How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Our Sex and Sexuality series continues today with a focus on children. Many of us have experienced it from a parent's perspective, but we've all been there as kids wondering for the first time about our own sexuality. It's confusing, and today there so many sexual messages on TV and music, movies and the Internet. In other words, if kids can't depend on parents and other trusted people to help them learn about their bodies, they'll fill in the gaps somewhere else.
How do children begin to learn about sexuality, and what should caring adults in their lives teach them? Javonda Williams is program director for the Department of Social Work at Miles College. That's in Birmingham, Alabama. And psychologist Shane Perrault directs the Adolescent and Family Counseling Specialists in Silver Spring, Maryland. Welcome to you both.
Dr. SHANE PERRAULT (Psychologist, Adolescent and Family Counseling Specialists): Welcome.
Ms. JAVONDA WILLIAMS (Program Director, Department of Social Work, Miles College): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So let me start with a very basic question. If you're a parent, at what age can you expect to have the talk? I'll start with you, Shane.
Dr. PERRAULT: The talk, really you would start probably at 12, unless you see some behavior suggesting you should do it earlier. Some kids are more precocious than others. There may be different events they had that awoken their sexuality earlier. But generally, I'd say you start in that period.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I kind of disagree. I think that parents shouldn't look for one particular age to have one talk. I think that we should look as parents for a series of talks throughout life. Look for those teachable moments starting from why do girls pee sitting down. So I really think that the parents should really focus on having a series of talks and looking for teachable moments throughout the lifespan, and not just focus on one age where we think they may be interested or we think there may be some sexual activity.
CHIDEYA: This is not where I originally thought I would be going and ask you a question, but I've noticed - I'm not a parent myself, but I have so many friends who have kids - some of them use nicknames for private parts and some use formal names.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes.
CHIDEYA: Does that make a difference at all?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I feel - in my opinion, especially working with children who have been abused, learning the proper names as soon as possible is actually very helpful in cases of abuse where the children are able to actually tell the names. And also in terms of education and in being able to communicate and talk about sex and sexuality, learning proper body parts' names, I think, is actually very important. So I do think it's very important that parents teach the proper names to these body parts.
CHIDEYA: Shane, before you get to what may be a major talk, you know, during puberty, what do you need to teach children and how? And I'm really focusing on the how.
Dr. PERRAULT: I think one of the biggest ways children learn is through observation, through what feels comfortable, through what their parents do, through what they see on television and what they are exposed to, and just kind of the values and morals that they see on the house. Do we leave them in front of the television for that to teach them, or do we teach them ourself? And I think that's where a lot of the bad teaching begins to take place is when we leave it in the hands of others.
CHIDEYA: You know, there's recently been this new decision by MySpace.com to provide state attorneys general with data on registered sex offenders who use the social networking Web site. But of course there's also this question of, like, is someone who is on MySpace going use their real name to sign up for an account. Shane first and then Javonda - do you think that this news item is an important step forward in protecting kids?
Dr. PERRAULT: I think it's very important. You have a lot of predators on the Internet and you don't know what they're going to do. And I wouldn't, if I were a predator, sign up using my own name. I'd find it highly surprising that anyone would.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I think so. I think that that's, I think, one of the better things we can do. But once again, I really think that the prevention really starts at home and with the parents and with, you know, teaching about sex and sexuality to kind of take away the mystery of the whole idea of sex and sexuality. I think with some of the children that I've worked with the allure of these predators and the idea of sex and sexuality is that they're the one talking about it. Children grow up and they're very curious and they have all these questions and they're not getting answers from anyone else.
And so they are forced to kind of fill in the gaps with these other outside influences. So I think as parents, you know, looking at some of those internal things that they can do within the family and, you know, so that we won't have a huge reliance on outside forces like the government stepping in. I think some internal parenting issues can be done as well to protect your children.
CHIDEYA: Let's go through a few things by age. There's that time when children are pre-verbal. And sadly, not many but some are abused even at a time when they can't describe abuse. Is there - I mean, because a child may be able to understand before he or she can speak - is there anything that you can do with your children when they are toddlers to kind of keep them safe?
Dr. PERRAULT: I think one of the things you could do is help them understand what's inappropriate or appropriate touching and to make sure that they communicate with you. Like if they are touched in certain areas of the body and they say, hey mommy, something happened today. And I think that's where it kind of begins, and I've seen that start as early as two and sometimes younger than that.
