Britney Spears has earned fame for her back-to-back pop hits, but her talent is sometimes upstaged by debate about her body parts — are they bona fide? — and by her sexy clothing, suggestive performances and reporting about her relationships.
Meanwhile, the parents of Britney fans face the challenge of teaching their kids about intimacy, safe intercourse, respect and responsibility in an age of seductive images. How to compete with the contemporary "sex sells" culture? Better not be boring, says sociologist and author Pepper Schwartz. "Everything is boring if you lecture — even sex," she says, "so listen rather than lecture. Have a conversation. Don't fill in the blanks. Find out what they want to know, and don't feel the need to give them more or less."
In her book Sex for Dummies (For Dummies, 2nd ed., 2000), sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer gives this example about telling kids what they want to know: After a girl in his class expressed that she was different from him, 5-year-old Jimmy asked his mother what the girl had meant. After speaking awkwardly for 10 minutes about the differences between boys and girls, Jimmy's mom asked if he wanted to know anything else. "Yes," he said. "Kim said she was Chinese. What does that mean?" Although Mom told Jimmy more than he wanted to know, experts agree that he'll be OK because he has a parent (and maybe two) willing to have a frank discussion about sex. That's the key to shaping a healthy sexual attitude, they say.
Teaching From the Time They're Tots
According to Schwartz, the time to introduce the subject of sex is when a child wants to know what their "peepee" is. By talking to your children in a developmentally appropriate way, you remove the taint of taboo, she says.
Experts recommend that you consider buying a children's book on sexuality to guide you through the tougher topics, and when possible broach a sex-related subject in terms of a TV show or movie you and your child have seen, or a book he or she has read.
The goal is to inform and protect your children while making them feel good — not ashamed — of their bodies. Teach young kids about topics like:
- Privacy. Children need to understand from the time that they're very young that no one is allowed to touch their private parts unless Mommy or Daddy says it's OK (at the doctor's, for example), and that the child should tell a trusted adult about any such touching. Kids sometimes play doctor, or "I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours" — that's common because children are naturally curious about each other's bodies — but let them know in a gentle way, directs Westheimer, that other forms of play are better because they respect everyone's privacy.
- Safe Surfing. Kids have to know that when they surf the Internet, they shouldn't "talk" to someone unknown to them any more than they would if a stranger approached them on the street.
Beyond talking the talk, you can take action to limit your young child's exposure to inappropriate sexual messages. Take these steps for starters:
- Monitor the television shows and movies your kids watch so they don't become overstimulated and desensitized to sexual acts; keep any erotic tapes, magazines and books out of little ones' reach; and call your cable company about locking out channels unsuitable for youngsters.
- Go to GetNetWise.com or safekids.com for information and filtering software to help block children's exposure to inappropriate Internet materials.
Beyond the Birds-and-Bees Basics
Though schools often include sex education in the curriculum — they might impart some information about AIDS and pregnancy, for example — parents, too, should be involved with educating their children about these issues of physical health, and about the moral aspects of sexual behavior. Prepare your middle school-aged kids for puberty so they're not caught with their proverbial pants down — offer your child the information in small doses, experts recommend, rather than in one "big talk."
According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS),
Your pre-teen son should know that:
- His penis and testicles will start to increase in size and his scrotum will change color.
- His erections will become more frequent during puberty, and he may have nocturnal emissions, or wet dreams.
- He may experience a growth spurt and his voice will begin to change.
Your daughter should know by around age 9 or 10 that:
- She will get her period at some point, a change that means she can become pregnant.
- Her body, including her breasts, will be developing and could change more slowly or quickly than her friends' figures.
Whether your child is a boy or a girl, both Mom and Dad should be involved in talking with them about sex, suggests SIECUS, to provide both a man's and woman's perspective.
Think it's too late for you as a parent to step up to the plate? If you have teenagers with whom you have not been talking and who aren't receptive, Pepper Schwartz recommends asking an older brother, sister, close friend or other person who shares your values to help.
They May Do It Anyway
Teach your kids, SIECUS advises, that not having sex is the only way to guard 100 percent against pregnancy, as well as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Get across to your kids that they should come to you or another trusted adult if they are considering intercourse. But know that not all kids will inform their parents of their sexual intentions, and that the average age at first intercourse in the United States is 16 for American males and 17 for females.
"Sex will be attractive to them sometime and you want to be ahead of the curve," stresses Schwartz.
Worried that teaching your kids about condoms for safer sex will give them the message that you condone premarital intercourse? Your morals matter, but be sure not to bury your head in the sand. After all, Schwartz points out, "Talking to me about snowboarding doesn't make me want to snowboard. But if I am going to take up something new — snowboarding, or say inline skating — someone should tell me about helmets and knee pads to protect me so I don't kill myself."
Resources to Get You Started
Here are some resources to help you begin the conversation about sex with your kids:
- Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character, by Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., and Dominic Cappello (New York: Hyperion, 2000).
- Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex, by Deborah Roffman, M.S. (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2000).
- Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, by Ruth Bell (New York: Times Books, 1998).
- Dr. Ruth Talks to Kids: Where You Came From, How Your Body Changes, and What Sex Is All About, by Dr. Ruth Westheimer (New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1998).