There's No Place Like Home for Sex Education: 6th Grade (page 2)
This Too Shall Pass
You don't get it. You pride yourself on the relative ease with which you've discussed sexual issues with your child in the past: answering questions honestly; initiating conversation; creating an environment in which sexuality is viewed as a special and positive aspect of ourselves.
What happened? Suddenly, your 6th grader has decided the topic is off limits. S/he's appalled (embarrassed, disgusted, nervous … take your pick …) whenever the subject comes up. That's just what you've been trying to prevent … why you've worked so hard to communicate. And it's come to this? So you wonder, "What did I do wrong?"
Nothing. You have a typical 6th grader. As 6th graders go, sex is gross, embarrassing, stupid, funny, or all of the above. B.P. (Before Puberty), things were different: sexuality was neat to talk about with the folks; the issues were matter of fact, non-threatening, and your child was an interested bystander.
D.P. (During Puberty), sexuality becomes terribly personal! Bodies blossom, fantasies and strange new urges arise; simmering concerns about what's normal result in considerable uneasiness; many 6th graders know of someone—a friend or classmate—who is actually experimenting with sexual activity (Yes! Unfortunately some children become involved very early!) Suddenly, sexuality is hitting too close to home, it's scary … and "I'd rather not talk about it!"
Such is a typical 11-year-old's response to the topic of sex. It's now especially important that parents muster patience, understanding, and support in order to teach children what they need to know:
- Continue broaching the subject—keep it light, don't push. Settle for a monologue if need be … at least it's putting out your message.
- Avoid preaching. As sex becomes more of a real issue in a child's life, it's easy for parents to fall into the lecture mode. "Do this … don't do that" is likely to fall on deaf ears—spurring even more resistance to discussion. When parents truly listen to their children, encouraging them to express personal views, communication is enhanced.
- Encourage your child to examine, clarify, and discuss his own values about sexual issues. Parents hope the family values will be accepted. Be prepared to hear that some of your child's views differ from yours. Make it safe for him to disagree; help him know your love and support is not contingent on his acceptance of your views.
- Acknowledge your child's reactions … something like: "You look uncomfortable talking about this. How can we make it easier?" or "When I was young, I was so confused about sex that I had a hard time asking questions. Is that how you feel?"
- Acknowledge your own feelings, for example: "I'm frustrated that you seem to be tuning me out. I'd like to be able to talk about this together."
- Invest in some of the wonderful sexuality books written for young people. Leave them in an obvious place.
- Keep your sense of humor … and use it. This needn't be a heavy subject. Take comfort knowing that your child is moving toward A.P. (After Puberty).
Give yourself a break. Your influence on your child is a powerful one … and only one of many. Remember, you can take neither credit nor blame for the ultimate outcome. You can only give it your best effort.
The Times They Are a Changin'
Over the last several decades, our society has undergone vast changes in sexual attitudes and behaviors, leaving today's youth—and their parents—facing difficult and complex issues. Sexually explicit messages permeate our lives. The impact is especially powerful on young people who lack the maturity, wisdom, and insight through which to filter the messages.
Coupled with inadequate knowledge and understanding about sexuality, the result can be significant: vulnerable youth at risk of premature sex, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, sexual abuse, and exploitation.
- There are over 1 million teenage pregnancies each year in the U.S.; 84% are unintended.
- 8 out of 10 boys and 7 out of 10 girls aged 15 to 17 have had sexual intercourse.
- 1 out of 6 teenagers contracts a sexually transmitted infection.
- The U.S. has one of the highest teenage pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates in the developed world.
Research consistently shows that open, honest family communication about sex can reduce the risk of a child becoming one of the statistics. What better way to ward off the tragedies of sexual ignorance than to take preventive measures early on … such as … education.
Most parents recognize the importance of sexuality education, and in fact, are eager to provide it. Yet many are not prepared for the depth of information and skills that is important during the middle childhood years. It's time for more advanced discussion: sexual relationships, birth control and sexual protection, sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy, etc.
Some parents fear that addressing such issues will condone, encourage, or promote sexual activity … put ideas into the kids' heads. Not so. Surveys of young people clearly demonstrate the ideas are already there! All the more reason for mom and dad to initiate discussion, provide information, and share values. In fact, some studies show that children raised in families with open, honest communication about sexual issues are more likely to delay first intercourse and, if they do become involved in a sexual relationship, they are more likely to protect themselves. When parents withhold information about sex—particularly issues such as birth control, sexual protection, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS—their children's vulnerability and risk increase.
What this ultimately boils down to is the first basic rule of sexuality education: Teach them what you think they need to know … and more.
For the majority of 12-year-olds, these more advanced sexual issues can still be addressed at a fairly non-threatening, non-emotional level, since most young people this age are not yet personally involved. This is not likely to be the case a few years down the road. And once the issues become more pertinent in their lives, the discussion becomes controversial … more difficult. Which brings us to the second basic rule of sex education:
The best time to talk is now.
Ritchie & Karen
You're likely to have a few ideas about when your child will be old enough for a boyfriend/girlfriend. Your child is likely to have some ideas about that too—perhaps vastly different from yours.
It's an old parent lament: kids are pressured to grow up too fast these days. Well, merely bemoaning that fact will do little to help them deal more effectively with the situation. Absolutely forbidding children to be swayed by such pressure isn't very useful either.
No one is suggesting that children be encouraged into social situations prematurely. But realize that elementary school children, some as early as 4th or 5th grade, play with the concept of relationships … boyfriend/girlfriend, etc … some more seriously than others. And be sensitive too that these interests and attractions may not all be toward the other gender.
There's the usual scribbling of hearts and initials on notebooks, phone calls and passing love notes. Unfortunately, some 6th graders (more typically 6th grade girls with older boys) get more involved in various levels of sexual experimentation … a rather sobering thought. It isn't too early to talk about feelings (and pressures) that often accompany interest in romantic relationships. This is another example of addressing an issue before (hopefully) it becomes an issue! It's a chance to talk about friendship and about relating to both the other and same gender comfortably, respectfully. You can help prepare your youngster for the fun and excitement of such relationships, as well as for the frustrations, uncertainty, and disappointments that sometimes result.
Establishing supportive and loving relationships is not something people automatically know how to do, intuitively. There are skills involved—skills which can be taught and nurtured throughout childhood. But young people are less likely to look to their parents for assistance with these skills if they fear being teased, not taken seriously, or met with "You're too young to be interested in boys/ girls."
Surely we don't want our children to learn about relationships from the media (with it's unrealistic, romanticized portrayal of the "ideal" couple), or from trial and error. We'd rather they feel free to bring their feelings and questions to mom and dad.
The importance of talking with your child about social relationships—ahead of time—cannot be overemphasized. Just as different children experience vastly different rates of physical development, so too with social development. This can result in:
- Worry … "All my friends talk about boys constantly, but I'm just not interested. What's wrong with me?"
- Embarrassment …" My folks tease me whenever girls call the house. I hate it!"
- Pressure … "I've got to have a girlfriend/boyfriend because everybody in my class does."
- Confusion … "I'm a girl, and I like other girls!"
Concerns about being popular, dressing right, looking good, fitting in—these are major issues for 6th graders! By talking about this, parents give children a chance to vent their feelings. It may take a bit of encouragement. After all, many children (and parents) are reluctant to talk about such personal things.
Kids need help negotiating the complexities of relating. Without it, they may stumble through … some with more difficulty than others.
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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