Last week, a friend posted this question on Facebook: “Help! How should I handle my 8-year-old questioning me about the ‘Sex Tape’ billboards around town?” Her post received comments with suggestions that ranged from outright lying to deceit, denial, deafness and the favorite of many moms, “Ask your dad.” Rather than run away from the question, though, I think we need to make the Sex Tape billboard into a teachable moment.
We live in a world with sex-saturated media all around us, but struggle as parents to know what to say and when to say it when it comes to educating our children about sex and human sexual development. If we could take down all the billboards, TV commercials, etc. and place reliable filters on every single computer, then perhaps we could avoid exposing our children to sex until they sought it out as an adult. But we can’t. What we can do as parents is to use the questions that arise and the images that surround us as teachable moments, opportunities to educate our children and share our values.
In response to my friend’s plea for help about the Sex Tape billboard, I suggested she say the following: “It’s a movie about a man and woman who were doing something private that they wanted to share just between the two of them, and they made a video of it and that video accidentally got sent out to other people.” I suggested she follow up with a question such as, “How do they look in that billboard? What’s the expression on their faces like?”
After her child responded, I recommended that she say something like, ”You’re right, they look worried. It is really worrisome and upsetting if something you do in private or something like sex, which is meant to be special between two people, gets seen by other people. You would never want to video yourself doing something that would make you worried, upset or embarrassed if someone else saw it.”
We know that initiating conversations about sex can be difficult for some parents. If you’re one of those, you’re not at all alone. Research shows that less than half of families are discussing sex with their children, but close to 90 percent think it’s a good idea to have these conversations. Studies also indicate that when children are able to talk with a parent or other trusted adult about sex, they are less likely to engage in early and/or unprotected sexual intercourse than are teens who haven’t talked with a trusted adult.
If you are committed to keeping your kids safe and healthy, then addressing sexual images and messages in the media is an important step in the right direction. By confronting sexually explicit song lyrics and on-screen teen romance scenes head-on, you can educate your children about this important aspect of their development and share with them your family’s values regarding love, intimacy, sex and relationships. By using teachable moments in the media, you are demonstrating your openness and willingness to discuss topics related to sex and sexuality, and helping ensure that your child has accurate information and a strong understanding of where you stand on these important issues.
Becoming the primary sexual health educator of your children is part of parenting in the 21st century. There is no way to raise our children in today’s world without addressing sex. If they don’t learn about it from us, they’re going to seek out the information anyway!
In general, kids ages 8 to 12 are in the stage of development when they are more likely to ask questions about sex and sexuality. Driving in the car is an excellent occasion to use the teachable moment approach. You have a captive audience and you don’t have to freak out your child with direct eye contact during conversations that initially might make everyone uncomfortable.
Opportunities are all around us to engage our kids. Use cues from billboards, TV shows, videos, movies, books, ads and other people’s conversations as starters for your own questions, such as “What did you think about that scene where those two characters start kissing at the party?”
Talking about sex doesn’t mean you are encouraging anyone to go out there and “do it.” On the contrary, if you talk about values and facts, your kids are more likely to continue to come to you with questions and to make better decisions. At the end of the day, we want our kids to be healthy, safe and able to come to us and trust we will support, guide and understand them.
Tracy LevineWallace,owner of Can We Talk Health Education, holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health from TulaneUniversity and has spent more than 20yearsas ahealtheducator.Sheis anexpertinsexualandreproductive health careandhas been nationally recognizedfor her work in teenagepregnancy prevention. Tracy is a mother of two young daughters who provide her with daily inspiration for her work. Visit www.canwetalkhealthed.com for more information.