Birds and bees make parents squirm

2009-10-24 14:58

MOM, what is sex?”

These four words are enough to make most parents break out in a cold sweat and squirm with embarrassment. But the importance of sex education for children cannot be ignored.

According to Cape Town-based private social worker Joan Campbell: “Many parents of young children feel that sex education is not appropriate at a very young age. Parents fear their children will use their knowledge about sex and participate in sexual play, resulting in promiscuity. But the normal young child lacks a sexual appetite and so lacks the desire to be sexually active.”

The UK government recently – and controversially – announced that children as young as five will receive sex and relationship education lessons in an attempt to cut down on teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Sex and relationship education will be compulsory for all five to 16-year-olds in English state schools under proposals expected to come into force in September next year.

Yet most parents are just not comfortable having this discussion, so children have to rely on information gleaned from friends or television.

Ilze van der Merwe, co-author of the book Easy Answers To Awkward Questions and presenter of the “How and when to tell your kids about the birds and the bees” series of talks at schools, feels very strongly that parents should speak openly to their children.

“We live in a world where our children are exposed to more information than any parent had to deal with when they were younger. Our children are living in a global village and no child is immune to information,” says Van der Merwe.

She adds: “Children are sexual beings and are curious about themselves, their bodies and how things work. If we do not talk to our children, they learn from each other and the information is usually not shared in an appropriate way but rather in a sensational, shocking way.”

Nikki Bush, creative parenting expert and co-author of Easy Answers to Awkward Questions, believes that handling sexuality education with your child is one of the most important connection opportunities between a parent and child.

“If handled well, it will go a long way to building trust, openness and candour which are invaluable relationship qualities in a world where childhood is being increasingly sexualised. Children are encouraged to grow up quicker by marketers.”

She adds that if parents don’t keep up and stay relevant, a characteristic of this generation of children is that they then just disconnect.

“Sexuality education can also be much more fun, humorous and enlightening than parents think.”

Here are answers by Ilze van der Merwe to some of parents’ most frequently asked questions:

What is the appropriate time and age to start sexual education?

“Inform your children when they ask questions or show an interest. Look for teachable moments and be an approachable parent. I believe that it is appropriate for children to be sexually educated by the age of six as the child is by this stage going into the next developmental phase and starting to become more cautious about asking questions.

“The rule of thumb is: a small amount of information for small kids and more for bigger kids.”

My child has never asked a question about sex. How do I talk to my child about sexuality?

“Children ask questions verbally and non-verbally and parents must look for both types of questions. A verbal question is “how are babies born?” and a non-verbal question is when a young child peeps under the dress of a pregnant woman to see why her stomach is so big.

“The wise parent will answer their kids directly and concretely because children have the right to know. Parents can also approach the subject by showing their child photos of when the child was born and use that as a starting point.

“The more relaxed and natural the parent’s approach, the more natural and relaxed the child will be. Children also tend to ask these sorts of questions in the car (where there is no eye contact and the parent cannot disappear) or in a more intimate situation like bath-time. Parents can also read books to their children and use the time they are sharing to give more detailed and personal ­information.”

Do I tell girls about boys and boys about girls and do I tell my children together or separately?

“Boys should know about girls and girls should know about boys as gender is part of life. You can tell your children separately or together. It all depends on the personality and ages of your children.

“If you have a child who is curious and shows more interest in sexual issues and your other child is shy and withdrawn when the topic is raised, the more curious child can make it easier for both parents and the shy child.

“Older children should be given more detail but if your younger child is exposed to the conversation, your younger one will only retain what is appropriate for his or her age and the rest will be lost. The best way to talk is to be open, honest, comfortable and direct.”

About Easy Answers To Awkward Questions

This book is aimed at children aged eight to 13 and answers all the questions that they are usually too uncomfortable to ask.

But this is not just a book about sex education. It teaches children about their rights, what is right and wrong and what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Endorsed by Childline, this book will hopefully make a difference to preventing child abuse in South Africa, equipping children with the knowledge that they need to protect themselves.

Although the book is targeted at children, parents can also use it as a tool to prepare themselves for the all important “where do babies come from” conversation that they will eventually have with their kids.

Lynne Cawood, director of Childline Gauteng, calls it “a wonderful book that demystifies the process of growing up”.
National advocacy and training manager Joan van Niekerk adds: “Children need clear and practical information to help them develop responsible attitudes to their bodies and sexual behaviour.

“Ignorance about adolescence and sexuality creates vulnerability to abuse and exploitation, as well as contributing to low self-esteem and poor self-management. We applaud the simple way in which questions are responded to in this book.”

Easy Answers to Awkward Questions is published by Metz Press

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