There's No Place Like Home … for Sex Education
Newsletter #1: Talk to Me—Please!
You're not the only one who's been noticing your 4th grader's growth and development. S/he has too—often with more concern and embarrassment than pleasure. In fact, there have been quite a few experiences lately that are … well … just different. Like … attraction to peers in more than just a friendship way; and classroom teasing about boyfriends and girlfriends. Things are definitely changing. And s/he's not at all sure how s/he feels about it.
While exciting, the "newness" is also scary. Yet this is a time of such privacy and shyness about change that children often hold their fears of "Is this normal?" and "Am I normal?" deep within.
Your 4th grader is conscious of the impending onset of puberty (that's right, mom and dad … it won't be long now!). Whether s/he's started to develop yet or not, it's likely s/he has friends or classmates who have. In fact, girls may begin developing as early as grade 3 or 4; boys usually a few years later.
In any case, parents need to anticipate this, and prepare their children in advance. This helps ease the countless anxieties and questions which are certainly there—although often unspoken.
If your family has a history of open, honest communication about sexual issues, your child may likely check in with you about these anxieties and questions. If not, well … don't worry. It's not too late. But do begin now. Already your child has gathered a wealth of sexual information (and misinformation) from a number of other sources: friends, TV, music, the Internet, magazines … you want to get your 2¢ worth in.
The approach to puberty offers an ideal opportunity for discussion … but don't limit the topic to physical growth and development. Children want—and need—to hear their parents' thoughts, feelings, and values around a variety of sexual issues. They want—and need—factual information, reassurance, guidance, and support. If you find it difficult or awkward to initiate such discussions, here are a few tips to assist you:
- Let your child in on how it was for you as a 4th grader. Share feelings, concerns, and experiences you remember having while growing up.
- Take advantage of the useful publications available for preadolescents. Leave them on the coffee table, in the family room, or somewhere your 4th grader is likely to stumble upon them.
- Use TV, movies, and other media to begin a discussion about sexuality. Let your children know how you feel about sexual messages delivered by the media. Ask about their impressions.
- Call attention to newspaper articles dealing with issues linked to sexuality: HIV/AIDS, rape, infertility treatment, teen pregnancy, sexual abuse … these are but a few topics noted daily in the headlines.
Open family communication about sex does far more than just ease the journey through the growing up years. It allows for the sharing of family values; the provision of accurate—and valuable—information; the promotion of a positive, respectful attitude toward sexuality; the alleviation of fears and anxieties; the building of trust, understanding, and support.
If you've already established these lines of communication within your family, great! Keep up the good work! If not, begin today. You and your child have everything to gain.
Newsletter #2: What's Happening to Me?
Puberty isn't the only sexual topic that bears discussing with your 4th grader, but it's likely to be uppermost in his/her mind. Even under the best of circumstances, this time of great change for youth may occasionally be confusing and scary. Advanced preparation for puberty is likely to result in a more positive view of the process.
Menstruation and first ejaculation are often seen as landmarks which signal "puberty has arrived." In reality, puberty is a stage of life marked by a series of events—a process that unfolds over the course of several years. Menstruation and first ejaculation actually occur fairly late in the process. Yet for some reason, they're seen as "highlights"—perhaps because they're such obvious signs of growing up.
At any rate, helping your child understand the time frame of puberty can serve to alleviate classic fears like, "Why am I growing so much faster than my friends?" "How come my friends are growing and I'm not?" When will I get 'it'?" "What's wrong with me?" "Am I normal?"
Children who have had little explanation of developmental differences can become obsessed with these concerns—anxiously worrying. Surely you know what that's like from your own perils of puberty. Do you recall thinking years later, "If only someone had explained what was going on with me. I could have coped much better!" As a parent, you can be that "someone" for your own child.
Since we tend to assume that children know far more about their bodies than they actually do, a good rule is to explain everything … even that which seems most obvious. In this way, you're likely to cover many of the unspoken concerns and questions.
At 4th grade (which is still early in the puberty game for the majority of kids), one of the most useful pieces of information you can share with your child is a rundown of the puberty chain of events. While it's true that children will begin developing at different times, the sequence of events is fairly predictable. Learning about this is far more helpful to a youngster than merely having mom and dad say, "Don't worry, honey. You'll grow."
