(The Vancouver Sun, August 12, 2002)
Q: I was very interested to read your article last month on why we need to talk to young children about their bodies. I never knew that being honest about this topic was so important when it comes to their safety. But I dont even know where to get started! Do I sit my son down for an hour and spill it all? Do I wait until he asks questions? Are there books that could help?
Saleema: Dont panic! Believe me, you are not the only parent that is stressed out over the birds and the bees. Its not that parents dont want to talk to their children about sexual health, but it can be difficult to know what to say, how much to say and when to say it all. And considering that most of us didnt grow up with openness around the issue, it takes time to learn to be comfortable talking about sexual health with children. This doesnt happen overnight. The good news is that your son is the perfect age to start talking about sexual health because he hasnt learned that it can be an embarrassing topic. He will be excited to learn about his body just like he would be to learn about dinosaurs or spaceships or Barney!
The first thing I suggest you do is grab a copy of Meg Hicklings book More Speaking of Sex: What your children need to know and when they need to know it (Northstone, 1999, ISBN 1-896836-37-2) from the library. This book outlines exactly what your son needs to know about sexual health at each stage of his development, and includes some hilarious stories and comments from kids of all ages. To go with that, here are some tips that will make your job easier:
- Use technical names for the parts of the body. Children need to learn appropriate scientific vocabulary in order to be protected from sexual exploitation.
- Use booksthey keep children interested, and they say everything for you! One of my favorites for preschool-aged children is Where Did I Come From? By Peter Mayle (Lyle Stuart Inc., 1973). It has great cartoons and is also available on video to make your life easier. I also love Whats the Big Secret? ( Little, Brown & Co., 1997). Its by Marc and Laurie Brown, the authors of the Arthur childrens books.
- Tell your son a bit more than you think you should, a bit sooner than you think you should. Everything hes not ready for will just go right over his head. And be prepared to provide this information to him more than once.
- Provide your son with information before he asks. Some children will never ask questions about their bodies, but still need to be educated and protected.
- Remember that you cant tell a child too muchthey only absorb what they need to know at the time.
- Dont panic when your son asks a question! If you cant think of an answer right away, be honest. Explain that you need some time to think about it and will get back to him later (i.e. at bedtime, after dinner). You could even explain to him that you never learned about body science when you were his age so its a bit difficult to talk about. But because its so important that he has information about his body, you are going to do your best to give him honest, scientific responses to his questions.
- Take advantage of teachable moments. Bring up topics naturally, for example, while watching TV or when a friend, relative or pet is pregnant.
- No matter how hard or embarrassing your sons questions are, try not to get mad. Be proud that he is curious about sexual health, and recognize that questions are a great opportunity to provide life-saving information.
- Never lose your sense of humor– enjoy the funny use of words, misunderstandings and questions.
- Practice, practice, practice! If you can rehearse a few key words or phrases (you know, the penis enters the vagina to deliver sperm to the egg ), answering your sons questions on the spot will be much easier. Alice Bell, a good friend and fellow sexual health educator, suggests that parents say penis 50 times every time they vacuum. Just hope your neighbors dont drop by for coffee at the time!