``Let me tell ya 'bout the birds and the bees Telling children about sex hans't gotten any easier--and somtimes they already know

November 09, 1990|By Randi Henderson

In an article in yesterday's Today section about parents talking to children about sex, the school attended by Hamilton Johns was identified incorrectly. He is a student at Roland Park Middle School.

The Sun regrets the error.

The mother of two teen-aged boys remembers having open and frank discussions about sex with her sons as they were growing up.

got a couple of good books from my pediatrician's office," said Linda, who asked that her full name not be used. "We just talked about it. I wasn't embarrassed."


Her sons' memories have a different cast to them, however.

"My mom is pretty good about things, but everything I've ever learned and my friends have learned has been from each other," said her son Justin, a junior at Polytechnic High School. "Most of the stuff I heard from my parents I already knew."

"My folks were always there to answer questions," added his brother Adam, who goes to college in Massachusetts. "But I'm a reader and most of what I know I found out through books."

In this age of birth control clinics in public schools and increasingly explicit sexual material in the media, it would seem that those once onerous parent-child discussions about the facts of life would be easier to handle than ever before.

They certainly seem more urgent, with the rise of AIDS and the increasing sexual activity among young people. (See article below.)

But even for the generation which weathered the so-called sexual revolution, these heart-to-hearts often remain difficult. And parents and their children frequently reveal a dual perception of what actually went on during their talks about the birds and the bees.

"It's a very, very complex issue," said June Reinisch, director of the Kinsey Institute, which has surveyed American sexual attitudes and habits since the '50s. "Of course, many parents find it very difficult to talk about sexual behavior with their children. In fact, many find it difficult to talk about it with their sexual partners."

She added, "One of the big problems is that people are lacking information. If parents are comfortable and have good information, they can be wonderful sex educators. They can contexualize the sexual information into the fabric of family values, ethics, morals and religious beliefs. Sex is embedded in all of these."

Pirkko Graves, a Baltimore clinical psychologist, has noted "instances when parents can say all the right things in a simple way but the child hears it in his or her framework. The correct messages are filtered through a child's belief systems or emotions and you get interesting distortions."

For example, when a parent explains pregnancy by talking about a "seed" being planted, a young child may envision a tree or other vegetation growing within a woman and get confused, she said.

Such distortions may come as a surprise. Karen Johnson (not her real name) thought two years ago that her daughter Patty, now 13, had a pretty clear understanding of sex and its role in a relationship. "My husband and I kiss and hug openly," she said. "We try to give off the aura of a loving couple."

But an offhand conversation, during which Patty learned that her mother had had a miscarriage between her two pregnancies, turned out to be a real eye-opener. "She looked at me," Mrs. Johnson recalls, "and said, 'You mean you and Dad did it more than twice!' There was genuine shock in her voice."

Confusion like this is easier to straighten out with pre-adolescent children than with teen-agers on the verge of sexual experimentation.

"This really needs to be done prior to puberty," said Dr. Reinisch, "because around puberty, around the seventh grade, children start to discount what adults tell them. The trick is to get the information in while they're still believing what adults tell them."

Dr. Leon Rosenberg, a Johns Hopkins child psychologist, agrees. "By the time a child is 9, parents should have been able to sit down and have a full, detailed discussion about the details of sex and morality. The more information kids can get from their parents, the better."

"When I was 5 or 6 I first had questions about how you get sexually transmitted diseases," remembers Hamilton Johns, 11, a seventh grader at Roland Park Country School. "I talked to my mom and my dad and it wasn't embarrassing, they let me speak very openly.

"I think it's best to find out from your parents. Your parents will talk to you seriously about it. Your friends will just joke and laugh and make fun of the subject."

His father, Paul Johns, is president of the Parent-Student-Teacher Association at Dunbar High. Dunbar is one of seven schools where city health department clinics began dispensing contraceptives this year, a policy Mr. Johns favors because it is done in the context of health care and counseling.

He remembers beginning his sons' sex education by answering questions like "Why do women have breasts?" and "Why do girls have to sit down to go to the bathroom?" From there, he said, "it just evolved."

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