Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Let's Talk

Over the past week I have been chatting with lots of mothers of eight year olds. I got together with my playground buddies from the days when PT was a toddler, and it was so fun to reconnect. With moves and homeschooling it has been a very long time since I have had friends with kids just the same age as mine, and it was amazing that we fell right into the same fellowship that really got me through my time as a grad school wife.

There was one aspect of the conversation that really got me thinking. Several friends shared that they have had a basic "sex talk" with their child over the past year. I was surprised -- seven and eight strike me as very young for this. The great advice I got was this:

--You want to begin a conversation, make it clear that they can come to you at any time with questions about what they are learning in school, from friends and in health class

--You want to be calm and straightforward, matter of fact and unflustered, so that they will not be embarrassed to come to you with further questions

--You want to get it started early since they will be hearing things on the school ground before you know it

--Both parents should participate

Now, we have had a basic anatomy of male/female conversation because of an awkward page in a children's encyclopedia, but I have to admit that I was taken off gaurd and I clammed up when asked about the how/why. I said that it was for married people, not sure if that was the right answer, but it was the best that I could do in the moment. I also then carefully removed that page from the book, which was probably not the best way to promote further dialogue!

I am thinking that I may need to re-introduce this subject soon, perhaps with a good children's book on the subject to aid me in keeping calm.

For years I have been praying for the physical strength to meet the needs of my young children, and my days were demanding and exhausting. I am beginning to realize that we are entering a new territory now where the emotional and intellectual strength needed is going to be much greater, and I have to admit that I don't feel up to the task. I am going to take it to prayer, but I wonder whether you more experienced mothers might have any resources to recommend for the school age/pre teen parenting issues? At what age do you think that it is appropriate to have these conversations? What, if anything, do you know about what is being taught in school and when?

When my mom was in middle school, the scandalous "f" word started being whispered on the playground. The boys seemed to know that it meant something, and the girls were curious, so my poor mom was elected to go and ask a boy what it meant. With great embarrassment, a boy said "you know where boys go to the bathroom? You know where girls go to the bathroom? It's when a boy goes in there." My mother went back and innocently reported to the girls that the "f" word meant that a boy goes into the girls bathroom! So much for what you hear on the playground!

On the subject of beginning a conversation, I also wanted to share this Top Ten list from Father's For Good, which I think would open dialogue on several important subjects.


Young Mom said...

You did a great job starting with "its for married people" my mom told me the same thing and it really stuck with me.
As someone who grew up in a conservative home where I had one "talk" at 10 years old and that was it, on thing I would reccomend, is having multiple "talks". I don't think I understood everything that my mom was trying to tell me at the time, Even though I was at 3 of my moms births I still didn't know what sex actually was until I was 16 and was so curious what everyone was talking about I went to the library and looked it up for myself!
So, what someone can understand at 10 isn't what you might need to know at 16. I realize that its embarrassing to talk about, but it is important, you are the only one who can shape your childs view of sexuality in a healthy way, and teach them correct boundries.
I am planning on starting to talk about sexual things at an earlier age since I feel its important to help protect them from sexual abuse.
So, just a rememinder that you might need to have "the talk" mulitiple times, hopefully to the point that your children will be comfortable about talking about it with you, and be able to ask you their questions.
I don't have any books to reccomend, since I am still looking for some myself.

JMB said...

This is probably pretty old school but in our house, dh handles the boy and I handle the girls. I'm not going to do what my parents did and freak out my kids (which is what happened to me) by revealing too much information at too young of an age. I have allowed them to view the health dvd at school in 5th grade. I previewed it and it was fine. My 12 yr old dd knows about menstruation. But I take it on a question by question basis with the girls.

B-Mama said...

I have been surprised to face this issue lately with my oldest (almost 5) as he's asking how the baby got into my tummy to grow. What a great question!! I have been answering that God put it there with the help of mommy and daddy. Am I saying too little? I SO don't want to go down that road yet. He's only 5!!