General order for girls:
- Breast budding (between ages 8 and 13, on average)
- Hips broaden
- Straight pubic hair
- Growth spurt
- Pubic hair becomes kinky
- Menstruation (about 2 years after start of breast development)
- Underarm hair
General order for boys:
- Growth of testes and scrotum (between ages 10 and 13 ½, on average)
- Straight pubic hair
- Early voice change
- First ejaculation (about 1 year after testicular growth)
- Pubic hair becomes kinky
- Growth spurt
- Underarm hair
- Significant voice change
- Beard develops
Of course, puberty consists of more than just physical change. Emerging sexual feelings, emotions, relationships, stresses all are parts of the metamorphosis. Children often feel ambivalent about growing up, and need reassurance that such feelings are perfectly normal.
The journey through puberty will never be a piece of cake. But parents can do much to alleviate some of the strangeness and fear. One of the most useful ways is to communicate. Talk with your child now about these issues—even if you think it's a little early yet.
Chances are it's later than you think.
Newsletter #3: Talking With Children About AIDS: What They Need to Know … NOW!
You never thought you would have to talk with your children in such explicit terms. But at this time, no vaccine or medicine can prevent HIV infection or cure AIDS. The only protection you cm offer your child is education. Surely you want to offer that.
You know that your 4th grader has beard a lot about AIDS—whether you've told him or not. There are a lot of advantages to having you tell him. From the kids at school, he hears rumors, speculation. From you, he can hear the facts. You're in a position to provide those facts in a gentle, non-threatening way … in a way that will enlighten and empower, rather than frighten him. Along with information, you will share family values—something he won't be getting elsewhere.
Certainly by 4th grade, children should understand that AIDS is a serious disease which is caused by a virus spread from person to person. They should be reassured that people do not become infected through casual contact (hugging, sharing food, sitting next to an HIV+ person); rather the virus must be introduced into a person's bloodstream in order to cause infection.
During the pre-teen years (9- 12), be prepared to offer your child more detailed information about HIV transmission and prevention. At this age, children need to know that:
- HIV can be transmitted while sharing needles with an infected person. These include needles used to inject drugs, steroids or vitamins. Razors and other sharp instruments should not be shared either. Children should be warned about piercing one another's ears, tattooing, and "blood brother or blood sister" rituals.
- HIV can be found in body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk; it can spread during unprotected vaginal, anal and oral intercourse with an infected person; an HIV+ mother can transmit HIV to the fetus during pregnancy and/or birth. She can also transmit HIV to her baby through breastfeeding.
- People can protect themselves by not having sex, and not sharing needles.
- Latex condoms reduce the risk of HIV infection for people who have sexual intercourse.
Granted, it's difficult to discuss these issues. But when a child's education about AIDS is left to hearsay, s/he winds up with an incomplete, often inaccurate picture. The result is needless worry and confusion. Such a child may fear for the health and safety of his friends, his family, and himself.
Basic education can help prevent that needless worry and confusion. And when parents are the source of that basic education, they have an ideal opportunity to pass along important values to the children they love.
Where to Turn?
Perhaps you're feeling a bit overwhelmed. There's so much sexuality information to share with your child …maybe you're not even sure of all the facts yourself!
Not to worry. There are many excellent books and pamphlets which can help you with information, strategies, etc. Here are the titles of a few that are particularly helpful:
How to Talk to Your Children about AIDS
Let's Talk About Sex: A Read and Discuss Guide for People 9 to 12 and Their Parents
Sam Gitchel & Lorri Foster
Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, revised edition, 1995
Click Here to Purchase This Book
Sex Stuff for Kids 7-17: A Book of Practical Information and Ideas for Kids 7-17 and Their Parents and Teachers
Gallopade Publishing Group, 1997
Click Here to Purchase This Book
[Note: To order one of the books, simply click on the "click here to purchase this book" link. You will be taken to Amazon.com, where you'll be able to purchase the book you selected. Advocates for Youth will receive a five percent royalty from the sale.]
Newsletter #4: Family Affair
Where is it written that the children's sex education is mom's job? Or that dad should talk to the boys and mom to the girls? Open communication about sexuality is the family's job, and the more everyone gets involved, the more balanced and effective it can be.
In addition to information and family values, parents offer their personal perspectives, as male or female. It's important and useful for dads to share this with their daughters and moms with their sons.
Children will be relating to males and females throughout their lifetimes and need to understand about each other. For example, boys deserve know about female anatomy and physiology. They can learn an appreciation of the female perspective. Girls deserve an understanding and appreciation of males. Who better to offer that education than the other gender parent?
