FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is News and Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Sex is everywhere. It's on TV, online, and on the minds of your children. Nearly half of all high schoolers say they've already had sex. That's according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And if that isn't enough to panic many parents, then what about the talk? You know, the big talk about sex. For small kids, that could be where do babies come from. For teens, it might include some frank information about sexually transmitted diseases. So how do you start the conversation, and what should you say? For some advice, we've got Dr. Sharon Maxwell. She's a clinical psychologist and author of "The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear from You About Sex." Dr. Maxwell, welcome.
Dr. SHARON MAXWELL (Clinical Psychologist and Author): Thanks. Good to be with you.
CHIDEYA: So you start your book by talking about a conversation you had with your young son. Tell us about what prompted that.
Dr. MAXWELL: Well, he was 7 years old. He got in the car, put his seatbelt on, and he said to me, Mom, do you know what a hooker and a stripper are? And I was a little bit floored because I had been pretty much the mother from hell in terms of making sure that I knew everything he had ever seen, and I was the one that was acculturating my children. I wasn't having the media do it, and what the story turned out to be is he'd been at the playground that day and a bunch of boys had been talking about a video game that one of them had been playing. He told me that, Mom, you know, if you kill enough people, you get to go into a room where a lady takes off her top. That's what a stripper is. And if you kill more people and you get to a higher level of the game, you get to go into a room where a lady takes off all her clothes. That's what a hooker is. Well, needless to say, I was really floored because without anything coming from me or the home, he already had in his mind a connection between violence and killing and sexuality.
CHIDEYA: So what did you do?
Dr. MAXWELL: Well, I started to think long and hard. I mean, I was a psychologist anyway, and I saw a lot of teens. I also saw that there was a whole attitude about sexuality that I was seeing in my office that was very different than anything I'd seen before. And I started to think about how can I begin to talk about sex with my own kids and with these teens in a way that's going to empower them, but also fill in some of the gaps that's missing. Like it's not just about what are they doing or an anatomy lesson. It's not just about sexuality transmitted diseases. It's about sexual desire. It's about the power of sexy. It's about being sold this idea that it's so very important to have this power because that's how you get attention.
CHIDEYA: Now, you obviously can't control the entire media if you're a parent. And how much do you think you can even control what your kids see? I mean, obviously, as you mentioned, you were trying to be a very, very hands-on parent and yet you couldn't ultimately control what your son saw - or what, at least, he heard.
Dr. MAXWELL: Exactly. And this is why I ended up thinking so much about this and writing the book because it was really clear to me that, you know, short of moving into a cave, there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent him from understanding what a man - how a man uses his sexuality in a very negative way, and that I needed to get there first. I need to give him a frame of reference to be thinking about sexuality differently. And even though he was only 7, I had to move in and start talking.
CHIDEYA: So give us some specifics. When you're talking to a 7-year-old, what do you say - because there's some level of sophistication. They can do all sorts of things and understand all sorts of words. But then, there's a lot of stuff that a 7-year-old may not understand.
Dr. MAXWELL: Absolutely. And I think parents should know that the average age for kids in America hearing about sex, hearing about sexual intercourse, is 8 years old. And most of them hearing about it is either in the playground, on the school bus. They're not getting good information. They're not getting it in a way that the parent would like them to. So first of all, you get in there and you actually do the biology lesson. And you do it well, and you do it with a book that has some pictures and, you know, you kind of take a deep breath and you just say this is sex. There's a lot more to the story than that. It's something that happens when you become a big person. Not now, but I want to tell you about it because it's so important, and I want you to understand how our family thinks about this because you're going to be hearing a lot of stuff out there.
CHIDEYA: What about if you haven't had the talk and then you figure out well, I guess we should have the talk. But your kid is like 13 years old. How does that change things?