I just received the recommendation of a book entitled "Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens" by Paul David Tripp. I have not had the chance to look at it, but apparently it offers great wisdom for parenting all ages, not just teens. Maybe there's some good advice in there?

Right Said Red said...

I think the "it's for married people" response was good, especially at his age. I agree with Young Mom, it is important that "the talk" isn't just a one time event, but an ongoing discussion readdressing the issues as the child grows up and can understand more. Introducing the topic is important, and can start at an early age when you discuss the differences between boys and girls and the different parts of their body. Since you have had so many children, your boys already understand so much about a female body and how it grows and nurtures a baby--and this is some of the best early sex ed they can get! When I was pregnant we did a unit on how a baby grows inside a mommy and the kids loved it. I skipped the very beginning (sperm and egg) because I didn't think they were old enough for it. If we have another baby in a couple of years, I may use that time as an opportunity to go more in depth about the whole process. I think it is important that "sex talk" is done in the context of babies--it centers everything on the beauty and mystery of creation, and makes everyone feel a lot more comfortable.

In general, I think we should only give children enough information to answer their questions. Often parents make the mistake of giving too much information, and this can create confusion in the child. I think introducing some very basic information and then asking them if they have questions is a good way to start.

Family Foundations magazine had a good discussion a year or so ago about discussing sex with our children. Many families shared their approach, and I was amazed at how much variety there was, and yet how each seemed like a loving and good way to handle the topic! Overall though, they gave the great advice of Young Mom above, that it should be an ongoing discussion, giving information on a need to know and age appropriate basis. Having just one talk makes it seem as though talking about sex makes mom or dad uncomfortable, and on a practical level the child will want to know more as the years pass.

In general, since you homeschool, your children will be more sheltered than other kids their age, and you can wait a little bit longer than other parents. I will say though, that while talking about sex makes us uncomfortable, I have been amazed at how comfortable my children are with discussing things like the differences in the bodies of men and women, what a womens breasts are for, etc. We have always talked about these things in the context of family life and babies, and they seem to really get it. So there is something to be said for talking about it at a young age, and being matter of fact and straightforward, and then the kids seem to just think nothing of it.

One simple book recommendation: Usborne Body Parts book. It has really great cartoon like drawings of inside our bodies (it covers the digestive system, the senses etc), and goes through how a baby is conceived and born (it starts with sperm and egg coming together). I think this would be a great starter book for a child over the age of 7, and again it begins with talking about babies, which is really what sex is all about! If the kids has more questions about how the sperm gets in the mom's body, you can go from there--and then you are following your child's lead.

Karen said...

We like to use a curriculum by Generations of Virtue which starts at preschool and goes to high school. It helps because it addresses the topics gradually and gives you guidance of what is too much. It uses books and is a low maintenance as far as work.

They have books listed on their website.

Elena said...

Mary-Alice, I would hesitate about talking about actual sex at such a young age. If I were you, I would google "Age of Latency" and see what the Church has to say (which is quite a bit). I can't remember the actual document but I read through it a couple of years ago when encountered with a sex-ed program in my twins' junior kindergarten class. I think it is from the Pontifical Institute for the Family. It is very specific about talking about sex within the family and always in the context of pregnancy and new babies. Also, it opened my eyes to the idea of the age of latency and that we should not awaken our kids awareness of such issues until they have reached the correct age (which is a lot older than we think). Count your blessings that they are homeschooled as you can be the one who decides when it is time for your littles to learn about the birds and the bees.

Mary Alice said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Elena, I am going to check that out, but that seems to back up my gut response which was to preserve the natural innocence as long as possible.

JMB said...

