Q: My 9-year-old son surprised me by asking what a condom is. What should I tell him?
A: Your son has provided you with what is often referred to as a "teachable moment." By providing him with an honest and straightforward answer to this question you will indicate your willingness to discuss topics related to human sexuality. In families where parents are unwilling to do so, teen-agers must rely on other sources -- friends and the media -- which often give a distorted, inaccurate or unbalanced view.
You should first try to determine what or why he is asking, rather than attempt to answer the question you think he may be asking. His question may have nothing to do with an interest in using condoms, but rather with the fact that someone at school was joking about them. Once you have ascertained what he is after, )) answer him directly. Use a style of communication (humor often helps) that fits your personality; don't be afraid to say that you don't know. Sons often feel more comfortable talking with their ,, fathers (and daughters with their mothers) but there is no reason that such discussions can't involve both parents if everyone feels comfortable.
Answers should also be appropriate to the developmental stage of your son. At 9, he may be interested only in what a condom is or does (something that men or women use to prevent pregnancy or certain kinds of infections of diseases). If he's a bit more sophisticated, your answer may lead into a discussion of many other topics. Most importantly, however, your willingness to talk now about a sexual topic will send the message that he can come to you as he becomes more curious about this area of his physical and psychological development.
October is PACT (Parents and Children Talking About Sex) Month publicized by the American Hospital Association.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.