Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character

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Overview

Everyone agrees parents must talk to their children about sex, but the questions always arise: How do I start? What should I cover? Ten Talks offers advice on exactly how to begin and what to say—not just about sex, but about safety, character, peer pressure, ethics, meeting people on the internet, and mixed messages from TV. Ten Talks is based on innovative and proven approaches that the authors are using in parent workshops across the country. The talks can be adapted for all kinds of families and offer ...

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Overview

Everyone agrees parents must talk to their children about sex, but the questions always arise: How do I start? What should I cover? Ten Talks offers advice on exactly how to begin and what to say—not just about sex, but about safety, character, peer pressure, ethics, meeting people on the internet, and mixed messages from TV. Ten Talks is based on innovative and proven approaches that the authors are using in parent workshops across the country. The talks can be adapted for all kinds of families and offer immeasurable rewards, strengthening the relationships of parents and children. This innovative and illustrated book helps prepare kids for the complex world of relationships, sex, and growing up.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Have you ever talked to your child about sex or love? Do you know how your kids would react to peer pressure? Do you know if your child has the same values you do? If you've ever tried to talk to your kids about sex or character, chances are the conversation came to an awkward halt after a lot of complaints, blushing, and blank stares. Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children About Sex and Character offers ten talks, tested by parents and kids, that will help you clarify your own values and communicate them to your kids -- with much less pain all around.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786885480
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 10/18/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 706,309
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is past president of the Society for the Study of Sexuality and a charter member of the International Academy of Sex Research. She has authored or co-authored twelve books, writes several magazine and web columns, and also appears on Lifetime Television. She lives in Washington State with her husband and two teenage children.

Dominic Cappello is a nationally recognized designer of parent-child communication programs and the creator of the National Education Association's "Can We Talk?" Parent Education Programs. He is a policy advocate on school violence and harassment prevention and the author of Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children About Violence. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

1

How We Treat People

Talking about Sex and Character

I learned about body parts in school. The teacher never talked about relationships or morals or character. It was strictly how to make a baby. Of course, I told my mom I already learned everything in school. —Suzanne, mother of one, Seattle, Washington

I know that they don't know what they are saying when they hurl such words as "sluts" and "gay" at one another on the playground, but hearing third-graders acting out that way is upsetting. —Christine, mother of two, New York City

I had not talked with my sons about sex, assuming that school would take care of it. One day I heard that a neighbor's thirteen-year-old daughter was pregnant. I immediately drove to the drugstore and bought two boxes of condoms — one each for my twelve- and ten-year-old sons. I sat them down, gave them each a box, and explained in detail how that pregnancy could have been prevented. I also explained that boys who become fathers have to pay for that child for eighteen years. The thirteen-year-old kept saying, "Calm down, mom." The ten-year-old looked at me like I was from outer space. —Pam, mother of two, Gaithersburg, Maryland

What do we mean when we say "sex and character"? We chose these words carefully, because we didn't want to write another book about body parts. While we thought understanding how the body works is very important, we also felt that what parents really need is a book that helps them talk to their children about ethical sexual conduct. Children need information about how their bodies work, but they also need to understand how they feel about their bodies themselves as they mature sexually and emotionally, and how to set guidelines about sexual relationships. Parents need a way to tell their children about the rules and values that they believe in, and they need a way to show their child how these values are expressed in everyday decision making. Children and parents need a comfortable way of learning about each other's feelings and beliefs about sexual situations. There is a lot of wisdom and intimate conversation that never gets shared because parents don't know how to bring up the topic in a way that feels acceptable. The purpose of this chapter is to help you think about what you mean by "sex," what you mean by "character," and how the two interact. In this talk, you'll be helping your child develop the kind of character traits that will allow her to have an emotionally and sexually healthy relationship someday.

Talking about sex and character together is a bit complex, so let's talk about each independently before we put them together. Let's start with what might seem an obvious question.

Talking about Sex

What do you mean when you say "sex"? Would your child agree with you? From an early age, children know that there is something called "sex," but their idea of what it means may vary from kissing or hugging to some hazy idea about bodies rubbing together. However, as they get older, they get more information — especially from TV. By the time most children have started school they have viewed thousands of different kinds of sexual relationships on TV. Sexual words may be an ordinary part of their vocabulary — and most of these words aren't used in a very nice way. Kids on the playground call each other sexually charged names, often used as insults: "virgin" "slut," "gay," and "fag" are common school yard insults. Children today encounter sexually explicit images on the Internet. Kids are bombarded with sexual imagery in advertising wherever there's a TV, radio, magazine, or billboard. Kids today have seen so much sexual imagery that most middle-schoolers consider themselves teenage sex experts. They may be so sure that they know "all about sex" that they don't even ask questions. But when you talk to them, you'll find out that they haven't really thought through their own values or how they'd handle specific situations. You may also find that they have different definitions about what constitutes a sexual act than most adults would have.

How does a parent set rules about sexual activity when the parent and child define "sex" differently? Is kissing sex? Is oral sex really sex? Sexual conduct guidelines become more and more important as children get older and begin to interact with grownups with their own beliefs and desires. Once those interactions begin, important decisions about sexual behavior begin. And of course parents want their voice — their family values — to have an impact on those decisions.

The talk in this chapter will give you a chance to discuss how your child views sex. The talk is about sex and character because you and your child will want to discuss all of the personal qualities that each person needs to have in order for sexual relationships to be happy, healthy, and safe.

