Beyond Birds and Bees

On a recent episode of CBS’ show The Good Wife, the character played by Julianna Margulies, Alicia Florrick, discovers that someone has used the family computer to search for information about condoms. She awkwardly asks her teenage son, and then her teenage daughter, if they were the culprits. The children, mortified, deny it; Florrick backs out of their rooms regretting that she ever asked.

That scene sums up many parents’ experience trying to raise any sex-related subject with their kids: Everyone involved wants it to end as quickly as possible. We all know that avoiding the topic and hoping that children will pick up what they need to know at school, from nannies or through peers isn’t the answer. But the most common solution—sitting your child down for “The Talk”—isn’t much better.

The reason? The mistake parents most often make with their kids is making a big deal out of having a single conversation about sex. Parents steel themselves for The Talk—and then, having fumbled their way through it, never broach the subject again. They’ve fulfilled their responsibility, and whatever happens next, they’d rather not know.

In truth, the idea that there’s just one necessary conversation about sex is simply a way for parents to minimize the frequency with which they have to raise the subject. When children are young, parents may feel more comfortable talking about the nuts and bolts—or birds and bees—of body parts and the mechanics of sex. But as their kids get older, they’ll need to raise such hot-button topics as when it’s appropriate to have sex for the first time, birth control and online pornography. And as kids log onto social networks at increasingly early ages, parents need to explain to them about the reality of sexual predators.

It’s sometimes easy for parents—especially those whose children attend topnotch private institutions—to assume that their kid’s school will handle the trickier issues. And while many schools, both public and private, do offer excellent programs, teens still need parental guidance.

In some cases, parents may be busy working or traveling and so children’s questions about sex may arise with their nannies. I asked Cliff Greenhouse, president of New York’s Pavillion Agency, which specializes in sourcing domestic staff, how he thought a nanny should respond if her charge asks about sex. “Nannies will be fielding the questions,” he said, but it puts them in an untenable position; they don’t want to intrude on the parents’ role in something so personal. “The best thing would probably be to say, ‘Let me talk to your parents and see what they think.’”

One way for parents to facilitate conversation about sex is to look for and capitalize on “teachable moments.” If you’re watching TV with your kid and an issue that seems important comes up, hit the pause button and ask, “What do you think about that?” Your kid may just want the remote back, in which case, wait till the show is over, then ask again.

Another way is to point out something from a newspaper or the web and ask, “What do you think about that?” It’s a good way to address issues such as sexting (if you don’t know what that is, ask your teen) that can otherwise be difficult to bring up. The point is “to make children better thinkers, so they have healthy relationships,” says Bill Taverner, executive director of Planned Parenthood’s Center for Family Life program.

If you feel ill at ease talking about the subject—and few parents don’t—it’s OK to admit that to your kids. Most likely, they already know. And never jump to conclusions or rest on assumptions. After all, in that episode of The Good Wife, it wasn’t the kids who were Googling “condoms”—it was their grandmother

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