I am interested in learning more about this idea of latency. I was only 8 when my parents told me and my brother and sister about the birds & the bees. In my 8 year old mind, I thought that married couples only did it to have a baby, and the number of children that they had equaled the number of times that they did it. Imagine my embarrassment when I counted all the number of children in our friends & relatives families and we had the most. I was just horrified. I thought something was wrong with my parents (we had 7 kids at the time, the 8th came a few years later).
It seems kind of funny now, but I think sometimes adults over estimate what a child can intellectually handle. The other more subtle and serious part of the equation, is that some children (teenagers), even if they "know" the truth about sex and procreation, will engage in the behavior anyway. Just knowing isn't enough. We are sinful by nature and all struggle with some grave type of sin throughout our lives. (pride, vanity, sensuality)

Anonymous said...

Here are links to the Vatican documents for guidance in this area:

The first document, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family is really amazing. This document discusses the Catholic understanding of the meaning of human sexuality and how it relates to different vocations. It also provides some insights as to the different stages of development for children, and when and how parents should teach their children about this sensitive topic. I found this document really fascinating because it showed me what an important role parents play in the education of their children with regard to the gift of human sexuality.

The second, Educational Guidance in Human Love, was prepared by the Sacred Congregation for Human Education. I have not thoroughly read through this document yet, but it seems closely connected with the previous document. It says that it's goal is to "present to educators some fundamental guidelines for sex education and for the conditions and mode of presenting it at the operative level."

I have an 8 year old boy, too, and am grateful for this discussion!

God bless,

Right Said Red said...

This is great stuff from the Vatican docs:

"Parents should provide this information with great delicacy, but clearly and at the appropriate time. Parents are well aware that their children must be treated in a personalized way, according to the personal conditions of their physiological and psychological development, and taking into due consideration the cultural environment of life and the adolescent's daily experience. In order to evaluate properly what they should say to each child, it is very important that parents first of all seek light from the Lord in prayer and that they discuss this together so that their words will be neither too explicit nor too vague. Giving too many details to children is counterproductive. But delaying the first information for too long is imprudent, because every human person has natural curiosity in this regard and, sooner or later, everyone begins to ask themselves questions, especially in cultures where too much can be seen, even in public.

76. In general, the first sexual information to be given to a small child does not deal with genital sexuality, but rather with pregnancy and the birth of a brother or sister. The child's natural curiosity is stimulated, for example, when it sees the signs of pregnancy in its mother and experiences waiting for a baby. Parents can take advantage of this happy experience in order to communicate some simple facts about pregnancy, but always in the deepest context of wonder at the creative work of God, who wants the new life he has given to be cared for in the mother's body, near her heart."

..."It can be said that a child is in the stage described in John Paul II's words as "the years of innocence" from about five years of age until puberty — the beginning of which can be set at the first signs of changes in the boy or girl's body (the visible effect of an increased production of sexual hormones). This period of tranquility and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex. During those years, before any physical sexual development is evident, it is normal for the child's interests to turn to other aspects of life. The rudimentary instinctive sexuality of very small children has disappeared. Boys and girls of this age are not particularly interested in sexual problems, and they prefer to associate with children of their own sex. So as not to disturb this important natural phase of growth, parents will recognize that prudent formation in chaste love during this period should be indirect, in preparation for puberty, when direct information will be necessary."...

..."A further problem arises when children receive premature sex information from the mass media or from their peers who have been led astray or received premature sex education. In this case, parents will have to begin to give carefully limited sexual information, usually to correct immoral and erroneous information or to control obscene language."

The document goes on to talk more specifically about age appropriate information. It is a must read MaryAlice! Great link!!!

Mary Alice said...

Amazing quotes and resources, ladies, I knew I could count on crowd sourcing to clear this up for me.