My fifth-grader says sex is "skin-to-skin" contact. My eighth-grader says it's kissing. I used to think of it as meaning sexual intercourse. In our family, with five different people, we have five different definitions of what sex is.
—Mara, mother of three, Jamestown, New York

Talking about Character

What do we mean when we say someone has character? Here are some character traits most people would agree should be nurtured.


Honesty

Respect for oneself and others

Honor

Tolerance

Caring for others

Sticking up for what you believe in

Keeping promises

Courage under pressure

Perhaps you can think of other traits equally as important. A person who had all these traits would be set for life and love — but even a few of these traits would help make our relationships more meaningful and satisfying. If you could stick to your convictions, you would never do something you'd be sorry about later. If you had courage under pressure, you could pick when to follow and when to lead — and be willing to take whatever consequences were caused by your behavior. If you were a caring, trustworthy person, you would be the kind of person others would want to love and depend on. Aren't these the kind of characteristics we want our children to have? In the course of this talk (and the entire book) you will have many opportunities to discuss your child's character traits and the traits she should look for in others.

Sex Can Be a Wonderful Part of Life

Even though this talk is about sex and character, your conversation with your child should not be about frightening, shaming, or intimidating her to the point that she doesn't want to ever have a relationship. Many parents believe that sexuality is healthy and wonderful. A relationship that is sexual can be one of the most pleasurable experiences in life. We also know that life is complicated and that decisions about being sexual come with big responsibilities. This talk is about empowering your child by giving her skills, primarily communication and critical-thinking skills. These skills can help her navigate through her daily life and as she matures make informed decisions about whom to be involved with. At the end of this talk, your child should understand that there are ethical ways to behave. She'll also understand that sex can have many meanings — and that there are many choices she can make based on her own and her family's values. Most important, she'll understand that sex and character are things families can and should discuss.

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Table of Contents

Welcome to Ten Talks: How to Use This Book 1
1 How We Treat People: Talking about Sex and Character 14
2 Life Changes: Talking about Puberty 50
3 Personal Space: Talking about Boundaries 95
4 Friends for Life: Talking about Healthy Relationships 135
5 Those First Feelings: Talking about Attraction and Love 176
6 Keeping Commitments: Talking about Trust and Honesty 218
7 What's On? Talking about TV, Movies, and Music 256
8 Cyberspace and Sexuality: Talking about What's Online 294
9 How Are You Feeling? Talking about Alcohol and Other Drugs 322
10 What We Believe: Talking about Your Family's Values 347
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First Chapter

Chapter 1: How We Treat People
Talking About Sex and Character
I learned about body parts in school. The teacher never talked about relationships or morals or character. It was strictly how to make a baby. Of course, I told my mom I already learned everything in school. --Suzanne, mother of one, Seattle, Washington

I know that they don't know what they are saying when they hurl such words as "sluts" and "gay" at one another on the playground, but hearing third-graders acting out that way is upsetting. --Christine, mother of two, New York City

I had not talked with my sons about sex, assuming that school would take care of it. One day I heard that a neighbor's thirteen-year-old daughter was pregnant. I immediately drove to the drugstore and bought two boxes of condoms -- one each for my twelve- and ten-year-old sons. I sat them down, gave them each a box, and explained in detail how that pregnancy could have been prevented. I also explained that boys who become fathers have to pay for that child for eighteen years. The twelve-year-old kept saying, "Calm down, Mom." The ten-year-old looked at me like I was from outer space. --Pam, mother of two, Gaithersburg, Maryland

What do we mean when we say "sex and character"? We chose these words carefully, because we didn't want to write another book about body parts. While we thought understanding how the body works is very important, we also felt that what parents really need is a book that helps them talk to their children about ethical sexual conduct. Children need information about how their bodies work, but they also need to understand how they feel about their bodies themselves as they mature sexually and emotionally, and how to set guidelines about sexual relationships. Parents need a way to tell their children about the rules and values that they believe in, and they need a way to show their child how these values are expressed in everyday decision making. Children and parents need a comfortable way of learning about each other's feelings and beliefs about sexual situations. There is a lot of wisdom and intimate conversation that never gets shared because parents don't know how to bring up the topic in a way that feels acceptable. The purpose of this chapter is to help you think about what you mean by "sex," what you mean by "character," and how the two interact. In this talk, you'll be helping your child develop the kind of character traits that will allow her to have an emotionally and sexually healthy relationship someday.

Talking about sex and character together is a bit complex, so let's talk about each independently before we put them together. Let's start with what might seem an obvious question.

Talking about Sex
What do you mean when you say "sex"? Would your child agree with you? From an early age, children know that there is something called "sex," but their idea of what it means may vary from kissing or hugging to some hazy idea about bodies rubbing together. However, as they get older, they get more information -- especially from TV. By the time most children have started school they have viewed thousands of different kinds of sexual relationships on TV. Sexual words may be an ordinary part of their vocabulary -- and most of these words aren't used in a very nice way. Kids on the playground call each other sexually charged names, often used as insults: "virgin," "slut," "gay," and "fag" are common school yard insults. Children today encounter sexually explicit images on the Internet. Kids are bombarded with sexual imagery in advertising wherever there's a TV, radio, magazine, or billboard. Kids today have seen so much sexual imagery that most middle-schoolers consider themselves teenage sex experts. They may be so sure that they know "all about sex" that they don't even ask questions. But when you talk to them, you'll find out that they haven't really thought through their own values or how they'd handle specific situations. You may also find that they have different definitions about what constitutes a sexual act than most adults would have.

