The sixties saw a noisy confrontation between sex educators who wanted to introduce more than birds, bees and hamsters into the curriculum and people who felt that parents alone should tell their children the facts of life. Now that the furor has died down, some question the effectiveness of those sex education programs that remain. Here's what you can do to make sure your children receive the information they need in this sensitive area.
One father we know recently pulled a Watergate in his own home, taping a conversation between himself and his two school-age sons. Here's how it went: "You know, you two asked me this morning how we get children-remember?" "Yeah." "Well, remember how we talked about the similarities and differences between animals and human beings? You know that every animal has a different number of chromosomes? And every animal has a mother and a father? He gets half of his chromosomes from..." "... the female. Right?" "Right. And half from the father." "But, Daddy, how does he get half the chromosomes from the mother and half from the father?" "I can't quite hear you — your mouth's full of bread." "I mean, you know, dogs, they breed. How do you and Mommy breed?" "That's the question, isn't it..." "Yeah, that's the question we asked this morning." "'Well, couldn't you guess?" "Nope." "Well, you know, Bones out there in the yard — Tuffy is his mother and he looks a lot like his mother and Bandit is his father, so it would be silly for you guys to think that I could be your father unless you had some of my chromosomes. Right? You are one-half me and one-half your mother." "Oh." "You remember meiosis and mitosis, don't you? lt works in people just like in animals. Now does that answer your question?" "Well — you still haven't told me about how I get half of you and half of Mommy." "Okay — you know how Tufly has a special place in her belly called a uterus where her puppies grow? And Mommy has a special place where you grew? And Tuffy feeds her puppies milk just like Mommy fed you when you were born?" "Yes..." "So you see how similar we are to animals?" "But, Dad, that still doesn't answer our question. How do I get half of you and half of Mom?" "Well, you have to put it there." "But how???!" "How..." "Yeah, that was our question all the time." "You mean, how does a man put his seed in the woman?" "Right!" "Well, you didn't ask that." "Well, that's what we meant; you Just didn't know what to say." (Giggle) "Oh, well, that's easy to answer. Uh, when you grow older, a little boy's body starts to change..."
A Common Problem
This father (an open-minded type who has no trouble at all talking about sex with his adult buddies) was shocked when he listened to the instant replay ("I couldn't believe it — I was so embarrassed!"'). He eventually got the necessary information across, but not without a lot more hemming, hawing, and groping for words. Many of us parents share his problem. While we want to give our kids the benefit of our knowledge and approach to the "facts of life," many times actually getting down to doing it means overcoming an almost insurmountable emotional obstacle. For the most part, we didn't learn about sex from our parents, but from friends, the medical encyclopedia in our local library, or the centerfold of some under-the-counter publication. And since our parents didn't really tell us the facts of life, we don't know how to go about telling our children. In spite of the overwhelming hard sell sex gets in the media, a lot of kids today still don't know what it's all about. They may be more sexually active than the previous generation, but their actual knowledge about their bodies and the consequences of what they're doing is woefully inadequate. As the box on the next page shows, a lot of college-age young people today had to pick up whatever knowledge they possess from the usual unofficial sources: friends, encyclopedias, pornographic novels, and so on. And since the sex-education controversy m the U.S. in the sixties, many American school systems have shied away from developing and presenting really comprehensive sex-education programs. The programs that do exist don't reach all the kids, and the young people that attend such classes may not retain all they're taught. But it's not just the physiology or "plumbing diagrams" that kids don't have a chance to learn. Human sexuality is something that cannot be divorced from its place in the overall framework of society. Handling one's sexuality wisely and responsibly comes under the heading of morality, and morality isn't a subject that most schools teach. A moral perspective — the way a child relates to life — is usually best imparted to a child by his parents during his very early development. But it's difficult to compete with all the other influences that bombard a child daily, and the older a child gets, sometimes the harder it becomes to communicate. (For example, one nineteen-year-old girl recalls: "When my mother told me about menstruation, I already knew and told her to forget it.") So how can parents beat the rest of the world to the punch, so to speak? How can they make sure they're the ones who impart the right kind of wholesome, responsible attitudes about sex to their children?
First of all, parents have to make sure they are themselves well versed on the subject. Elizabeth Calleton (see following interview) says that while they're in the minority, "there are forty-year-old women who don't know any more about their anatomy and physiology than a thirteen-year-old girl." And there are probably forty-year-old men who are just as ignorant on a technical. level. If anyone feels the need to bone up on basic knowledge in this area, his local Planned Parenthood Association can provide him with a wealth of educational information and even adult classes in many cases — or he might want to read on the subject alone — he'll be inundated by a veritable avalanche of material at his local bookstore or library. Works like Dr. David Reuben's What You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask explain the physical basics adequately. Taking a sex education class sometimes has the added benefit of making it easier to discuss the subject at home. Some people who can't bring themselves to say certain words out loud can many times overcome this inhibition in a formal learning situation where such terms are used matter-of-factly by instructors and other adults.
Getting There First
Getting yourself properly educated about sex is the first step. Next, experts concur that the only way you as a parent can win the race with the gutter is to educate your child about sex at the earliest possible opportunity. If you wait till nursery school, it might be too late. (Any information you give your children should of course be tailored to their level of understanding. Trying to give them too much too soon can result in boredom or disinterest) Educators agree that parents need to create an atmosphere of open communication on all subjects — then when questions about sex arise, they can be candidly and openly answered according to a child's level of understanding. Some parents (conditioned by their own parents' awkwardness) worry that children will be embarrassed or frightened by explicit, honest answers. Children who ask questions are curious — they want to know. And their attitude will be matter-of-fact as long as yours is. They want to find out, and they will find out (accurately or not) sooner than most parents would like to believe. Some child-care experts believe it's a good idea for parents to acquaint themselves with the real medical names for all body parts and functions, and teach these names to their children at the same time they teach them about toes and fingers. And they of course feel it's a lot easier (and a lot more honest) to tell kids exactly where they came from (and how they got here) the first time they ask, rather than giving them the traditional runaround about storks or cabbage patches. Pregnant friends or relatives can be a big help in this early education. It's fun for youngsters to listen to an unborn baby's heartbeat or feel him kick. It's also fun to help change diapers or give babies baths. This sort of open, natural approach can teach kids worlds more than any book. But books can also be helpful — although it's better to read and discuss them with kids at an early age instead of waiting till they can read them alone. Reading Bible stories to children can also open up all sorts of opportunities to discuss the morality of sex. An unexpurgated Bible might get an X-rating from some censors, but the stories it contains all have socially redeeming value — they teach a lot of important lessons that won't be lost on young minds. Also you can draw your own parallels between the way biblical characters behaved and the behavior you expect from your children. And it goes without saying that one of the best ways to show children how sex fits into a well-lived life is by one's own example. If a marriage demonstrates the responsibility love and tenderness it ought, then children will pick up that attitude by osmosis. (For more on this subject, see the article Marriage Soon Obsolete?) If you can make sex education a normal, natural, integral part of family life; if you can reach your kids' minds at a very early age, then you'll probably have nothing to worry about gutter-wise. When it's time for your girl to go to a slumber party, she'll be the one to dish out the straight scoop on "how it's done." She'll be the "gutter" the other kids learn from (although it's probably good to let a child know that most parents like to spread the word in their own special way when their children are ready). If and when your child's school covers human sexuality in class, you'll know that your child will be able to take this "neutral" information and view it through eyes that have already been trained to discern good and bad according to your family value system. And when your son or daughter must make a personal decision about sex before marriage, then you'll know that they know how you expect them to behave, and the compelling reasons why.