Talking puberty with tweens

I was talking with a friend the other day, and the subject of his 5th grade daughter’s impending Sex Ed class came up.  At his daughter’s school, the parents were invited to view the video their children prior to the official viewing.  And so my friend and his wife attended.  They learned that Sex Ed at this age actually has more to do with an adolescent’s changing body – helping the 5th graders become more familiar with their body parts, as well as the body parts of the opposite sex.  And my friend was able to sit back comfortably for the most part as the video played…well, almost.

“My daughter is never going to look at the world in the same way,” my friend said wistfully as he described a part of the movie that showed an animation of a penis becoming erect.

And it isn’t because he didn’t want her to learn these things.  Of course she needed to know about the human body, about the changes she was going to go through, and even the changes that boys were going through too.  But it mirrored the feelings of many parents as their child is suddenly let in on the fact that their body holds more secrets than they ever knew about – and so does the bodies of their friends and classmates.

In a matter of one video, my friend’s daughter was about to lose her sandbox innocence.

In 5th grade, Sex Ed is introduced in a class about the changes a tween is about to go through: hormones, sweat glands, body odor, menstruation, nighttime secretions, growth spurts, voice changes, and all of the other things that come along with puberty.  Sexual intercourse isn’t discussed yet in this class.  However, what they cover in this short class opens the door to at least a dozen more questions that aren’t answered – and are encouraged to be asked at home.  These questions might be about the different feelings going on inside, feeling abnormal because everything is growing at different rates, even questions that may lead up to the actual Sex Talk, and all that comes along with it.

The impending arrival of these conversations leaves many parents nervous about how and when to bring the topic of sex up.  No one wants their kid to be the only one still believing in the stork by the time they hit high school.  And let me assure you, thanks to their classmates, they won’t.  However, telling your child “Hey buddy, I’d like to talk about sex with you” can illicit an immediate shutdown from your teen who would rather go to the dentist for a root canal than talk about “the deed” with dear old mom and dad. 

So what to do?

There’s no right or wrong way to bring up the subject, as every family is different.  But it is important to pay attention to cues, jumping through when a door has opened up on the subject. 

Bring up their Sex Ed class at school.  This is the easiest time to talk about puberty and sex.  Ask them what they’ve learned.  Open the dialogue up for any questions they have.  Be as honest as you can with them.  If they ask something personal that you don’t feel comfortable answering, like about your own past or present sex life, don’t be afraid to tell them you’d rather keep that personal.  But whatever you do, don’t lie. 

Use the media (and you thought TV was just for zoning out).  Turns out that all you have to do is turn on the Boob Tube, and you’ve got an instant example for sex education.  And believe me, there’s plenty.  Scenarios in different sitcoms, stories on the news, even some commercials can induce a topic on sex education.  Pay attention, and use these examples whenever you can.  Take the opportunity to discuss what could have happened if the person on TV had made a different decision.  Point out instances and consequences that aren’t in line with what would have happened had it occurred in real life.  Discuss the cause and effect someone’s choice created for them. 

Have a safe place for deeper conversations.  For my family, it’s the car.  There’s no one to overhear, making each kid feel more comfortable to share or listen about things of a more personal nature.  And since we’re on the road a lot, I have 20 minutes or more of their undivided attention (read: they have nowhere to escape) as we chat about bigger topics.  Sex is one of those.  This is when I ask them what they already know, answering any questions or correcting anything that might be incorrect or slightly off-base.  And I do my best to make it a two-way conversation rather than a lecture that might get tuned out. 

Gather books, pamphlets, or other educational material on bodies and/or about sex.  However, don’t let the pamphlets or the books do all the talking (as I know many of your own parents did).  Let these merely be the conversation opener.  Sit down with your child after they’ve had the chance to read them (even if they choose not to) and talk about what’s covered in the material.  Of course, that also means you need to read whatever you are passing on to your child.  But then you can tell your kids “You know, I actually found this to be of interest” when referencing a certain section of the book.  And let me tell you, there are actually some really great books out there about growing bodies, many that are made to be interesting to the younger generation.  For my son, I got “The Boy’s Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU”, by Kelli Dunham and Steven Bjorkman.  For my daughter I got “Girl Stuff: A Survival Guide to Growing Up” by Margaret Blackstone and Elissa Haden Guest.  Both books covered not only the physical changes, but talked about hygiene, tips on day-to-day life and interests, as well as touching on emotions that are going on inside.  And while both kids groaned when I handed the books to them, I know for a fact that they have each opened them and at least thumbed through them.  And it helped to introduce a bit of conversation about their bodies.

Use your own experiences.  How did you feel when you suddenly needed to go shopping for a bra with your mom?  Were you embarrassed the first time you got an erection?  Was there a learning curve when it came to knowing how or when to change your pad during your period?  How did you go about disguising zits when they appeared overnight?  Did you ever feel like the most awkward kid at school?  If your child is able see you as the gangly, imperfect tween that you were, they’ll feel more comfortable sharing their own insecurities, fears, questions, or concerns about growing up.

And understand that, by no means, is the Sex Talk a one-time conversation.  Rather, it’s a series of conversations to keep having as they grow older and are in need of more information.  The info you share with them in 5th grade is going to be way different than the conversations about sex you have with them as a teenager.  You don’t have to tell them everything you know the first time you talk – that’s going to either make them tune out, or totally creep them out.  But do know that, if the dialogue is kept open right from the beginning, it will feel way more natural and easy to discuss by the time the harder conversations need to be brought up.

Is your child going through Sex Ed right now?  How’s it going – for them and for you?

P.S. I’ve been nominated in the 25 Best Blogs on Single Parenting over at Circle of Moms, and there is a week left to vote.  So far I’m in 12th place!  But I won’t stay there without continued votes.  Will you take a moment to visit the site and vote?  You can vote for more than one blog (and there are some other really great blogs there!), and you can vote every single day.  Thank you so much!

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