How does a parent set rules about sexual activity when the parent and child define "sex" differently? Is kissing sex? Is oral sex really sex? Sexual conduct guidelines become more and more important as children get older and begin to interact with grownups with their own beliefs and desires. Once those interactions begin, important decisions about sexual behavior begin. And of course parents want their voice -- their family values -- to have an impact on those decisions.

The talk in this chapter will give you a chance to discuss how your child views sex. The talk is about sex and character because you and your child will want to discuss all of the personal qualities that each person needs to have in order for sexual relationships to be happy, healthy, and safe.

My fifth-grader says sex is "skin-to-skin" contact. My eighth-grader says it's kissing. I used to think of it as meaning sexual intercourse. In our family, with five different people, we have five different definitions of what sex is. --Mara, mother of three, Jamestown, New York

Talking about Character
What do we mean when we say someone has character? Here are some character traits most people would agree should be nurtured.

  • Respect for oneself and others
  • Honor
  • Tolerance
  • Caring for others
  • Sticking up for what you believe in
  • Keeping promises
  • Courage under pressure

Perhaps you can think of other traits equally as important. A person who had all these traits would be set for life and love -- but even a few of these traits would help make our relationships more meaningful and satisfying. If you could stick to your convictions, you would never do something you'd be sorry about later. If you had courage under pressure, you could pick when to follow and when to lead -- and be willing to take whatever consequences were caused by your behavior. If you were a caring, trustworthy person, you would be the kind of person others would want to love and depend on. Aren't these the kind of characteristics we want our children to have? In the course of this talk (and the entire book) you will have many opportunities to discuss your child's character traits and the traits she should look for in others.

Sex Can Be a Wonderful Part of Life
Even though this talk is about sex and character, your conversation with your child should not be about frightening, shaming, or intimidating her to the point that she doesn't want to ever have a relationship. Many parents believe that sexuality is healthy and wonderful. A relationship that is sexual can be one of the most pleasurable experiences in life. We also know that life is complicated and that decisions about being sexual come with big responsibilities. This talk is about empowering your child by giving her skills, primarily communication and critical-thinking skills. These skills can help her navigate through her daily life and as she matures make informed decisions about whom to be involved with. At the end of this talk, your child should understand that there are ethical ways to behave. She'll also understand that sex can have many meanings -- and that there are many choices she can make based on her own and her family's values. Most important, she'll understand that sex and character are things families can and should discuss.

Preparing for the Talk
This talk opens the door for ongoing conversations that will deepen your child's understanding of sex and character.

In this talk you will let your child know that

  • it's okay to talk about these kinds of topics.
  • he can depend on you for support when facing problems about sex or character.
  • you have expectations about her behavior as it relates to sexuality and relationships.
  • there are family rules about sexual activity and how people are to be treated.

What You Can Expect from This Talk
After the talk your child will

  • be able to identify healthy sexual relationships and the character traits needed to maintain them.
  • understand that there are many types of relationships, both non-sexual and sexual.
  • understand your family rules about sex and character.

How Do You Define Sex?
There is plenty of disagreement among adults about what "sex" is. In 1998 President Bill Clinton defended himself against charges of infidelity by saying that he had not had sex outside of his marriage. Later, when it became clear that oral sex had occurred, President Clinton defended his version of the truth by claiming that only intercourse qualified as "sex."

In general, the public rejected that definition, but it's true that many people disagree about what sex is. National surveys show that a sizable minority of people believe that sex is intercourse, plain and simple. In one women's survey, women who had had oral sex said that they were virgins and had therefore not had sex.

How should we define sex? Sociologists study sexuality as a part of human interaction. Psychologists are more interested in sexuality at the individual level; for them, even fantasies could be considered sexual experiences. Legal definitions of sex vary from state to state.

Religious groups often have different ideas about what constitutes sex. One denomination might label kissing as sexual conduct and condemn it outside of marriage, while another might call it harmless. Some religions would call an act sexual only if it aided procreation. Others would see any feelings or thoughts that are about the body or even about love as sexual.

We don't mean to avoid giving you a definition, but this is where your own family values come into play. There are a million ways to describe sex. What will matter most, as you explore Ten Talks with your child, is how you define sexuality and your values in relation to sexual behavior.

It's a matter of semantics. Whether you call it sex or sexuality, your child needs to know your attitudes about appropriate sexual behavior. --Lisa, mother of one, Seattle, Washington

All of the hype around sexual conduct at the White House made me realize that I had a definition of what was appropriate that was different for males than for females. I've had to readjust my thinking. --Dana, mother of two, Portland, Oregon

I want my child to wait until she is in a committed loving relationship before she has sex. But I expect that she will experiment during dating. --Sandra, mother of two, Orlando, Florida

First, you need to find out what your child thinks sex is and what she thinks sex is for. Does she think of sex as recreation or procreation? Is sex another form of play, or is it a bond at the highest spiritual level? If you talk to your child about these themes you might be surprised by what she thinks.

This chapter's talk will also give you a chance to tell your child what you think sex is.

Your child learns about sex and relationships from you in all kinds of ways. You are the primary role model. How you comment on TV shows or advertising affects your child's perceptions. How you and your family and friends relate to one another helps your child define healthy relationships. When you communicate your feelings and thoughts, you help define sex.

Which of the following are instances of sexual situations? Two people kiss. A young person in the shower fantasizes about sex. A boy goes into an Internet chat room. A teenage girl has some beers with older students at an unchaperoned party. A teenager watches an afternoon talk show on "Men who Cheat."

