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No-Dread Sex Ed

birds and the bees

Alexandra Grablewski

Certain moments in your child's life stay with you forever: her first smile, first steps, first words, and the first time she asks about sex. Oy. If you thought you had a few more years before the birds and the bees start buzzing, think again. In our culture, sexual images and references are everywhere -- and kids are being exposed to everything at a younger age. When your first-grader's favorite TV personality becomes tabloid fodder because she's a pregnant teenager, or when Hooter's is at your local mall, you can't just sit on the information. "The teen 'Big Talk' has become an outdated notion," says Mark Schuster, MD, PhD, coauthor of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask). And that's a good thing. "When you discuss sex in an open and ongoing way, your child learns that you're approachable and she'll be more likely to ask you questions and seek your advice throughout adolescence, when the stakes are higher." Does the thought of chatting about this stuff with your grade-schooler leave you tongue-tied? These talking points from the experts will get you through your child's most unnerving situations.

You didn't mute that commercial fast enough and now your daughter doesn't just want to know what sex is, she wants to know about "safe sex" too.

Before you rush to answer, try to find out what she already knows. Based on her response, it could be time to give a brief definition of the act. Keep it factual, simple, and anatomically correct (say penis and vagina, not pee-pee or va-jay-jay). And try to weave your values into the explanation. Minister and sexuality educator Debra Haffner, author of From Diapers to Dating, suggests saying something like this: "When grown-ups love each other, one of the many ways they express it is by having sexual intercourse, which is when the man places his penis into the woman's vagina." Don't be surprised if your child's grossed out -- that's a completely normal reaction.

Though you might think her little ears are still too young to hear about the "safe" part of sex, studies show that as many as 93 percent of kids have heard about HIV/AIDS by the time they enter third grade. It's up to you to provide her with these basic facts: During sexual intercourse, couples can exchange viruses and bacteria through bodily fluids and skin-to-skin contact. These germs can cause sexually transmitted diseases. Since not all of these diseases go away with medicine, people take steps to protect themselves from germs when they have sex.

Your child wants to know how that baby got inside its mom's belly -- and how it's going to get out.

Once you have explained the basics of sex to your child, if his questions lead you to offer more details, don't hesitate. Just say: "During sex, sperm (or seeds) come out of a man's penis and enter a woman's vagina. If a sperm gets together with a woman's egg, a baby starts to grow." Explain that while the baby starts off very small, he'll grow bigger every day inside his mommy's womb. After nine months, the baby will be big and strong enough to survive on his own, so the mommy will push him out through her (very stretchy) vagina or the doctor will take him out through a small cut in the mommy's belly.

Your child has never asked you how babies are made. She shows not one bit of curiosity about the fact that your sister is enormously pregnant -- let alone bothers to ask how she got in that condition.

Just because your child is silent doesn't mean you're off the hook. After all, wouldn't you rather she get the scoop from you instead of the half-truths she's likely to hear on the playground? Some kids are too shy or embarrassed to ask questions, so it's up to you to take the initiative by using teachable moments that pop up in everyday life. "A mom who's pregnant is a great conversation starter," says Haffner. Try: "Look how big Aunt Liza's belly is. Do you know that you have a little cousin inside there? Have you ever wondered how babies are made?" Or look at photographs of your pregnancy and your child's first days of life, and get the conversation started.

Uh-oh. You've just walked in on your son and his best friend -- a girl, no less -- with their clothes off playing doctor. Perhaps you should have been dropping hints about an accounting career instead of a medical degree?

"This isn't erotic behavior. They're interested in how things look and work," Haffner says. So resist the urge to yank up their pants and scold them for their actions (studies suggest such a reaction can cause feelings of shame and guilt that linger into adulthood).

Instead, calmly ask the children to get dressed. Next, tell them that while you understand they're curious about boy and girl bodies, their private parts must remain just that -- private. Now that you know your child is interested in boy/girl anatomies, spend time together looking at a book on the topic. And let the other child's parents know about the incident (after all, you'd want to know if the situation was reversed). If your child has taken to exploring his own body, remind him that any activity involving his private parts should be done alone. "It's natural for children to explore their body, so be careful to avoid making them feel guilty for doing it," says Dr. Schuster. Remember, as with many things it's not what you say but how you say it. Don't worry about having the perfect words; and don't be afraid to say: "I have to think about it." As long as you seem open about discussing sexuality (even if the topic makes you nervous), your child will learn to bring up issues with you. It's worth the awkwardness.

It had to happen sooner or later. You forgot to lock the bedroom door and now your child stands wide-eyed in the doorway. What to do? Don't yell. Calmly tell her to go back to her room and say you'll be there in a minute. When you get there, ask if there's anything she wants to know. If she wonders what you were doing, and you haven't already talked about sex, give her the basics and a reassuring hug. If your kid worries that Daddy was hurting Mommy, let her know that he wasn't and explain that this is one way grown-ups express love. And for the child who has a pretty good idea of what she interrupted, remind her that, "Your dad and I were showing how much we care about each other." Reinforce that when your bedroom door is shut, it means you're having private time and she needs to knock.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.