ATLANTA _ Pop stars, rap lyrics and peer pressure may encourage sex, but parents must not underestimate their role.
Most children say their parents influence their decisions about sex more than anyone _ or anything _ else.
So, there you have it. When it comes to sex, parents are a powerful force.
Even as teens roll their eyes.
One in five teens has sex by the age of 15, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. And shockingly, one out of four sexually active teenagers has a sexually transmitted disease.
Take a deep breath and keep reading. If you are very uncomfortable with the subject, read some books and discuss your feelings with a trusted friend, relative, physician or clergy member.
Start early and give accurate, age-appropriate information.
Talk about sex in a way that fits the stage of your child. If your 8-year-old asks why boys and girls change so much physically as they grow, you can say something like, "The body has special chemicals called hormones that tell it whether to become a boy or a girl. A boy has a penis and testicles, and when he grows older, his voice gets lower and he gets more hair on his body. A girl has a vulva and vagina, and when she gets older, she grows breasts and her hips grow rounder."
By the time a child enters the seventh grade, it's time to talk the specifics of sex _ your values, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy.
Talk about it again and again.
The big sex talk doesn't work. Make talking about sex an ongoing dialogue.
Look for teachable moments.
If you're in a car with your teen, and the radio's blaring music you don't approve of, start asking questions.
"Instead of saying, 'Oh, that's disgusting, turn it off,' ask, 'Do you know what those words mean? Do you think it's OK to talk about girls like that?' " said Dr. Barbara Frankowski, a professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. TV programming, racy magazine ads, even the "wardrobe malfunction" are all good opportunities for an interactive conversation on the subject.
Avoid preaching and be sincere.
Set ground rules.
As your child enters middle school, and considers dating, set ground rules ahead of time, such as requiring adult supervision.
Bruce Cook, founder of Choosing the Best, an Atlanta-based leader in abstinence-based sex education training and resources, believes solo dating should be off-limits until a child is at least 13 years old. He recommends that parents encourage group dating and gradually give their children more freedom over time so they can anticipate solo dating to begin closer to 16 years old.
Teach your kids how to refuse.
Do role-playing with teens to teach them how to say "no'' to sexual intimacy with someone they care for. For example, help them come up with an alternative in a situation. "No, I am not going to go home with you, but let's go to a movie."
What is sex?
Oral sex is sex, too.
"Parents need to tell their children that sexually transmitted diseases can be caught through oral sex and it's not all that safe," said Cook. "Middle school girls almost see it as a rite of passage, but the influence on them as far as self-esteem is huge and very damaging. But kids will get caught up in thinking it's OK, so you can't just focus on sexual penetration."
Talk about more than the "birds and the bees."
Besides the biological facts, explain to your children that sexual relationships involve caring and responsibility. Discussing the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship can help them make more informed decisions and resist peer pressure.
Parents must also recognize having sexual urges is a natural occurrence and that children just need to understand sex is a good thing when it is at the right time _ with many believing that the right time is marriage.
Abstinence-only or more information?
One of the most controversial areas of education involves whether sex education should include information about contraception. Some believe a discussion about condoms gives children the the green light to sex. Others, such as Frankowski, co-editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics School Health Leadership Manual, believe teenagers need to be armed with appropriate information about contraception to help them make the best decisions. Both sides agree any discussion about contraception must include information about how no contraception is 100 percent effective against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
It's OK to feel nervous.
Even if you can't quite overcome your discomfort, don't worry about admitting it to your kids. It's OK to say something like, "You know, I'm uncomfortable talking about sex because my parents never talked with me about it. But I want us to be able to talk about anything _ including sex _ so please come to me if you have any questions. And if I don't know the answer, I'll find out." And it's OK if your kids are uncomfortable, too.
_ Source: Kaiser Family Foundation
"Parents, Teens and Sex: The Big Talk Book," (Choosing the Best Publishing, $14.95)
"It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex & Sexual Health," by Robie H. Harris (Candlewick Press, $19.99)
A leader in teen-to-teen sexuality education, Sex, Etc. is an award-winning national newsletter and Web site that is written by teens, for teens, on teen sexual health issues. Developed by the Network for Family Life Education, a nonprofit organization, which is based at the Center for Applied Psychology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supported almost entirely by private donations. The campaign's mission is to improve the well-being of children, youth and families by reducing teen pregnancy.
Talking With Kids About Tough Issues is a national campaign by Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The foundation serves as an independent, nonpartisan source of facts and analysis for policy-makers, journalists and the general public.
Helena Oliviero writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: email@example.com
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