What do the behaviors listed above have to do with sex? Most parents would say kissing and fantasy relate to sex. But when a child views sexually explicit sites on the Internet, a young girl gets drunk around older boys, or anyone watches afternoon TV, there are explicit sexual themes and at least the potential for sexual behavior. As you read this chapter, there will be opportunities to discuss your definition of sex, along with your personal values, with your child.

Your Home, Your Rules
Carrie and her mom have been fighting about Carrie's boyfriend. Her mom thinks he is too old to go out with Carrie (he is eighteen and she is fifteen). Carrie says that he is very nice to her. Her mom says that she knows that all he wants from Carrie is sex. Carrie has been promising her mother for weeks that she won't have sex. During a fight with her mom, Carrie breaks down, cries, and admits to having had intercourse with her boyfriend. Her mom is furious. Carrie's little sister hears the entire fight.

Many parents would call this situation every parent's nightmare. How would you respond to this situation?

First we need some background information. What are the family rules about being sexual? How much time has the mother given her daughter to discuss sexuality, relationships, pregnancy and parenting, sexually transmitted diseases, and the law? How can a parent know if her child has the skills and character traits to postpone sexual activity?

In a situation like the one above, what is the younger daughter learning from this experience? What are the consequences for breaking the family rules? What can the mother do? Should she call the boy's parents? Report the boy to the police? This all gets pretty complicated. Once a young person has already had a sexual relationship, the parent's dialogue has to be about future conduct and practical safety guidelines.

Your Parents' Family Rules and Yours
When you were growing up, did your family have spoken or unspoken rules about sexual activity? Or was it linked to the phrase, "If you have sex, I'll kill you"? Some families have a lot of house rules about sex. Other families have almost none. Ten Talks refers to family rules throughout. Family rules are also known as "guidelines" or "expectations for your behavior."

If you were to ask your child, "What are the family rules about sexual activity, including viewing sexually themed videos, TV, web sites, or sexually explicit magazines in our home?" what would she say? A goal of Ten Talks is to help you identify and set the rules that you feel comfortable with and to make sure that your child knows what they are.

My husband and I conflict over rules. He would let our son get away with behavior that I'm uncomfortable with. It's an ongoing discussion. --Tracy, mother of two, Gaithersburg, Maryland

My parents had one simple rule: No hands go under clothing. --Brad, father of one, Yakima, Washington

Because my parents never talked with us girls about rules, every encounter with a boy was like exploring new territory. --Donna, mother of two, Orlando, Florida

Our church has a program where teens sign a contract about sexual restraint. --Marie, mother of two, Bend, Oregon

Influence of the Media
The media often broadcasts images of sexual situations as entertainment. These images are not designed to offer insights into the complex issues surrounding sexual behavior and relationships. That's your job.

The media plays a big role in shaping our ideas about sex. Because the media rarely examines its own treatment of sex, it leaves the separation of reality and fantasy to parents. While the impact of TV programming on young people is debated in many circles, two characteristics of the U.S. media are clear: first, sexual activity outside of marriage or a committed relationship is portrayed as a common occurrence, and, second, negative consequences of sexual activity are rarely shown. How often do people in soap operas talk about unplanned pregnancy, chlamydia, or HIV? In Chapter 7: What's On?: Talking about TV, Movies, and Music, this is explored in greater detail.

Pressure from Peers
We've traveled around the country talking with parents about how to communicate with their children about sexuality, relationships, and character. Parents often find it helpful to think back to their own childhood and what motivated them to become sexual or to wait. Parents say that pressure from their schoolmates and neighborhood friends was the single largest factor influencing their decisions about when to become sexual.

Think back to your childhood and how important it was to be accepted by your peers. Did this kind of pressure increase as you moved from elementary to middle to high school? (It did for most people.)

I remember when I was a freshman in high school, and my friend Gary told me that he "did it" with Karen. Suddenly, I felt that if I didn't "do it," there was something wrong with me. --Rich, father of three, Boise, Idaho

I never felt peer pressure to get sexually involved when I was a kid. I just wanted to have lots of sex when I was in college. --Jeffrey, New York City

For me, the pressure from my girlfriends wasn't to have sex. It was to have a boyfriend, to be in a relationship. And this was at age eleven! --Gretchen, mother of one, Denver, Colorado

Giving Your Child the Big Picture
Divorce rate: estimated at 41% to 50%

Percentage of all males who get married: 92%

Percentage of all females who get married: 85%

Average age of marriage for males: 27

Average age of marriage for females: 26

Percentage of all marriages that are remarriages: 33%

Households that are headed by single moms: 28%

Percentage of U.S. households with a married couple with their children, with Dad as the only breadwinner: 10%
(Source: Frank D. Cox, Human Intimacy, Wadsworth Press, 1999)

Percentage of teenage girls who have had sexual intercourse by age 18: 56%

Percentage of teenage boys who have had sexual intercourse by age 18: 73%
(Source: Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999)

What do these numbers tell you about sexual relationships and character?

Once upon a time, it looked like every family had a working dad, a mom who stayed home to raise the kids, and kids in the home who were biologically related to both parents. As our statistics show, however, this type of model represents only 10 percent of U.S. families. The majority of Americans are in blended families. Sometimes moms work outside the home. Sometimes households are headed by only one parent. Sometimes there are two dads or two moms or parents who have been married numerous times with kids from each union spending time with different parents throughout the week. Sound confusing? It is. And yet your child is exposed, through TV and peers, to a variety of models that need explaining.

