It’s one of the best and most honorable questions a man can ask: How do I talk to my child about sex?
Fathers regularly ask me how they can get involved with sex education. They actually want to be that resource for their children, and they need to be; children want them to be.
But talking about sex isn't always easy for parents. So how do you get started?
Quite frankly, a column can’t do this topic justice. So to start, moms and dads should read a great book on this topic, such as Debra Haffner’s "From Diapers to Dating." But in a nutshell, parents need to do the following to create a supportive climate for their children to learn about sexuality.
1. Face yourself first.
We all have values, attitudes and beliefs when it comes to sexuality, but have you ever taken the time to really examine yours?
You need to know where you stand on such matters and, most importantly, why. Your kids want to know where you are coming from. It’s one thing to deliver a fact or to state "don’t do this" or "I want you to do that." But the information you transmit is going to have a much greater impact when you can explain to your child where you’re coming from.
2. Scrutinize your personal life.
Don’t underestimate the impact your personal life can have on your child, for better or for worse. Your child is not immune to your romantic relationship(s) and is picking up on your attitude and behavior — whether you’re partnered or single. So model the behavior you want instilled in your child. Seek to have a healthy relationship that your child will want to mirror.
3. Be prepared.
One of the most common comments you’ll hear from parents when it comes to their child’s sex education is, "I wasn’t expecting that!" So expect everything. Your child may ask a question anytime, anywhere — including in public. Don’t let a lack of preparation foil your efforts. Utilize your resources. Acquire factual information from reliable sources. The more you know about a subject, the more comfortable you will feel discussing it.
4. Always use proper terminology and establish a common language.
Define your terms so that you and your child understand one another. You need to make sure that you’re speaking the same language. You must be explicit about the meanings of words such as "sex," "virginity" and "abstinence." For example, some teens have been known to claim they're virgins even though they engage in anal sex.
5. Never avoid answering a question.
When parents get caught off guard by sex questions, they often laugh, change the subject or simply say, "What?"
When you avoid the question, you are missing opportunities to educate. If you don’t know the answer, say so — and offer to look into the matter. Then follow up. Remember that if someone is old enough to ask, he or she is old enough to hear the correct answer and to learn the correct word(s).
6. Be proactive.
Don’t wait for your child to come to you. Create a time to talk in a supportive environment. Many children will never ask questions. You can’t risk letting your child go uninformed.
7. Take advantage of "teachable moments."
You will have plenty of chances to talk about sex if you recognize them. Examples of situations that can springboard you into conversation include watching a TV show, bath times or seeing a pregnant woman. Conversation openers can be as easy as: "Have you ever noticed…?" or "This has been all over TV..."
8. Start early, with simple concepts first.
Your child is sexual, pre-birth and for the rest of his or her life. So the learning needs to start right away. What you share will depend on your child’s knowledge, interests and behaviors at a particular age.
9. Don’t preach, judge or moralize. And watch your tone.
Parents’ attempts to impart sexuality information to their children tend to be "top down." This denies teenagers the opportunity to share their own thoughts, feelings and desires or to draw links between their own perspectives and those of their parents.
10. Don’t rule out the power of self-disclosure.
Many parents wonder if sharing their own values, thoughts, attitudes and, especially, personal experiences are necessary. Self-disclosure, by far, enhances your efforts, especially when you consider that most children grow up to adopt a value system fairly similar to that of their parents.
11. Practice active listening.
You can do this by encouraging conversations with statements like:
— "I’m glad you told me about that."
— "That's a good question."
— "What questions do you have?"
— "How does that make you feel?"
— "What would you do in that situation?"
— "What advice would you give?"
12. Don’t approach childhood sexuality as a "problem."
Sex is a fact and a part of life. You need to avoid shame-based reactions that can make your child feel guilty or in the wrong. You need to acknowledge that your child is a sexual being and stay real about his or her circumstances and desires.
Being sex-positive and realistic does not mean you’re giving permission. A parent can talk about sex in a healthy light, stating that it is a wonderful part of life, but the joy of sex is only realized with smart decision-making.
13. Don’t assume your child is like everyone else’s.
Even within the same family, no two children are alike. The approach you take needs to be tailored to fit your child’s needs, personality, questions, circumstances, etc.
14. Develop your child’s self-esteem.
Children who are self-confident are more likely to make healthy decisions. They also are better able to overcome peer pressure and say "no" to unwanted behaviors, including sexual advances and drug use.
You can begin this process by regularly praising your children when it comes to their talents, honesty, good decision-making, kindness, independence and ability to take on responsibility. You should show an interest in your child’s life, making the effort to have a close relationship and to stay involved.
In the Know Sex News . . .
— Rapid HIV Tests Halted. New York City health clinics have stopped using OraQuick Advance Rapid HIV ½ Antibody Test due to an increased rate of false positives. Over the past eight months, false positives from the test increased by 1.1 percent, about five times higher than the test claims on its label.
— Attitudes Have Little Influence on Choice of Sexual Partner. A study from the Swedish medical school Karolinska Institute indicates that hereditary factors and one's unique experiences are the strongest influences on an individual's choice of sex partners, whether it be of the same sex or opposite gender.
The study, involving more than 7,600 Swedish twins between 20 and 47 years old, showed that genetic factors and one's unique biological and social environment play the biggest role in one's sexual behaviors.
Dr. Yvonne Kristín Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."