Call it the birds and bees or the facts of life. By whatever name, it's a subject that can still make parents squirm when the moment arrives to sit down with their children and talk about sex.
Only 62 percent of parents have talked with their 8-to-12-year-olds about the basics of reproduction, a new survey reports. Even by the time children become teenagers, only about 30 percent of parents have discussed peer pressure to have sex or explained how to prevent pregnancy. Both parents and children admit that families don't talk enough about becoming sexually active or about violence, drugs, and AIDS.
To help break that silence, a new multimillion-dollar national campaign, "Talking With Kids About Tough Issues," urges parents to start talking with children earlier and more often about subjects that pose health and safety risks. The initiative includes television, radio, and print ads, along with a 60-page booklet of tips for parents on how to initiate conversations and answer children's questions. In addition, 20 Boys and Girls Clubs around the country will hold community forums and parent clinics.
"The underlying premise, which is grounded in years of observations by a range of practitioners, is that those children who have benefited from an open, trusting channel of communication about difficult issues with their parents in these early years carry that protection into their teenage years and are more likely to make wise decisions," says Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now, a California-based advocacy group that is one of the project's sponsors. Other sponsors are the Kaiser Family Foundation of Menlo Park, Calif., and the Advertising Council.
The need for early discussions is evident in studies showing that students who drink start at an average age of 11. Those who smoke marijuana begin at 12, on average. Approximately 60 percent of young people say they get "a lot" of information about sex, AIDS, violence, and drugs and alcohol from television, movies, and music, according to the survey.
As a measure of students' hunger for better information, three-fifths of children age 10 to 12 want to know how to deal with pressure to have sex, and 80 percent want to know more about being safe from violence.
The key to successful communication, professionals say, is to create an "open environment" where children feel comfortable talking about sensitive issues. That openness must include respect for a child's feelings. Parents need to be sure they understand a child's question so they can answer it directly, using words appropriate for a child's level of understanding.
In the case of sex, for example, Salisbury and others emphasize that it is not enough for parents simply to explain the basics of reproduction. They must also communicate their own values. Even though teens might not always adopt these values, they will at least be aware of them as they decide their own standards of behavior.
As one way of checking the effectiveness of a conversation, parents can come back to the subject several days later, asking children what they remember about the talk. If there are misperceptions, parents can correct them.
"We as parents always have trouble finding the words for these sensitive topics," admits Janis Collado of New York, the mother of a teenage son and daughter. "But we need to start early before they get confused, and try to explain things clearly and concisely in ways they understand."
Ms. Collado adds, "The message is very clear that this information should come from the home. Sure, they have discussions in school. But when it comes from home, it helps kids feel safe, knowing they can ask their parents."
Already, Salisbury notes that she is hearing a "chorus of appreciation" from parents for the booklet. "If they're parents whose kids are older, they say, 'I wish I'd had that earlier.' If they're facing these discussions now, they're just very relieved and appreciative to have this tool." She adds, "Kids are struggling with these issues, and they want and need their parents' guidance."
* Copies of 'Talking With Kids About Tough Issues' are available at no cost by calling 800-CHILD-44.
Tips for talking with children about sensitive issues
1. Start early.
2. Initiate conversations with your child, even about sex and sexuality.
3. Create an open environment.
4. Communicate your own values.
5. Listen to your child. Respect his or her feelings.
6. Always be honest. If you don't know something, admit it.
7. Be patient.
8. Use television programs as a tool for broaching sensitive subjects.
9. Use age-appropriate language, with simple, short words and straightforward explanations.
10. Talk about these subjects again - and again.
Source: 'Talking With Kids About Tough Issues'