The good news is that you have considerable control over the development of your child's attitudes about sex and character. You are the most important influence on your child. You are your child's role model for developing healthy relationships and communicating feelings.

Points of View
In the twenty-first century, more and more people are living together without feeling social pressure to share sacred or legal vows first. "Serial monogamy" is also the norm, with more and more people having a series of committed relationships over a long lifetime. The model of youthful virginity followed by marriage and lifelong fidelity has not been achievable for the majority of Americans for many decades. Your child will have friends with parents who are divorced or remarried, or who never married. Which model of relationship do you wish to pass down to your child?

My parents were married for fifty-five years. My wife and I have been married for nineteen years. I want my kids to see that lifetime relationships are possible. --Drew, father of two, Bend, Oregon

I remember when I was a kid my mom talked about how shameful it would be to have a child out of wedlock. My son thinks that's funny, since so many of his friends' parents aren't married -- to him it's no big deal. --Nina, mother of three, Denver, Colorado

My fourth-grade son wanted to know why his Aunt Ann has been married three times, and me only once. I told him that sometimes people change and fall out of love. --Ted, father of two, Memphis, Tennessee

When I was a kid, we always asked why Uncle Art never got married and never had kids. And we never got a straight answer! Now I realize that Uncle Art was gay. --Rachel, mother of one, Everett, Washington

Different Families: Different Values
Your child is presented with many values about sexual activity. You have your own values and rules. But your child's friends, teachers, or coaches may have different ones. The following scenarios illustrate how your child may receive different messages all the time.

Your child is playing at a neighbor's home with a group of boys. One boy pulls up a site on the Internet that shows sexually explicit materials.

The friend's dad sees this and thinks this is acceptable and just "boys being boys." Another parent might see young people viewing certain types of erotica as inappropriate or disrespectful of women. How would you react? What if it was girls looking at the porn site?

In gym class, some sixth-graders are playing baseball. Your son is in left field when he picks up a ball and throws it to second base. One of the guys yells, "You throw like a fag," and laughs.

The coach sees this happen and thinks that it's no big deal. He feels it's up to the students to work out their own problems. Another coach would follow strict zero-tolerance guidelines to prevent verbal harassment of any kind and discipline the student who used sexual slang. How would you want to see this situation addressed?

Your daughter is going out with a guy a few years older than she is. They are kissing in the car and he wants to have intercourse. Your daughter does not. He says he loves her. She is very flattered and feels great. He is pressuring her to relax and have fun. She feels in love with him and doesn't want to disappoint him. She also knows that her parents would not approve of her having intercourse.

How would you want a daughter of yours to respond? If you were the boy's parent, how would you want him to behave?

The neighbor's dad, the coaches, and the boyfriend all have their own values about sexuality and character. In real life, your child may face situations similar to these all the time. Other people are communicating their values to your child in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Your values need to be communicated in a way that's equally loud and clear.

Last-Minute Checkups before the Talk
This is a good time to think about your childhood experiences of talking with your parents about sex. When you were a child:

  • Did a parent ever talk to you about sex?
  • Did you ever tell your parents about the sexual behavior of your peers? What did they say?
  • Did your family ever discuss pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases?
  • Did your parents ever discuss sexual orientation?
  • Did a parent ever talk to you about inappropriate touching and what you could do in response to it?

How do you think your childhood experiences have affected the way you're raising your child?

  • What have you told your child about sex?
  • Have you told her to expect some pressure to be sexual from schoolmates? Is she supposed to avoid kids who are having sex?
  • Has your family discussed inappropriate touching and how people can respond to it?

Do you have any stories that you could share with your child? For example:

  • A story about a neighbor or schoolmate who wanted to be sexual
  • An experience confronting a sexually aggressive person

Keep these stories in mind as you talk with your child. She needs to hear that you have faced these situations and made your own decisions.

What Are Your Family Rules?
Do you have family rules about when people are old enough to have "boyfriends" or "girlfriends," to kiss, or to have sex? If not, this is a good time to think about them. The talk outlined in this chapter highlights the following situations:

  • Two students are learning about sex during a classroom lecture.
  • Two students are learning about character during a classroom lecture.
  • At a girl's slumber party, sex is discussed.
  • At a boy's sleepover, sex is discussed.

Discussing these situations will give you a chance to discuss your family rules. What would you want your child to do in each situation? What are your expectations? Before the talk, think about what rules you want to communicate to your child. At the end of the talk, you will have the chance to review the rules together.

The Talk
Introduce the Talk

All right -- you are almost ready to have the talk about defining sex and character with your child. To fully understand the Ten Talks process, make sure to read the entire chapter before starting the talk. You may find the sample talks at the end of this chapter particularly helpful.

Find a time for an uninterrupted ten minutes or so. With this book in hand, tell your child:

"I'm reading this chapter about sex and character. I need to talk to you for five or ten minutes."

Some younger children may be happy to talk with you, while others may be completely uninterested. Many children assume that they actually know more about real life than you do. A common response is, "I already know all this," or "I learned that in school."

If your child doesn't want to talk, be patient. Many parents report that their children don't get enthusiastic until the third or fourth talk. And remember, you can use the following statement as many times as necessary: "It's part of my job as a parent to have this talk, to listen to you and answer your questions. It's part of your job as my child to listen and ask me questions."

Remember how you liked to be spoken to when you were young -- kids still don't want to be talked down to or be treated like babies. At the first sign of a patronizing speech, they shut down.