This isn't to suggest we discontinue "father/son" and "mother/ daughter" talks. On the contrary. These are special times shared between parent and child. Also realize dad, that you're a valuable resource, with much to contribute toward your daughter's sexuality education—just as you do mom, toward your son's. So let's make sex education a family affair.
That Special Touch
Development occurring in middle childhood can bring anxiety and awkwardness for parents and children alike. Feeling unsure, parents may begin backing off on the physical touch and affection they freely gave before. That can be especially devastating to a child.
This is a time when children are preoccupied—almost obsessed with being normal; bodies experience furious changes in size and shape; emotions and moods can skyrocket, then plummet—all in the course of a few hours. This is a time when kids need that support and reassurance, that physical touch and affection which says, "you're OK."
Imagine how it feels when that's no longer forthcoming from mom and dad.
Whether it's the deeply ingrained incest taboo, or just a misconception that the kids aren't interested anymore, parents—and especially other gender parents—frequently operate by a "hands off' policy at this stage of their child's life. The result can be loneliness, confusion, and a lack of connection for youth.
As children mature, they initiate their own "hands off policy. It's somewhat erratic and unpredictable. On one hand, they may show obvious distaste for parental displays of affection, flinching whenever mom and dad attempt to bestow a hug or kiss (especially if anyone else is around!). On the other hand, there are times when kids ache for a warm touch—but don't—or won't—ask. (Parents are just expected to sense this, and respond appropriately.)
At any rate, children need their parents—BOTHparents—to continue offering, but not forcing, physical affection. (and will need this—whether they're 2 or 42!) Let them know you still enjoy giving (and getting) hugs and kisses—and that you respect their right to accept, to refuse—and to change their minds!
Talk with your children about your own uncertainty or discomfort. Encourage them to air their feelings. Decide together how to handle this "touchy" issue. Rather than automatically assume what the kids want and when—ASK THEM!
Newsletter #5: Dealing With Peer Pressure
It's been apparent for some time now that the influence you have over your 4th grader is waning a bit. Let's face it, mom and dad, as far as your child's concerned, when it comes to certain issues, friends have more clout.
Just because you know full well that this is a sign of normal, healthy development, doesn't mean you have to like it. At this age, kids are increasing their separation from the folks, testing their wings, and becoming more independent. Scary, isn't it?
The world is a far different place than when you were 10. Today, 4th graders experience pressures that you didn't confront until high school—even college! Drugs, alcohol, sex, violence … elementary school students are grappling with adult issues and decisions!
It's not enough to tell your child, "Don't!"The need to belong and to be accepted by the peer group can be powerful enough to make kids break the rules. But it is helpful to your 4th grader when you:
- Acknowledge how tough it can be to go against the group.
- Assist him in recognizing what peer pressure looks like—the subtle and blatant forms.
- Share your experiences with peer pressure. Explain how you dealt with the situations. (Share your failures as well as your successes!)
- Practice "what if." Help her analyze consequences of various choices; brainstorm ways to respond—what could be said and done.
- Encourage him to come to you if he feels pressured and unsure of what to do. Offer to be his "out," his "excuse" if he needs one. Often, kids look to parents to say "No" in order to get them off the hook with their friends.
- Reassure her that even if she gets into trouble, you will always be there. You may be upset, and you may even yell, but you will always be there for her.
Peer pressure isn't just a childhood dilemma. It affects young and old alike. Skills you teach your child now will serve him throughout his life.
Before You Jump to Any Conclusions …
Wait a minute. You understood it when your child "played doctor" in pre-school. But this is 4th grade! What's going on here!?
What's going on here is not exactly "playing doctor," but it's the 4th grader's version of checking out what bodies look like—AND—whether his looks like it should.
You see, it's common at this age (although not widely discussed) for same-sex friends to examine each other's bodies. It's all part of a child's natural curiosity, and the need to confirm that his physical development is OK.
This shouldn't be interpreted as "my son or daughter must be gay." Both gay and straight youth engage in same-sex exploration. It's important for both families and young people to know that automatic assumptions about sexual orientation should not be made based upon this.
You may want to refer back to this newsletter's issue, Grade 4 #2, which deals with the sequence of changes that occur during puberty. Take the time to share this information with your child so s/he can feel more comfortable and confident about growth and development.
Next Section: 5th Grade
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© 2003. Authored by Mary Gossart. Spanish translation by Bojana Stefanovska. Reprinted with permission of Planned Parenthood Health Services of Southwestern Oregon, 1670 High Street, Eugene, Oregon 97401. Web site: http://www.pphsso.org/.