"Where did you learn about sex and sexuality?" A casual survey among teenagers was revealing -- they learn about the facts of life mostly from friends, books, magazines, TV, movie, pop songs, and the Internet. Very few indeed have the privilege of being taught by their parents on this crucial aspect of life.
Should sex education be left to the domain of schools? Many parents who find it awkward to broach the subject would be glad to delegate the responsibility to the schools. But by doing so, we are also missing out on the opportunity and joy of establishing a closer relationship with our children.
A heart-to-heart talk on the issues of growing-up is certainly good for bonding. Perhaps the hurdle is not so much a parent's reluctance, but a lack of know-how. Questions like "How do I get started?" or "When do I begin?" may be on the mind of a parent, causing him to procrastinate or simply avoid the issue altogether.
A seven-year-old boy once asked his mother, "What is sex, mummy?" Caught unprepared, the mother tried to stall the conversation. "Er… mummy is not free right now. Can we talk about it later?." "But I need to know how to fill in this line in the form which says ‘Sex, F or M'."
Very often, children form their own understanding and perception of things from their exposure to the media. For example, the term "oral sex" has appeared frequently in the papers. A mother overheard this conversation between two primary school going brothers.
"What is oral sex?" asked the younger one. The older brother replied matter-of-factly, "You see, in English we have written and oral English. Oral English is when you speak English. So oral sex is when you talk about sex." How does a mother handle situation like this when a child is exposed to information not appropriate for his age? Knowledge about sex should be age appropriate. It's important to know when to teach what.
Schools and educators also play an important role in teaching our teenagers about sexuality. But sex education programmes in Malaysia is still in its infancy and more often than not, limited to studies on our physiology and biology lessons on reproduction.
Ideally, the primary source of information should be communicated by parents. The home is arguably a more effective setting for such instruction rather than schools if there is good parent-child communication. When parents are able to talk openly and honestly about sexuality, their children will listen.
Parents have the tremendous, yet humbling responsibility to make sure that their children are properly instructed. And who is in a better position than they themselves to impart the right information, moral values and wholesome attitude regarding sexuality.
Ignorance is no excuse. There are materials available in the market which could be used as a guide or launch pad for further discussions. Many have found Dr. Dobson's "Preparing for Adolescence" useful. In his book "Solid Answers" Dr. Dobson touches on some questions pertaining to this topic.
Question: What are your feelings with regard to coed sex-education programs?
Answer: I have severe reservation about highly explicit discussions occurring with both sexes present. To do so breaks down the natural barriers that help to preserve virginity and makes casual sexual experimentation much more likely to occur. It also strips kids -- especially girls -- of their modesty to have every detail of anatomy, physiology, intercourse, and condom usage made explicit in coed situations.
Those who have thereby become familiar and conversant about the most intimate subjects later find themselves watching explicit sexual scenes in movies, rock videos, and hot television programs. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognise the combined impact of these influences. Whereas it was a weighty decision to give up one's virginity in decades past, it is but a small step for those whose conditioning began in the school classroom.
Familiarity "breeds," as we all know. I am also convinced that the incidence of date rape rises when the barriers that help a girl protect herself is removed.
Question: Who do you think should tell children the facts of life, and when should that instruction begin?
Answer: For those parents who are able to handle the instructional process correctly, the responsibility for sex education should be retained in the home. There is a growing trend for all aspects of education to be taken from their hands (or the role is deliberately forfeited by them).
This is unwise. Particularly in the matter of sex education, the best approach is one that begins casually and naturally in early childhood and extends through the years, according to a policy of openness, frankness, and honesty. Only parents can provide this lifetime training -- being there when the questions arise and the desire for information is evidenced.
Unfortunately, moms and dads often fail to do the job. Some are too sexually inhibited to present the subject with poise, or they may lack the necessary technical knowledge of the human body. Another common mistake is to wait until puberty is knocking at the door and then try to initiate a desperate, tension-filled conversation that embarrasses the kid and exhausts the parent. If this is the way sex education is going to be handled, there has to be another alternative to consider.
Question: I would like to teach my own child about human sexuality, but I'm not sure I know how to go about it. Talk about the matter of timing. When do I say what?
Answer: One of the most common mistakes made by parents and many over-zealous educators is teaching too much too soon. One parent told me, for example, that the kindergarten children in her local district were shown films of animals in the act of copulation.
That is unwise and dangerous! Available evidence indicates that there are numerous hazards involved in moving too rapidly. Children can sustain a severe emotional jolt by being exposed to realities for which they are not prepared.
Furthermore, it is unwise to place the youngster on an informational timetable that will result in full awareness too early in life. If eight-year-old children are given an understanding of mature sexual behaviour, it is less likely that they will wait ten or twelve years to apply this knowledge within the confines of marriage.
General speaking, children should be given the information they need at a particular age. Six-year-olds, for example, don't need to understand the pleasure of adult sexuality. They are not ready to deal with that concept at their developmental stage. They should be told where babies come from and how they are born.
Sometime between six and nine, depending on the maturity and interest of an individual (and what is being heard in the neighbourhood), he or she ought to understand how conception occurs. The rest of the story can be told later in primary school.
Admittedly, this ideal timetable can be turned upside down by exposure to precocious friends, racy videos, or unwise adults. When that occurs, you have to cope with the fallout as best as possible. It is regrettable that we expose our vulnerable children too far too much of the wrong kind of sexuality.
Question: How do I get started? Is there a natural way to get into the topic?
Answer: Fortunately, most children will ask for information when they need it. You should be ready to grab those opportunities at the drop of a hat. Sometimes very little warning is given.
Our daughter asked for very specific details when she was only seven years old, catching her mother off guard. My wife stalled for an hour, during which she alerted me. Then the three of us sat on the bed drinking hot chocolate and talking about matters we hadn't expected to discuss for several years. You never know when such a moment will arrive, and you need to think it through in advance.
Although those spontaneous conversations are easiest, some children never ask the right questions. Some boys and girls have "inquiring minds that want to know," while others never give the subject of sex a second thought. If your child is one of those who seem disinterested, you're still on the hook. The task must get done. Someone else will do the job if you won't -- someone who may not share your values.
Question: You've indicated when sex education should begin. When should it end?
Answer: You should plan to end your formal instructional program about the time your son or daughter enters puberty (the time of rapid sexual development in early adolescence). Puberty usually begins between ten and thirteen for girls and between eleven and fourteen for boys.
Once they enter this developmental period, they are typically embarrassed by discussions of sex with their parents. Adolescents usually resent adult intrusion during this time -- unless they raise the topic themselves. In other words, this is an area where teens should invite parents into their lives.
I feel that we should respect their wishes. We are given ten or twelve years to provide the proper understanding of human sexuality. After that foundation has been laid, we serve primarily as resources to whom our children can turn when the need exists. That is not to say parents should abdicate their responsibility to provide guidance about issues related to sexuality, dating, marriage, etc., as opportunities present themselves.
Again, sensitivity of the feelings of the teen is paramount. If he or she wishes to talk, by all means, welcome the conversation. In other cases, parental guidance may be not effective if offered indirectly. Trusted youth workers can often break the ice when parents can't.
This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and extracted from "The Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide" by Dr. James Dobson with permission.