Next, you could say, "I've got some questions to discuss. First, what have you learned about sex in school?" Next, ask if she's had any lessons on character in school. Courses on character may or may not have anything to do with sex education. Sessions on character may be general talks about how to treat one another on the playground. For older students there may have been some lessons about sexual ethics -- about how you are supposed to deal with sexuality in relationships.

Your child may offer some examples. If your child goes to a school with programs on sex education and character, you can expect some feedback. If so, proceed with the next section.

If your child doesn't offer some examples, you could say something like, "There are many ways to talk about sex and character. I'd like to start by talking about the kind of person you want to be when you are making decisions about your sexuality. Talking about sex and character means talking about how you treat people and expect to be treated by them in situations that might have sexual overtones. Treating people with respect starts way before people start having any sexual relationships."

Courses on "sex" can come under a lot of different headings. In some schools, HIV education is mandated. In early grades, courses may focus on germs and hand-washing. Other courses may be about "good touching" and "bad touching." So when parents ask about what their child has learned about sex in school, the question can be hard to answer. --Susan Coots, sexuality educator and parent educator, Syracuse, New York

Review These Words
Please review the terms in this section. Discussing all of them with your child is optional. You know what's appropriate for your child's age and maturity level. Keep in mind that more than likely, even the youngest children have heard these words on TV.

sex: sometimes used to define biological sex, meaning male or female; sometimes used to mean sexual intercourse; sometimes used to mean some kind of bodily contact. Consequently, when people say "sex" it might be difficult to know what they have in mind. It depends on the context.

sexuality: a broad term referring to the sum total of our sexual desire, behavior, and self-identity.

character: behavior demonstrates character, the core of a person's ethics and values.

platonic relationship: a non-sexual relationship. The word "platonic" comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who talked about the pure and deep love of friends. His name has been used to talk about close relationships that do not include eroticism or sexual contact.

monogamous: having only one sexual partner, traditionally, one's spouse.

serial monogamy: people who are monogamous for a while, then break up and become monogamous with someone else. The opposite of this would be lifetime monogamy, whereby a commitment is made and kept forever.

Why Is Talking about Sex and Character Important?
Ask your child whether she thinks talking about sex and character is important. Here are some reasons you might want to offer: Talking about sex and character helps us

  • identify standards of behavior.
  • understand the skills needed to form a healthy relationship.
  • learn how to treat others.
  • clarify our family rules on sexual activity, using sexual language, and viewing sexually explicit materials.
The Stories
In the next part of the talk, you'll be reading short stories to your child and discussing them together. You don't have to read all of the stories. Pick the ones that you think are appropriate. The stories are very simple. Feel free to embellish them, adding details that you think might make them more believable. For example, some parents change the gender of the characters to make a story mirror their own families.

Some children will express their concerns in a straightforward way. Others may say, "Well, I know this kid at school who has some problems," while they may really be talking about themselves. Remember that you may have to read between the lines to get to your child's true feelings and concerns.

The Story about the Classroom
This story gives you an opportunity to talk about what your child has learned about sexuality in school.

"A boy and girl are sitting in the front row listening to their teacher. The teacher is talking about human reproduction in class. She has already taught how flowers, frogs, and cats reproduce. Now she points to a picture of the male and female reproductive system on the board."

Ask these questions of your child:

  • What is the teacher thinking?
  • What is the girl thinking?
  • What is the boy thinking?
Now that your child has completed this scenario, ask the following questions:
  • What kinds of sexual information do teachers talk about in school?
  • What would the girl's and boy's parents say about this situation?
  • Have you seen or been in a situation like this? If so, how did you feel? What did you do?
Clarify Your Family's Values
Discuss this question with your child as a way of sharing your values about sex education.

Ask your child: "What do your teachers tell you about sex?"

Child: You mean how babies are born?

Parent: Yes, very good. What do you know about it?

The Story about the Classroom and Character Lessons
This story gives you a chance to talk about what your child has learned about character in school.

"A boy and girl are sitting in the front row listening to their teacher. The teacher is talking about character. He is asking the class to name character traits that they admire."

Ask these questions of your child:

  • What is the teacher thinking?
  • What is the girl thinking?
  • What is the boy thinking?
Now that your child has completed this scenario, ask the following questions:
  • What kinds of information about character and how to treat people do teachers talk about in school?
  • What would the girl's and boy's parents say about this situation?
  • Have you seen or been in a situation like this? If so, how did you feel? What did you do?
Clarify Your Family's Values
Discuss this question with your child as a way of sharing your values about character education.

Ask your child: "What do your teachers tell you about character?"

Child response #1: Nothing.

Parent: Nothing. Then I guess it is up to me to give you all the information you need. It's good that we have this book to help us.

Child response #2: We have a character class.

Parent: Tell me what you have learned about character. I want to make sure you have all the information you need about sex and character.

Stories for Older Children
The following stories deal with more mature behaviors. While some younger children may not be able to relate to them, you may find that to your child, these stories make perfect sense.

The Story about the Slumber Party
This story gives you an opportunity to discuss how your child hears about sex from peers.

"A girl is having a slumber party with friends. They are up late and one of the girls is talking all about sex."

Ask these questions of your child:

  • What is the girl saying about sex?
  • What is the girl thinking?
  • What are the other girls thinking?
  • What are the other girls saying?
Now that your child has completed this scenario, ask the following questions:
  • How do you know if what others say about sex is true?
  • Have you seen or been in a situation like this? If so, how did you feel? What did you do?
The Story about the Sleepover
This story gives you an opportunity to discuss how your child hears about sex from peers.

