Read an Excerpt
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.
Respect for oneself and others
Caring for others
Sticking up for what you believe in
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.