BC Parent Magazine
“What’s a condom?” “What’s verbal sex?” “Can I get that AIDS disease?”
Would you know how to answer these questions if your eight to eleven year old asked you (without melting into a puddle of sweat on the floor!)? Even if your child hasn’t asked you yet, it is crucial that he or she is provided with the answers to questions like these early in life, before they even need to ask. By early, I mean that, in order to stay healthy, safe and protected, children should start learning about healthy bodies and healthy sexuality in preschool.
But don’t panic, it’s not too late. Age eight to eleven is an especially important time to provide your children with sexual health information– it may be the last time for a long time they’ll actually listen to anything you have to say! Many children this age are entering puberty, are being exposed to more sex on TV and in magazines, and, believe it or not, some are sexually active. And, sadly, children aged eight to eleven are the most likely to be sexually abused. For these reasons, children must be armed with accurate, life-saving information and taught the skills to make healthy decisions now and in the future. Because children in this age group are very curious about sexual health, they are actually very easy to teach once you build their trust.
Puberty—What To Expect
Even if your child is not going through puberty yet, it’s still a good idea to provide him or her with a few basic facts about this transition. That way, they’ll know what to expect when they do enter puberty, and will understand what their older friends may be talking about.
When discussing puberty, it is helpful to grab those teachable moments to provide information. For example, you could talk about sanitary napkins while unpacking the groceries or when you see one of those silly ads on TV (Your child may know that you can write “always” on them with blue liquid and that they can fly, but what do they really do?!).
During puberty, kids will notice physical changes in their body, such as the growth of breasts and pubic hair. Reassure your son that he is not turning into a girl just because his breasts are growing— they will spread out when his chest expands. Girls should know that it normal to feel lumps behind their nipples during this time. Remind them also that size doesn’t matter!
Children aged eight to eleven (boys as well as girls) should also know about menstruation or “having your period”. There is no need to get caught up in the complexities of how it happens, as long as it is discussed as a clean, healthy process. Provided the girl does not have any infections, the flow is clean. Of course, she must wash her genitals daily, otherwise bacteria can cause the outside flow to have an odor. When a girl begins to menstruate, she may be very irregular. It usually takes 2-4 years to become regular, but some women never do! Reassure your daughter that, for the most part, whatever your body does is healthy for you.
Get In That Shower!
If you’ve ever smelled your sixth grader’s gym strip, you’ll know that hygiene at puberty is also important to address. When kids enter puberty, they begin to perspire much more than they used to. At the same time, they suddenly develop an aversion to soap and water! Explain to your child that when perspiration comes out of the body, it is clean and odorless. Within seconds, though, bacteria from all over the Lower Mainland come and take up residence in your sweat. Bacteria stink, so we need to wash it off everyday. Just putting deodorant on top won’t do the trick—that will just glue the bacteria to our skin! Remind your child to wash his or her genitals everyday, too.
Testicular Cancer: Scary, but Treatable
Sadly, testicular cancer is now on of the leading causes of death among 14-35 year old men. The good news, however, is that it can easily be treated as long as it is found in the early stages. For this reason, young boys need to learn how to examine their testicles weekly. Teach your son (and husband, partner, dad, brother…!) how to run his thumb and two fingers around his testicles weekly. They should feel like two peeled, boiled eggs, with one being slightly bigger than the other. Stress to your son that if he feels any bumps, even if it is only as big as a grain of sand, he needs to tell you right away so he can go to the doctor. Nine times out of ten it will be nothing, but don’t take the chance!
A Distorted Reality
Girls and boys as young as six have been found to become so obsessed with their body weight and how they look that they diet or simply refuse to eat. Please be sure that your own hang-ups with your body and eating habits don’t set an unhealthy example for your child. Reassure him or her that they are loved for who they are, not for what they look like. Children at this age are also very sensitive to the popular, commercialized view of the “perfect body”. Tell your child that pictures in magazines are often manipulated to look more appealing to readers—they don’t represent reality.
“That AIDS Disease”
Pre-teens often hear about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases on TV, in movies and in adult conversations. As a result, they have a lot of misinformation and even more questions. What children really want to know at this age is “Am I in danger?”. Stress to your child that there are only two ways one can get AIDS: through unprotected sex with an infected person, or through sharing needles with an infected intravenous drug user. Because your child is not engaging in these behaviors, he or she is not as risk. Years ago, before we knew about the HIV virus and AIDS, it was possible to become infected through blood transfusions. Today, all blood is thoroughly tested, so children shouldn’t worry. Children also hear that babies are born with the HIV virus. Reassure your child these babies are born to a mother with HIV, and since you were not infected when he or she was conceived, there is nothing to worry about.
Children find used condoms everywhere—in parks, on the playground, at the beach, and in the street. No matter how appealing they look, they should know never to pick them up. If they see one, they should tell an adult right away who will dispose of it safely. Try not to be too negative about condoms– they are just like tissues. They are clean and healthy when you buy them at the store, and they help stop the spread of germs from one person to another, but children don’t pick up dirty tissues off the ground, so they shouldn’t pick up condoms either.
Of course, you should also stress to your pre-teen that condoms don’t always work and that just because they may be available in machines at school, that doesn’t mean that it’s OK for them to be having sex.
Warning: Smoking May Damage Your Penis!
Because pre-teens often have easy access to cigarettes, young boys need to know that smoking over the long-term can do damage to their penis. Young girls also need to understand that, over time, the nicotine in cigarettes can do critical damage to their ovaries and their fertility. This information usually falls on deaf ears—magazine ads featuring pretty, sophisticated, thin girls smoking smokeless cigarettes don’t help, either! Sadly though, teenage girls are the fastest growing group of smokers. And smoking adults usually report having their first cigarette as early as age 11. Our children must be aware of the dangers of smoking before it’s too late.
TIPS FOR TALKING TO YOUR 8-11 YEAR OLD
1) Use books– they keep children interested, and they say everything for you!
2) Hold them captive– at least once a year, take a road trip to Squamish or Seattle. This is a great opportunity to provide information—they’re in the back seat so you don’t have to look at each other, and they can’t escape!
3) Take advantage of teachable moments—bring up topics naturally while watching TV or reading a newspaper article.
4) Never lose your sense of humor—enjoy the funny use of words, the mispronounciations, and questions.
5) Never be mad– No matter how hard or embarrassing your child’s questions are, be proud that he or she is curious about sexual health. Questions are a wonderful opportunity to provide life-saving information.
Speaking of Sex: Are You Ready To Answer the Questions Your Children Will Ask? by Meg Hickling (Northstone, 1996)
–an invaluable book for parents with children of all ages.
(or, try Meg’s website at http://www.hammeria.com/meg)
It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris (Candlewick Press, 1994)
–a comprehensive, light-hearted book about puberty for children aged 8 and up.
The New Our Bodies, Ourselves by The Boston Women’s Health Collective (Touchstone, 1992)
–a great reference for pre-teen girls to help answer questions as they arise.
Saleema Noon educates parent, youth, community and school groups throughout B.C. on matters of sexual health. She can be reached at (604) 418-9417.