CHIDEYA: I'm going to go to you, Javonda. That age, like four to eight, when kids sometimes play doctor with each other but they are not trying to do anything harmful, how do you deal with that phase of like, oh, I'm a boy and she's a girl and, you know, that kind of line?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I think so. I think children are naturally curious at that age about the differences between boys and girls. And so I think really setting up an open communication about sex and sexuality really begins, you know, when they are really young. And so that if they know the proper names of those body parts, and even parents can begin discussing proper uses and what those body parts are for. And so I think that that, once again, will help answer some of those curious questions and children aren't left to fill in the gaps in themselves.
CHIDEYA: Shane, what about puberty?
Dr. PERRAULT: What's the question again?
CHIDEYA: Well, what can parents teach during that phase of puberty to help keep their kids safe?
Dr. PERRAULT: I think one of the things - this is the period where a lot of experimentation starts to happen, and kids start to come into their sexuality and start to masturbate. You'll find little boys start to discover, wow, these are our body parts and they compare with other kids. I think pulling them aside and talking to them; I think making sure they have an environment where they can explore that with you so that you are the teacher instead of their peers teaching them is one of the best approaches to take.
CHIDEYA: And Javonda, what about older teens who - some of them are having sex, some of them are not, some of them are having sex with the knowledge of their parents, some of them are not?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Absolutely, and I think that that's kind of the - this is usually the time where the parents hit the panic button at this point in time. But I think that actually having an open communication along the way, because we all know that they get the hardware long before they get the software. And so I think the idea of really being able to discuss with your, you know, the late teens about the idea of sex and the pleasures and the privileges and the risk would actually be very helpful.
I mean, teens at this age, their job description is to really engage in risky behavior and kind of push the boundaries. And so I think having that open relationship with a trusted adult would really be able help rein in some of those behaviors and also be able to answer, because this is also a time when they are very unsure of themselves and there is still a lot of curiosity. And everyone that says they're doing it really isn't doing it, and how do we know the difference.
And so I think having that open relationship where we are be able to talk and we've been able to talk for, you know, as long as I can remember, you know, that kind of thing, I think would really help the child and the parent in developing, you know, and helping the child develop what will become, you know, their adult sexual relationships and how they handle sexual relationships in the future.
CHIDEYA: I want to just bring other folks into the conversation. In case you're just tuning in, you were listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
And we are continuing our series on Sex and Sexuality with a look at children. I'm talking with Javonda Williams, program director of the Department of Social Work at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama, and adolescent psychologist Shane Perrault. He directs the Adolescent and Family Counseling Specialists in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Let's get into some storytelling. I have a lot of friends and family members who are teachers, and I've heard a lot of disturbing things about what happens in the kind of middle school, junior high level, with girls giving oral sex to boys as - I don't even know what it is - a popularity move, a rite of passage. We're not talking here about something that is necessarily - it's not forced in the traditional sense, but how can someone who is that age consent? Javonda, I want to pretend that I'm that girl who someone has caught giving oral sex to someone who is my own age. What do you tell me?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I think at first we would kind of have a conversation about what happened and, you know, were you aware this was going to happen. I'm very aware of a game where children were playing with bracelets, and if the girl got a bracelet popped by a boy, then she was owed oral sex. And I think a lot of it, the idea of this is really trying to understand was this just a game? Is this something that you've seen the other girls playing with? And then also, I think that would be a time to really sit down and talk to see if the girl really understands about sex and sexual development. Has she had that opportunity to really get all these questions answered? So I think that's really where we would begin with these children that are experiencing these things.
CHIDEYA: Shane, what would you tell the boy in that situation, a boy who said, well, you know, I went into the basement of the school and all these other boys were lined up and this girl was doing this? What would you tell that boy?
Dr. PERRAULT: I think first, just as we said earlier, just in terms of the consequences and what this means. Are they sure it was consensual? Have they considered some of the possible outcomes? And ask really where they learned that and how often does that go on, because you're talking about something that's primarily peer influence. And there's a lot of need to fit in, but there's also the need to know right from wrong and to start to learn and teach them to make some decisions for themselves.
CHIDEYA: What about pleasure? Some children - especially I'm thinking of boys during puberty and wet dreams and things like that - experience pleasure, but they're not quite sure if it's a good thing or bad thing, should they be ashamed. Javonda, how do you teach your child about those feelings, the sensations they may be having, and what goes along with that?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I think that it's very important for parents and any adult to be very honest with the children. They usually can see through our smokescreens very clearly anyway, but just being very honest when they're growing up about those organs and that they are designed and - you know, if you touch it, they do feel good. And those are not things that you should be ashamed of. But also teaching them proper context - that's something that you should do in private. There are such things as private touching. There are such things as touching that you do in public. There are things that you do with people, with other people's consent, and there's things that you do don't do with consent.
