'The Sex Lady' offers lessons for parents

A Baltimore teacher explores changes in child and adolescent sexuality

August 13, 2012|Susan Reimer

Baltimore's school children call her "The Sex Lady," and during the four decades Deborah Roffman has taught them about their bodies, the only thing that hasn't changed is the discomfort of their parents when they try to talk about sex.

Even the sex has changed, becoming casual and transactional, invasive and pervasive. Marketing and advertising have driven the mercury higher. Technology has put sex only a touch or a keystroke away.

"The boundaries that used to separate children's lives from adults' lives have in many respects vanished," said Ms. Roffman, who has taught at Park School for 38 years and often teaches at other independent schools locally and nationwide.

"We spent the 20th century carving out the stages of child development, and marketers have managed to collapse them.

"Now 8-year-olds are just short 14-year-olds. And 14-year-olds are just short 20-year-olds."

And parents are no more equipped to deal with any of this than their kids are. Maybe less, because they were so determined to do a better job than their own parents and now find their role hijacked by ad writers and by electronic gadgets a child can hide in a pocket.

"Children can now screen their parents out of their lives. That's a complete reversal of the natural order of things," said Ms. Roffman. "We were never supposed to be on the outside looking in."

Ms. Roffman has published a new book with the goal of getting parents back inside, back on top, and it includes the lessons she has learned from her best teachers — the kids.

Titled "Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' 'Go To Person' About Sex," she employs the fundamental elements of parenting — affirmation, information, clarity about values, limits and guidance — and applies them to a child's developing sexuality.

She writes with candor about the 2-year-old who has his hand in his britches during church and the 12-year-old who announces to her stunned father that she will be going to parties this school year and she will probably be performing oral sex when she gets there.

And she gives parents a way to think about both, and a way to respond. Because this is about sex, it seems impossible. But what if the 2-year-old was grabbing another child's snack or the 12-year-old declared she was never wearing seat belts again? Wouldn't we know what to say? Wouldn't we react with confidence?

Ms. Roffman listens acutely to her students, and she thinks deeply about what they say — and what they don't say — all the while keeping a sharp eye on the larger world that is changing at lightning speed around them. She sees how vulnerable they are, in every grade from first to twelfth, to the toxic and confusing messages out there, and she arms them with the thinking skills they need to defend themselves.

"Thanks for folding in the facts instead of making them the point," a student wrote on an evaluation of one of Ms. Roffman's classes, which have always been much more than a presentation of "tab A and slot B."

"Facts are only good if you know how to think about and use them," the high-schooler wrote.

That's what parents will find in this book: The facts about their child's developing sexuality, and a way to think about that information and put it into play in the daily business of parenting.

"We need to start treating the subject of sex like all other subjects around which we parent. It is really that simple," said Ms. Roffman.

The over-arching message to our children has to be that we are there for them — always — and the topic doesn't matter. Seat belts or sex.

"When we avoid or put off and dread these conversation, that's what we are saying to kids. 'We are not available, you have to go to someone else. You can't trust us on this,'" she said.

"And it makes them totally vulnerable to other influences."

Ms. Roffman says the same thing several times on the pages of this parenting lesson plan: "And, oh, by the way. This applies to sexuality, too."

For more information on "Talk to Me First," visit talk2mefirst.com.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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