Birds, bees and kids who aren't listening

November 09, 1997|By Susan Reimer

I RAISE CHILDREN for a living.

I interview experts on child-rearing. I read books written by experts. I go to workshops and conferences where I listen to more experts. And I stick my nose into the lives of regular parents to see how they do it.

Then I go home and try the stuff I learn on my own kids.

The next day, I come into the office and write about what happens when I do.

So you don't have to tell me that sex education is a lifelong conversation between parents and children, not a one-time, 15-minute talk before bed.

I know that.

You don't have to tell me that sex education is a continuing exchange between parents and children and not a lecture by mom or dad.

I have had experts tell me that.

I know that sex education is more than a plumbing lesson. I know it is a conveyance of values and expectations.

I read that in a book. I heard it in a lecture. I learned it at a conference.

But when I went home to try this out on my kids, I found that this conversation between us about sex and love and values is not continuing. It is not lifelong. It lasts as long as it takes my kids to walk out of the room in disgust.

I know, too, about "teachable moments," those times when an opportunistic parent will take the excuse of a question or a television program or a newspaper headline to talk about sex and love and commitment and values.

But teachable moments in my house last only as long as it takes my kids to mutter, "Don't worry about it, Mom," and leave the room.

How do you have these conversations with your children when they won't listen to you unless you're talking about what you are going to do for them next?

How do you initiate these casual but meaningful dialogues with your teen-ager when the only times the two of you speak is when one of you is raising your voice?

How do you convey values when you are both so prickly and irritable over the process of their growing up that you can barely stand to be in the same room?

How do you have a conversation when your child mumbles and mutters and grunts responses that could be called one-word answers if they were whole words and if they were answers?

(President Clinton had to get a pair of hearing aids because, his doctors said, his hearing had been damaged by rock music and campaigning. But I don't think President Clinton is hard of hearing at all. He just thinks he is hard of hearing because Chelsea mumbled answers to his question, "How was school today?")

I tried watching a sex education video with my children -- because it seems they will watch anything that can be punched into a VCR -- and as soon as they awoke to the subject matter they got up and left the room. They were indignant, and acted as though they had been tricked.

It seems the only way I can talk to my kids about sex is if I tie them to a chair and gag them.

These lifelong, continuing conversations about sex, love, commitment and values do not take place in front of the fire with my son and daughter curled up in the crook of my elbow.

These talks most often consist of me following behind and yapping at them as they walk out of the room.

When I started this process several years ago, my children looked at me as if I were speaking in tongues. They were baffled. What was I talking about?

Now, they know. And they don't want to hear me talk about it any more than they would want to see me do it.

They are repulsed. Horrified. Disgusted. Embarrassed. They think I am ridiculous.

One is still staging weddings between her stuffed animals, and the other's idea of a wild night is a marathon Warhammer game with his buddies and all the Coca-Cola they can drink.

Neither one has ever been on the phone with a member of the opposite sex, let alone in the back seat of a parked car.

Am I nuts? they want to know.

Defeated, I did what I usually do.

I called an expert.

The people at Campaign for Our Children of Baltimore, which battles teen pregnancy with ad campaigns, has been talking to kids about sex for 10 years, through posters and television spots that are as hip as you wanna be.

"Will you talk to mine?" I asked. "Can I drop them off after school?" I wanted to know. "They learned about the plumbing in health class. So you just have to do the love, commitment and values part.

"Throw in some stuff about the deadly peril of unprotected sex, and I'll pick them up about 6."

Leave it to the professionals. That's what I always say.

Kristin Ditillo is one of those professionals. She is associate director of Campaign for Our Children, and her job is talking to kids about sex -- and talking to parents about talking to kids about sex.

She said the things I have heard other experts say: Start early; don't wait for them to ask; listen to what they ask and give them concrete answers. (For the record, she also said sex education is a continuing process and a lifelong conversation.)

But Kristin Ditillo said something else.

"Parents often think their teens are just tuning them out and that their words are wasted. Wrong. Research shows teens do listen to their parents and want to know what they think.

"Don't give up," Ditillo said. "Even if it seems their minds are anywhere but on your conversation."

Keep talking. Don't give up. Even if it seems to you that sex education is you talking and your child under a set of stereo headphones.

Keep talking, because they will hear you. No matter how contentious your relationship is right now, you must believe that your words will touch their hearts and be written there.

Keep talking. Believe they will hear you. Because there is no other way.

Parents who want help in talking to their children about sex can contact Campaign for Our Children at 410-576-9015 or at its Web site, http: //

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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