"A boy is having some friends stay overnight. They are up late and one of the boys is talking all about sex."

Ask these questions of your child:

  • What is the boy saying about sex?
  • What is he thinking?
  • What are the other boys thinking?
  • What are the other boys saying?
Now that your child has completed this scenario, ask the following questions:
  • How do you know if what others say about sex is true?
  • Have you seen or been in a situation like this? If so, how did you feel? What did you do?
The Bare Minimum: A Quick Quiz for Kids
Ask your child the following questions to assess her knowledge of sex and character.

1. What is sex?

  • Sex is how babies are born.
  • Sex is what people do when they are attracted to one another.
  • Sex is a special way to show love for someone.
  • Sex is fun.
2. What is character?
  • It is what makes a personality.
  • It is the way a person acts.
  • It is about traits a person has, like being nice or mean, honest or dishonest.
3. Why is it important to talk about sex and character?
  • Sex and character are the kinds of things people need to know about to have a healthy sexual relationship or a good attitude about sexuality.
4. Can you give me one example of how a person learns about sex and character?
  • School
  • Friends
  • A parent
5. Why does a person need a strong character in order to have a healthy relationship?
  • You need to know yourself and be able to stick to your own values before you can have a healthy relationship with someone else.
  • You need to be trustworthy and honest in order to maintain a healthy, long-term relationship.
Talk about Your Family Rules
Family rules must be your rules. Be prepared for your child to ask about the reasons behind them. You may find it helpful to talk with relatives or friends about developing your family rules. Sample answers from parents across the country follow.

Ask your child the following questions:

1. What is our family rule about asking questions about sexuality?

  • All questions are allowed. But talks about sexuality need to happen at the appropriate place and time.
  • There is no such thing as a stupid question.
  • Sometimes talking about sexuality can lead to disagreements. Talking about different points of view is okay in this family.
2. What is one family rule about using sexual terms and language as jokes or insults?
  • When you are called names or hear jokes of a sexual nature, I want to hear about it.
  • We do not use sexual words or jokes in this house or as a way to insult others.
Rewarding Your Child
For some parents, having a talk with a child is a huge accomplishment and they feel like rewarding their son or daughter. Others don't feel they have to reward their child for having a talk -- to them it's just part of the job of being a parent and a kid. How you choose to acknowledge your child's openness and candor is up to you, but many parents have found that a special acknowledgment -- whether in the form of a thank-you, a hug, or a special video rental -- can work wonders.

After the Talk
A Moment to Reflect

Take a moment to reflect on the talk you just had with your child. How do you feel about it?

  • What surprised you about your child's definitions of sex and character?
  • How do you feel about your ability to talk with your child about sex and character?
  • How much of the time were you listening to your child?
  • How do you think your child felt about the talk?
  • What will you do differently in the next talk?
After the talk with their child, many parents report a variety of feelings: accomplishment at sustaining a five-minute talk of substance, frustration at not being able to get more information from their child, or even a sense of fear that their child may be involved in situations he can't handle.

Warning Signs
The talks also may reveal potential problems that your child is facing. Was your child reluctant to talk about any situations? Did he avoid eye contact or get angry? Did his responses to your questions seem like normal behavior or did you get the feeling that something may be wrong?

There may be cause for concern if you hear from the school, from other parents, or from child-care providers that your child

  • is touching other children inappropriately.
  • has been touched in inappropriate ways.
  • is using sexual language in jokes or insults.
In any of these situations, you need to find out what is happening by talking with your child. If, after your discussion, you feel your child needs more help than you alone can offer, visit the school counselor or social worker to find out about other resources available in your community.

Finding Help
If needed, support and help for your child are available. Most schoolteachers, principals, and religious leaders can refer parents to professionals with expertise in working with young people. Often a short-term intervention can do a world of good. If you have a good relationship with your child's grandparents or other extended family members, tell them what's going on with your child and seek out the support you and your child need.

Success Stories
You have made it through talk number one. It's a good beginning. Many parents say that getting their kids to have the first talk was like pulling teeth. And some of the things they found out were hard to hear. In the course of the talks, some children have told stories of being called sexual names or insults at school, or of having fights with siblings. Other children have shared great news -- about how they learned about character at school, for example. A mom in San Antonio was happy to find that her fourth-grade daughter was very open to talking about sex and character issues, and they stayed up chatting for three hours having one of the best talks of their life.

But no matter what you've heard from your child, you've started an important process that will have a powerful ripple effect. You're now raising a child whose family discusses sex and character and whose parents don't shy away from discussing vital issues. You've become the kind of family that addresses these topics openly and honestly. You're the thoughtful parent who's taken the time to listen attentively and get a clearer picture of your child's real world.

Remember, this is only your first talk. Future talks could become easier. You're planting a seed that may not bear fruit until you've got a few more talks behind you.

Sample Talks
Between Parents and Children

Before you begin your first talk, you might want to read this sample conversation. The following are excerpts of actual talks between parents and children.

Discussing the Story about the Classroom
Participants: a father and his ten-year-old daughter.

Dad: A boy and girl are sitting in the front row listening to their teacher. The teacher is talking about human reproduction in class. She has already taught how flowers, frogs, and cats reproduce. Now she points to a picture of the male and female reproductive system on the board. What is the teacher thinking?

Daughter: That the kids might say, "Oooh!"

Dad: What is the girl thinking?

Daughter: I don't know. Maybe, "This could be important."

