emotional complexity and consequences that accompany sex, and nearly nothing about sexuality in the broader sense.

Peers teach freely about sex; they know it all or pretend they do. But their messages are sometimes steeped in spoken or unspoken pressures and often filled with misinformation.

The Internet offers sex education only a click away, but just a small portion is professionally written, factual, and developmentally appropriate.

The point is you really don’t have a choice about shielding your child from education about sex. The choice you make with your personal involvement is to be certain that your child will receive accurate information infused with your values.

Some parents worry that discussing sexuality will signal to their teen that they think the time is right to have sex or that teaching young people about protection implies permission to have intercourse. Research demonstrates that adolescents who have talked with their parents about sex are more likely to postpone sex, to talk to their parents about sex when they do have it, and to use birth control.

Our message as parents should be clear: “Sexuality is a wonderful part of being human, and sex is a physical way of sharing intimacy with another person. It also brings the greatest imaginable gift, the joy of parenthood. But sex also can have serious consequences, including sexually transmitted infections and a baby before your life is on track and you are ready to give parenthood your all. Because sex is a way of deeply sharing yourself with another person, it also sets you up to be emotionally hurt because you weren’t yet ready to be close to that person. For these reasons, I don’t believe you are ready to have sex while you are a teenager. But one day you will be ready, so I think it’s important you learn how to protect yourself from diseases and unplanned pregnancy. Most important, I want to be able to discuss with you my thoughts on building healthy relationships.”

This message holds teens to the highest of expectations. It says that we expect them to be informed, think critically, and use good judgment. It tells them that we want them to think of sex as an act of intimacy in the context of a caring relationship, rather than only a physical act of pleasure.

Some points to consider

You won’t have to resort to The Big Talk on the eve of puberty if you’ve talked all along about sexuality—healthy relationships, respect and commitment.

Rather than harping on the dangers of sex, talk about the emotional advantages of delaying sex.

Talk about the fact that sexuality involves a range of feelings and intimacy involves a range of behaviors. Do not belittle butterflies, holding hands, or kissing as puppy love. Those are real entries into sexuality, and they should be acknowledged as a big deal.

When you talk about safety, make sure you’re not just focusing on dire outcomes like HIV or pregnancy, but also on the very real challenges to emotional safety.

Teach your child how to say no with conviction. Adolescents especially must understand that ambivalent messages like “well, maybe, but I’d rather not” lead to a loss of control.

Discussion Point: Can you share your ideas on how to talk with kids about sex?

—Excerpted with permission and edited from Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century (Avery, 2011). 

Ginsburg_77x77Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., M.S.Ed., is a pediatrician and researcher specializing in adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Regularly voted a “Top Doc” by Philadelphia magazine, he also serves homeless and marginalized youth as the Director of Health Services at Covenant House Pennsylvania. He talks around the country on the importance of cultivating resilience in children so that they can thrive in a complex world. He is an advisor to the U.S. military, providing strategies to help families cope with a loved one’s deployment. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two teenage daughters.

Fitzgerald_77x77Susan FitzGerald is an award-winning journalist with a specialty in children’s health issues. A former staff writer and editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, she now works as an independent writer and editor and teaches health writing in the graduate Writing Studies Program at St. Joseph’s University. She and her husband have three sons.

Author Susan FitzGerald will be available to answer your questions during a live Web chat at noon on Thursday, Oct. 6, on NewsWorks.org.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.