Grandparents and Other Caregivers as Sex Educators (page 4)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the
author and not necessarily those of Advocates for Youth.
As a grandmother of three and a professional sex educator, I find talking with my grandchildren about sex very different than it was with my own children years ago. Today, having lived through the sexual revolution, raised two kids, and gained some wisdom and experience, I relish being able to be more comfortable and open in talking to the grandchildren about sexuality. My oldest granddaughter recently took part in her mother's labor coaching team during the birth the newest baby girl. As I heard my granddaughter describe the birth experience to her great grandmother, I knew that this was a child who would probably grow up sexually healthy and responsible. It was so natural for her to use words like uterus and birth canal. Her Mom and Dad have done a good job!
However, Grandma is sometimes called on to tackle especially tough issues. My briefcase always has a condom or two in it, usually for use in training youth serving professionals. Recently, five-year-old Maddy asked for paper and pen, and I told her to look in my briefcase. She pulled out a Magic Marker and a condom package, brilliant red. She asked, "Dad, what's this?" Her Dad didn't bat an eye; he simply said "It's all yours, Grandma." So, I simply explained, "That's called a condom, and it is used when people don't want to have a baby." She was satisfied and began to draw happy faces. I know she'll need more information later on, but for now, her question is answered.
Grandparents and other caregivers can be wonderful sources of information and support to children. Grandparents and other caregivers can offer a safe haven and an opportunity to discuss sexuality concerns and issues when, sometimes, young people feel they just cannot go to their parents or why they don't have parents to go to.
Understanding how and when to take on the role of sex educator is vital because one out of 10 teenage girls will experience pregnancy before age 20. Fifty percent of all new reported cases of HIV occur in 15- to 24-year-old youth. And over 80 percent of young people have had sexual intercourse by age 20. Young Americans live in a sex-saturated society. Sex is used to sell everything from cars and face cream to colas. Sexual violence is accepted in movies and TV programs, but it's harder for entertainment industry professionals to get sexually responsible behaviors, like using a condom, past the censors. The Internet is a rich source of accurate, sensitive sexuality information, but users can also easily find, or stumble onto, prurient and harmful, not to say pornographic, sites as well.
Why is it so hard to talk with children about sex?
- Well, many adults did not grow up with parents who talked easily about sex. Most adults today didn't grow up with role models who were comfortable talking about sexuality. Today's adults grew up getting information from friends, TV, movies, and books or magazines, just as do teens today.
- Some adults are afraid that they don't know the "right" answer about human biology, body functioning, sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy or even the correct names for body parts. And, sometimes adults fear that teens will ask questions that will be particularly difficult to answer, such as questions about sexual orientation or sexual identity.
- Adults struggle with ethical and moral decisions. Some adults fear that this struggle, if acknowledged, will undermine their authority with teens. Other adults are hesitant to provide teens with too much ethical and moral direction, since the adults, too, struggle with such decisions. However, dictating what is right or wrong to a young person is an authoritarian way of parenting that often sparks teenage resistance and rebellion. More importantly, attempting to dictate values undermines one of a parent's most important goals: guiding teens toward an ability to make positive, values-based decisions of their own. Remember that acknowledging that adults also struggle with ethical and moral decisions is not only honest but also initiates teens into the adult reality of ongoing commitment to and struggle with values-based decisions.
- Sex education by parents and other caregivers is a life long process, not an event, and there "teachable moments" arise frequently. Certainly, planned discussions occur at times when adults need to say, "There are some things we need to talk about. Let's take a walk." For example, an adult might buy a book about puberty and sit down with a grandchild to share the pictures and text about the changes and functions that occur during puberty. However, sex education happens every day in every home—just in the way adults treat other family members.
- Many adults don't know what is appropriate to talk about at what age and are afraid of giving too much information. Underneath this is usually the fear, "If I talk about sex, it will encourage them to do it." Nothing could be further from the truth. Kids who have open, honest discussions with parents, grandparents, and/or other caregivers are more likely than other children to delay the initiation of first sex and to use protection when they eventually decide to have sex.
- A frequent concern of adults is, "What do I say of if the child asks me about my own personal sexual past? What should I say?" Respecting the right to privacy of both adults and young people is vital for positive, healthy relationships. Adults have the right to say, "I'm not going to talk about my personal life." Or, it is okay to relate as much as much as the adult feels comfortable in doing and the young person in hearing.
- Finally, grandparents and other caregivers may think they don't have to talk about sexual health because they believe that children are learning what they need to know in school. Wrong! Less than 10 percent of schools offer age-appropriate, comprehensive, long-term, sex education despite the fact that every recent national survey shows that 80 to 90 percent of adults want schools to offer education about both abstinence and contraception and to teach students how to prevent pregnancy and STIs, including HIV.