Also, on a deeply personal note, these women were all members of the same church (not Catholic) and seemed to be getting much of their advice, either explicit or just by word of mouth, through the church community. I was beginning to wonder why our church doesn't give us the answers to tough questions like this -- I am glad to learn here that she does, in her wisdom. These sorts of documents are not known widely enough and I am so thankful that you have brought them to our attention. As heirs to the truth of Christ, the Apostolic succession and the beauty of the Eucharist, we need to learn from other Christian faiths to do a better job of forming a community for fellowship and education of ourselves and our children. The structure is there through the Catholic Charities system, Catholic Relief Services for international work, the parish and parochial school system, but in large part becuase we have finally been fully integrated into the community many of us are no longer participating in Catholic social, education and charitable organizations, or perhaps becuase those groups have strayed from their purposes. It is time to take them back and build a community for the next generation, perhaps this is a seperate post, but I can't help but think about it.

Elena said...

JMB, I couldn't help but laugh at your post about number of children equalling number of times parents have had sex. I always thought that most babies were born in the middle of the night because that's when they were conceived! In other words, I thought that a baby was born exactly nine months after its hour of conception. Funny, mine (except the twins who were induced) have all been born in the early evening!

Jennifer Frey said...

Dear Mary Alice,

You write:

"As heirs to the truth of Christ, the Apostolic succession and the beauty of the Eucharist, we need to learn from other Christian faiths to do a better job of forming a community for fellowship and education of ourselves and our children. The structure is there through the Catholic Charities system, Catholic Relief Services for international work, the parish and parochial school system, but in large part becuase we have finally been fully integrated into the community many of us are no longer participating in Catholic social, education and charitable organizations, or perhaps because those groups have strayed from their purposes."

You are on to something here. I too have been frustrated by the lack of community in Catholic Churches, and I think it is one of the main reasons that people leave for evangelical Churches or participate so little in their own Church. Though this is no doubt the topic for another post, I think the best thing you can do with that frustration is try to become more involved in your own Parish Church. Though the problem isn't local, I think the solution is.

Also, many thanks for the links provided here.

Tima said...

I think you did a great job and you already have some great advice here. Like you I am not sure my 7 year old is ready for this conversation, so your post has given me something to think about and consider.
I refer to this website for some resources on talking to my boys:
God Bless

Jen said...

In addition to the beautiful documents produced by the Church, you may find a book from The Medical Institute helpful as it provides you with some straight-forward answers from a scientific/biological perspective. The title is Questions Kids Ask about Sex: Honest Answers for Every Age. I worked at MI when it was developed and have kept a copy on my bookshelf for when the time comes. Thank you for giving me a reason to be grateful that everyone in our house is too young for that talk still!

Mary Alice said...

Jennifer, I think you are totally right about the local solution of getting more involved, it can solve my immediate concerns and, if we all do it, may even begin to impact the broader issue. Thanks for the advice.

Karen E. said...

You already received references to lots of great documents -- I'll just add that I think the age of latency is so important. And while it's true that kids who attend school might hear more "facts" earlier than homeschooled kids, it's still possible to work diligently at preserving innocence.

I think the most important information I was able to transmit to my daughters was that sex is sacred. God designed it, God is part of it, and God approves of it, within His parameters.

And I have always followed the "Answer only the questions they ask" philosophy and in doing so, I seem to provide the amount of information for which they're ready. I think 7 and 8 is far too young for physical detail. They really are happy to accept that "God blesses families with babies," and even when they are a little older, the phrase "a special hug" can go a long way. :)

TheFiveDays said...

My three are all still pretty young so I haven't had to bridge this yet...but I am really dreading it with my oldest. He is 6 now and has autism. I really am not sure how and when to explain it to him since it will have to be done differently than with a typical child. After that, the others will probably be easy!

Catherine said...

Here's a book recommendation:

Mommy, Daddy, Where do Babies Come From? (Wonderful World of True Love) by Grace Ayad & Richard Panzer

We have young children (6 & under), and right now the main thing I do is talk about their bodies using correct terminology in a positive way. I remember a Dr. Sears book talking about the way we respond to poopy diapers setting the stage for sex education. Do we say, "Oh a yucky dirty diaper!" or "I'm so glad you have a wonderful body that works so well." It opened me to the idea that parents influence children's body image and understanding of sexuality from the very beginning.