By Megan McChesney
Maybe you think your child doesn’t know much about sexuality, and doesn’t really need to. And even if he did pick up on a few things, he certainly wouldn’t act on anything, right? (Insert desperately hopeful gaze here.) The truth is, your kids may be exposed to more than you realize — think playground gossip, or best bud’s computer — and their best source of accurate sexuality info is you.
By this age, kids should know basic anatomy and proper related terms, the fundamentals of intercourse and sexual activity as well as its consequences, including pregnancy and protection. This info isn’t just for their future adult lives; it’s also for their safety. “They really need to know that they can say no to any sexual activity and that they can look to you for protection,” says Meg Hickling, a Vancouver-based nurse, sexual health educator and author of The New Speaking of Sex (Northstone).
And though some of the information gets passed along via the school curriculum, you can’t be sure it’s sinking in or being delivered properly. Don’t hesitate to check in at school to find out what your child is learning so that you can give her a little background info, or brush up on your own knowledge in preparation for any questions she might have. “Don’t assume because she’s heard this once that your child will remember it all or will understand it all,” advises Kim Martyn, a Toronto-based sexual health educator and co-author of Changes in You and Me (Key Porter).
Put aside any fears that you might be dishing too much. “I don’t think it’s ever possible to tell a child too much if you stick to science, health and safety,” explains Hickling. “Parents often think, “I can’t tell them that, they don’t need to know that yet,’ but kids at this age will only take in what they need to know.” In some situations, your child will let you know when she’s reached her limit. Sherri Boland, mom of two and a vice-principal from Whitby, Ont., knows when her 11-year-old, Meghan, has heard enough. “When I see her getting uncomfortable, I know it’s time to end the discussion. She needs time to digest and reflect on the information.”
In some cases, sex chats can be just as, if not more, excruciating for parents. But it’s important to just grin and bear it. Kids at this age can be grossed out or embarrassed by sex-related topics, but don’t let that discourage you. As Hickling advises: “Never let a child this age end the conversation by saying “I know this.’ Ask him what he knows. You have to talk through the embarrassment, both yours and your child’s.” And an open line of communication is usually worth any discomfort and provides some peace of mind, says Boland. “I like the idea that they are getting correct information from me, versus incorrect or inexperienced information from their friends.”
Despite the fact that Megan McChesney has a healthy amount of experience writing about sexuality, she still squirmed when her 12-year-old cousin asked her to explain the clitoris.
“It’s important to sit down in a quiet place without any other siblings or people around. You need to focus on your child and not be distracted.”
Sherri Boland, mom of Meghan, 11
“Talk in the car. The kids are captive, and you don’t have to make eye contact if it’s uncomfortable. It’s funny how many parents have also told me they can talk when it’s dark, like in a tent in the summertime.”
Meg Hickling, nurse and grandmother of five, including a 10-year-old girl
“Start with a teachable moment, or ask them to tell you about what they have been learning so far in school. You can also give your child a book or pamphlet to spark conversation. Many kids are comfortable with books, and then it doesn’t put the onus on the parent to know the right words to use.”
Kim Martyn, sex educator and mother of two daughters, 17 and 20
What do they know about sex when they’re teens? Keep reading to take the teen sex quiz.