By a Parent, Sidwell Friends Middle School, Washington, DC
When Deborah Roffman spoke to middle school parents at Sidwell Friends School, we learned some vital elements regarding educating our children and teens about sex. We learned that:
Adapted with permission of Sidwell Friends.
- Sexuality is broader than sex. It includes the sense of how we see ourselves, how the world sees us as male or female, and our gender identity.
- We are all sexual beings, from birth to death.
- As parents, we must be proactive to counter misinformation and unhealthy messages. Sexuality is about whole people and their intimate physical relationships, not about body parts. If we are silent or unclear about this, our children will not develop the values they need to make healthy decisions.
- Parents have to stop talking in code. Children need accurate definitions, facts, and guidance. If we don't teach our children, someone else may teach them what we don't want them to learn.
- We need to define and set adequate limits. Limits make children feel secure. They need limits like they need oxygen. Of course, one key task of adolescence is to push our limits; so, we can negotiate those limits while being clear about our expectations. We can set limits slightly stricter than necessary, allowing teens to behave in a more adventuresome way while remaining in a safe zone.
- Sex is much more than intercourse. Most people think "sexual intercourse" when they hear the word "sex," but sex is about intimacy and emotional closeness. Many young people do not understand this.
- All sexual behaviors are somewhere on an intimacy continuum. At one end of a continuum of physical closeness is touching parts of the body that are public, such as face and hands; at the other end, touching private parts of the body, such as breasts or genitals. There is a parallel continuum of emotional closeness. That is, there is information that one shares readily with others, such as name or favorite hobbies. As one reveals oneself and trust develops, more can be safely shared. Teens should make decisions by asking: "How close do I want this person to be with me?" and not "How far do I want to go?"
- Our children need to know from us what needs to be in place in a relationship before they become sexually involved with another person. It is important that we communicate what would make it safe—emotionally, socially, and physically—to be involved in a sexual relationship.
- When our child refuses to talk with us, it's worthwhile to say, "It's my job and important to me that I share this information. We don't have to discuss it now, but you do need to listen."
- Young people get too little sex education and guidance too late and they get harmful misinformation. They hear myths and double standards. We have to speak up about the double standard for girls and do a better job of recognizing that boys are vulnerable, too, and have the same need for intimacy and closeness as girls.
- We are our children's cultural interpreters. One way to begin a conversation about sexuality and values is to look together at a magazine advertisement, newspaper story, or TV show and discuss it. What are its messages about the roles of women and men? Or, how is sex being used to sell this product or story? This helps our children see that we are willing to talk openly about sex. The bad news is that sex is everywhere (in the media) but the good news is that sex is everywhere. We have many opportunities to open the discussion.