Dr. MAXWELL: Well, you know, first of all, be ready for them to tell you that they don't need to hear anything because they know it already. Be ready for them to roll their eyes and walk out of the room. You have to do it anyway. Because you're not - at that point, you're not giving them what is sex. They know it already. You might want to go there, but in fact, you can be pretty sure that they're understanding that. What you're trying to do at that point is raise a child who understands how to use their sexual energy in a healthy, respectful, ethical way. And that's no easy task in a culture that's really selling them to kind of work their sexy as much as they can as a way of getting attention and power.
You know, you have to come to terms yourself with how you feel about sexuality and this power of sexy thing that's being sold to the kids. And you have to say, listen, this is how I feel about it. I understand you're going to be making decisions on your own, but I'd like to hear how you think about it because it's such a big topic. The same way we don't send them out into the world to - with a power of a car, you know without giving them driver ed. Well, you know, they have the power of their sexuality. All of that sexual energy inside of them, we're sending them out into a world that's really only about manipulating that for profit. And we haven't given them the basic instruction on how a good man and a good woman handles their sexual energy.
CHIDEYA: What do you think the role of the schools and the government is in sex ed because it's been incredibly controversial. Both the idea of abstinence-only education, but even, you know, in some cases, people not wanting any form of sexual education. In other cases, in other communities or neighborhoods, people are saying well, let's have the condoms in the schools. There's a wide variety of responses, I guess is what I'm saying. How do you think schools and neighborhoods should proceed?
Dr. MAXWELL: I think we're thinking about it inaccurately. I mean, there's a part where we as a community must protect our kids from sexually transmitted diseases. There's an educational component. I think where we get into trouble is when we start to tell kids how to use their sexual energy. I think that's really the domain of the family and if that family includes religious instruction, then the domain of religion. You know, parents have a right to let their kids know how they think sexual energy should be used and shouldn't be used. Schools, I think, have a right to protect the school body from sexually transmitted diseases and to inform about the basics that are going to keep kids safe. When it comes to what to do with the sexual energy, that's where I think each community has to decide, you know, how they want to go there. The reason I wrote this book, and I do teach a sexual health curriculum. But I always include the parents, and I let them know: I'm leaving this part to you, and I'm going to be doing this part. But please don't ignore that other part because that's what they really need to hear about.
CHIDEYA: So you do a lot of consulting with not - you know, you've written this book but you also work on developing curricula that are used by other people in your absence. Give me an example of a couple things you might put in a curriculum.
Dr. MAXWELL: Well, for example, I think it's incredibly important to talk about sexual desire. Now, parents are always saying to me, what do I do about the clothes? You know, they wear such provocative clothes. Well, in my curriculum, there's a whole part about desire and sexual energy and I'll say to a group of fifth or sixth graders, you know, right now, where do you think the level of sexual energy in this room is? And they'll say you know, two or three on the scale of one to 10. And I'll say, OK. So now imagine that a really good-looking, attractive lady walks into the room with a bikini on. What would happen to the sexual energy in the room? And they all, you know, giggle and they point their thumbs up and they say, well, it would go up. I said yeah, imagine this.
We have the power to shift the energy in the room simply by how we act, what we wear, and how we talk. Now, if we're conscious of that, then we understand we have a responsibility to the environment we're in at any given moment to keep the sexual energy at a place where it should be to accomplish what we're there to do. It gives you a way of talking about sexuality and sexual energy that lets a kid know that sexual energy can be manipulated. Theirs is being manipulated all the time by advertisers as well as the fact that they have the power to manipulate other people's sexual energy. And that's what they're doing by how they talk and how they dress.
CHIDEYA: Any final tips for people who may, for example, have been listening to this and now be even more panicked about the talk that they have to give?
Dr. MAXWELL: Well, the things that I really love to say to parents is, you care about your kids. So that put you head and tails above everybody else when it comes to talking about this. Even if you botch it really, really badly, you're way better than MTV.
CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Maxwell, thanks so much.
Dr. MAXWELL: It's been my pleasure.
CHIDEYA: Dr. Sharon Maxwell is a clinical psychologist and author of "The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear from You About Sex." She was at member station WGBH in Boston.