The Dreaded "Talk"
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The Dreaded "Talk"

Don't be among the 56 percent of parents who avoid talking about sex with their preteens.

Research shows that parents are the number one influence on their children's sexual decisions, and that the more information you give a child, the more likely he or she is to abstain. Yet only 44 percent of moms and dads have discussed the topic with their preteen, according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. These tips can help you become more comfortable with the subject:

Start young.

Around age four, kids wonder where babies come from. This is a good time to teach them the words for female and male genitals, although you don't need to explain sex (it's best to say that babies come from Mom's belly). When your child is eight or nine, tell him about the bodily changes of puberty. Since kids often encounter sexual pressure during their preteen years (ages nine through twelve), educate your child on how to say "no" and about disease prevention. She needs basic information about vaginal and oral sex, as well as an explanation of the dangers. Make it clear that the best way to avoid STDs and pregnancy is abstinence, but that condoms and contraception can reduce these risks. To initiate a discussion, use a situation from a book, newspaper article, or TV show you've watched together. You might ask your child what he thinks of a character's actions, then offer your judgment.

Helpful tips are available online at:

Encourage questions.

Even if you're shocked by what your child asks -- such as the meaning of a crude sexual expression -- praise him for coming to you for answers. Ask him what he already knows about the topic, then give a simple explanation along with your views. If your child sees you watching a sex-filled TV show or even reading this article and asks if he can watch or read with you, explain that while you don't feel the information is appropriate for him, you'd like to discuss sex and answer any questions he might have.

Share your values.

Let your child know that it's natural to be curious about sex, but he can -- and should -- resist acting on impulses. Explain your beliefs about the appropriate time and circumstances for sex.

Set limits on your child's TV and computer time.

Reduce her exposure to inappropriate material by keeping close tabs on the TV shows and videos she watches. Better yet, watch the programs with her. Supervise your child when she's using the Internet.

Discourage early dating.

Going out with a group of friends -- and an adult chaperone -- is fine, but permitting one-on-one dating in middle school is asking for trouble. Make sure that adults will be chaperoning the parties and events your child attends, and talk to other parents about reasonable curfews. In addition, discourage your child from dating older boys or girls, because it can raise the risk of an exploitative sexual relationship. --Lisa Collier Cool