Dad: What is the boy thinking?

Daughter: "Oh no, not THAT!"

Dad: What kinds of sexual information do teachers talk about in school?

Daughter: Nothing.

Dad: Nothing?

Daughter: They do that in fifth grade, don't they?

Dad: What would the girl's and boy's parents say about this?

Daughter: Maybe the parents think, "You should listen and learn and you'll know what happens."

Dad: Have you seen or been in a situation like this?

Daughter: No.

Dad: Do your teachers tell you anything about sex?

Daughter: No.

Lessons Learned from This Sample Talk
At first glance it seems to be a fairly short and uneventful talk. But there is some important information being shared. Already, there is a perception that boys and girls view information about sex differently. The parent understands that this fourth-grader won't get information about puberty and sex until the next grade. If a girl were to start her period in fourth grade and the parent was depending on the teacher to explain the menstrual cycle, there would be a problem.

Discussing the Story about the Classroom
Participants: a mother and her twelve-year-old son.

Mom: This is a story about a classroom. A boy and girl are sitting in the front row listening to their teacher. The teacher is talking about human reproduction in class. She has already taught how flowers, frogs, and cats reproduce. Now she points to a picture of the male and female reproductive system on the board. What is the teacher thinking while she's doing this?

Son: The teacher's thinking, "Everybody should know this because this is a fact in life."

Mom: What do you think the girl is thinking?

Son: She's thinking, "I might learn something. When I'm older this might be helpful."

Mom: What kinds of sexual information do teachers talk about in school?

Son: Um, about how people reproduce.

Mom: Do they only talk about the body or about the emotions and feelings too?

Son: How sometimes it's hard on people at a young age and that it's better to wait.

Mom: Okay. What would the girl's and boy's parents say about this situation of the teacher giving information about sex in class?

Son: I think they wouldn't care because it's part of health and how to take care of yourself and part of life.

Mom: When you were in a class like that, how did you feel?

Son: A little bit embarrassed.

Mom: Okay, I have simple questions and you can give simple answers. What is sex?

Son: That's how a man and a woman reproduce.

Mom: Okay, is that all there is about sex?

Son: I guess.

Lessons Learned from This Sample Talk
The son talked very softly and reluctantly, but Mom was able to coax a little information out and encouraged him whenever he did say something. The son said that sex was "how a man and woman reproduce." This is a good starting point to expand the definition of sexuality and introduce the topics of sexual ethics, orientation, and character. The son admitted he was embarrassed, and this gave his mom a way to address that feeling as normal and help her son feel more comfortable discussing issues.

Discussing the Story about the Classroom and Character Lessons
Participants: a mother and her twelve-year-old son.

Mom: A boy and girl are sitting in the front row listening to their teacher. The teacher is talking about character. He is asking the class to name character traits that they admire. What do you think the teacher is thinking?

Son: It's good to have good character traits. Like being smart and friendly. That it's not good to have bad character traits, like being mean and selfish and stuff like that.

Mom: What do you think the girl and boy are thinking?

Son: That it's better to have good character traits than bad because they want to be a good person.

Mom: The teacher is asking them to name some traits that they admire. What kinds of traits do you think they are thinking about?

Son: Caring, trustworthiness, being smart, friendly, getting away from other people who do wrong.

Mom: Okay. Do you think it is the same for the boy and girl?

Son: Yes.

Lessons Learned from This Sample Talk
This talk was very brief and revealed some important information. The child offered up his definitions of "bad" character traits and "good" traits. In this situation the child and parent shared similar definitions -- which is not always the case with this activity. It might be interesting for the parent to explore in future talks how one's character can be tested by peers, and how one can steer clear of people with traits one doesn't respect (or as the child said, "do wrong").

Discussing the Story about the Sleepover
Participants: a mother and her twelve-year-old son.

Mom: A boy is having some friends stay overnight. They are up late and one of the boys is talking about sex. What is the boy saying about sex? We're trying to get the boy's perspective of this. What is he talking about?

Son: He wants to have sex with girls and all that other inappropriate stuff.

Mom: Okay, what kind of inappropriate stuff? Like his feelings?

Son: I don't know.

Mom: What are the other boys thinking?

Son: They aren't thinking.

Mom: Okay, son.

Lessons Learned from This Sample Talk
If you are thinking this is the shortest talk in history, you may be right. This does not mean it wasn't a success. The parent learned some things about her son's willingness to discuss sexuality with her. The mom did not push her son to explain his glib responses. But she can refer back to this talk when asking her son (in a future talk) to explain what "inappropriate stuff" means. The parent can probe to see if her son really has no idea what boys think about when they talk about sex, or if he is just too embarrassed to discuss it.

Excerpted from Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children About Sex and Character by Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., and Dominic Cappello. Copyright © 2000.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2003

    Wish I would have had this for my kids.

    As a grandmother I know how hard it can be to broach these subjects with children, and this book can pave the way. Children need to hear their familys' views and thoughts on these subjests and you need to guide them and hear where they are comming from. Even if you don't think you're getting through to them, chances are they are listening and will remember and respect your input.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2001

    Candid Brilliance

    This is just about the best book about teens and sex out there today. I am amazed! Schwartz is obviously a mother, and a great one at that. I'd highly reccomend this book to anyone with teen or preteen children

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2002

    i don't think so...

    A parent could never really learn much about what kids need to know about that stuff...chances are..the child has already heard about it and will just drone you out...don't read a book about it..just talk to your kid about what he or she already knows

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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