Helpful Hints for Communicating about Sexuality
In spite of fears, embarrassment, or reservations, grandparents and others
caregivers need to acknowledge that they are sex educators for
grandchildren or other young people in their care—verbally and non-verbally
they be role models for the way children value themselves and others.
Grandparents can be an important source of information, wisdom, and loving
acceptance. It's part of the job description!
Children learn by observation. Actions speak louder than words. Set a good example that shows young people how your life is enriched by your values. "Do as I say, not as I do" is a message that teaches young people dishonesty and distrust.
Reassure young people that they are normal.
Build their self-esteem. Praise each child for her/his talents, personality, efforts, and accomplishments. Remind children frequently that they are capable and lovable.
Do not pry. Respect children's privacy as much as you value your own.
Remember that language sends important messages. Use the correct names for genitalia and for sexual behaviors. If you are embarrassed to use the correct names of sexual body parts, practice using correct terminology out loud or in front of a mirror.
Use "teachable moments." Take advantage of a neighbor's pregnancy, gossip the child heard on the playground, or dialogue on a television show to help start a conversation.
Answer questions honestly and accurately, but don't assume that the child is tacitly asking for even more information. Give accurate, honest, short, and simple answers. For example, if a small child asks where a baby comes from, the child wants to know just that. The answer is that the baby came from inside his/her mother. Don't give details about conception, growth in the uterus, or the process of birth. That's not what the child asked.
Listen more than you talk. Think about what else you're being asked. If necessary, say that you need time to think about the question or issue and that you will be ready to talk about it in an hour or after dinner or the next morning. Then, be sure to have that conversation.
Don't jump to conclusions. For example, "How old do you have to be to do it?" might mean, "I'm thinking about having sex. What should I do?" On the other hand, it might simply reflect curiosity about becoming an adult or a question about a peer's behavior or doubt about something the young person heard. If the question worries you, after you answer, you might ask the child or teen why the question came up, with a nonjudgmental question like, "So, what's going on?"
Be available. Let children and teens know that you're available for them. When you talk with them, talk about what you think and feel, and leave spaces for them to talk about how they think and feel.
Ask questions. Ask the young people you care about what they think and what they feel.
Be honest but sensitive to young people. Be clear and truthful about your own feelings but be sensitive to young people's feelings. Figure out what you want to say before you speak. For example, you might feel like a teenager's leaving for college is a) the end of the world or b) freedom beckoning. A teen would feel burdened/stifled by the first or saddened and unloved by the second. You want the teen to know that you will miss her/him and that you are an individual with a life of your own—thus supporting and freeing the teen for this big adventure.
Listen when asked a fact-based question. Find out what the young person knows or has heard about a particular topic before you answer a question. It can be helpful to have some context.
Be gentle. Use a child's mistakes as positive opportunities for learning. Praise the child for trying. Criticizing, nagging, lecturing, and shouting won't help a child learn.
Keep the lines of communication open. If you are upset or worried, say so and ask if the conversation can continue later. Don't shut a child down by saying, "You don't need to know that!"
Learn about the child's world. Get to know the child's world. What pressure is he/she under? What do children consider normal? What's "cool?
Be patient. Children hear and learn about sexuality from lots of different sources—friends, television, music videos, magazines, school, and other adults. You may have to repeat information as she/he grows older. Expect the same questions to recur.
Keep your sense of humor. Laugh with, never at, children.
What Kind of Questions Can You Expect from Young People?
Questions asked by preschoolers (ages three to five):
- Will I have breasts (or a penis) like yours?
- How did I get into mommy's stomach?
- Why do you have a penis (or breasts) and I don't?
- Where do babies come from?
- How do babies get out of their mommy's tummy?
- Does it hurt to have a baby?
Questions asked by children and preteens (ages six to 12):
- How does a baby stay alive inside the mother?
- What does "have sexual intercourse "mean?
- What happens when girls menstruate?
- What is a wet dream?
- Why do kids say "dirty" words?
- Do boys have periods?
- Do girls have wet dreams?
- When will I develop like my friends?
- Why are some children adopted?
- What's a rubber (condom) for?
- How do you put on a condom?
Questions asked by teens (ages 13 to 18):
- Are my breasts (penis) too small?
- Is the pill safe?
- Can I get birth control without my parents knowing about it?
- How can you tell if you have a sexually transmitted infection?
- Is there something wrong with me if I remain a virgin?
- What does homosexual mean?
- How can you avoid pregnancy?
- How can I say "no"?
- How can I tell if I'm really in love?
- Is sexual intercourse painful?
- Is it sex if you go down on someone?
- What about having sex with someone you are not in love with?
- How can I tell if I'm pregnant?
- How do you know if you're gay (lesbian)?
What should children know about human sexuality? Check out Advocates' resources on Growth and Development—What Parents Need to Know.
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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