So I think that those conversations should absolutely happen. It doesn't take them long before they realize they can certainly gain pleasure and us telling them, you know, no, you shouldn't do that sometimes that doesn't quite cut it, especially with the idea of peer influence and this idea of this, hey, this feels good. So I think certainly teaching them the context, which I call, like, the software of all these other things, because the hardware, you know, they figure that out pretty quickly, but teaching them the contextual things that they have to learn about sex and sexuality.
CHIDEYA: And Javonda and Shane, I really want to role-play this with you. This is a problem that is extremely large in our African-American communities but exists in lots of other communities. You have a high rate of teenage girls getting pregnant by men in their twenties or even older because these men know how to rap. They know how to say the right things. They know how to get you to feel that mix of excitement and pressure and uncertainty. So I'm - let's just say for the purposes of this exercise - a 15 year-old girl. And this 25 year-old guy rolls up on me, and he's so sophisticated and he looks great and he's just saying, baby, you know, you're the best thing in my life. And I tell you as an adult in my life that this is going on - Shane, what do you tell me?
Dr. PERRAULT: I think the first thing I would do is ask you, what's going on here? Where is this headed? What happens if you actually have sex? Or have you think about having sex? Are you in the process of having sex? If so, what type of protection? But beyond that, what's going on with this young man, and why is that so appealing to you?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I think what comes to my mind, first of all, is some good old-fashioned supervision. Where is a 15 year-old girl that a 20 year-old or something man can talk with her and say these kinds of things an adult isn't around? So I think that would probably be my first question is, where did this happen? Where is this happening? You know, where is this lack of supervision that this was even able to come up as far as the contextual environment.
I think in dealing with the emotionality of the issue, I think I really would look at - because there is something in this girl that this is attractive to, this is something, you know, she's really considering. So I think that, you know, maybe sitting down and talking with her about it. Because that's a time where girls aren't very sure of themselves, and they have all these insecure issues, and they have all the media images coming at them, and this is something that, you know, they're wanting. They're wanting this male attention.
So I think really even getting her to focus on other aspects about her life that's also budding at this age may be able to help her see beyond this idea of this instant gratification of he's blowing up my head right now.
CHIDEYA: And Javonda, here's another scenario that goes along with that one. Suppose that the 15 year-old girl goes and tells someone, but it's not the parent. It's someone who's maybe, you know, a cousin, a little bit older. What moral obligations and ethical obligations do people have to report back to parents or other figures? It's like, well, don't tell mom, but...
CHIDEYA: Well, I think that usually I would use good judgment, but I think when safety is an issue, then you certainly should involve parents. I think that a lot of adolescent girls - and adolescent boys for that matter - really do need that extra outlet that that person that's not mom to talk to, and that that person really should value that and certain things should be kept in confidence.
If it's an issue of safety, if you think that the child's in danger, then I would certainly, you know, let the adolescent know - look, this is really important stuff and we're going to have to call mom in on it. But why don't we talk to her together, or what are some ways that we could talk to mom together? What are some ways that we can talk to dad together? To kind of involve the adolescent in it so that they don't feel betrayed and they feel like they have some control over the situation because, once again, at that age that is very important for them.
CHIDEYA: Shane, we're just about out of time. Very briefly, what do dads need to know about talking to their sons in particular?
Dr. PERRAULT: I think definitely encourage a sense of responsibility and maturity. Definitely education. Hey, you know, if you do X, Y is a likely outcome. I think dads tend to say, oh, that's my boy and everything will be okay and not treat it as though that were their daughter involved. And just kind of make them realize, hey, if you do that, there's a consequence. And why don't you something else and let's try and wait until another time.
CHIDEYA: Well, this is all great information. Shane Perrault, Javonda Williams, thank you so much.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.
Dr. PERRAULT: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Javonda Williams is program director of social work at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama. And Shane Perrault directs the Adolescent and Family Counseling Specialist in Silver Spring, Maryland. He joined us from NPR's Washington D.C. headquarters, and that is our next installment of Sex and Sexuality.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, author Dominic Carter gets personal about surviving abuse. And imagine giving birth the day before Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans journalist Katy Reckdahl did. She tells us her story.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.