Embrace giving your kids ‘the talk’

Some parents look forward to it. Some parents cringe at the thought of it. But all parents know that at some point they must give their kids “the talk.”

But what most parents think of as a single, often dreaded conversation about sex and life issues is, or at least should be, an ongoing process that begins when their child is born and extends into their adulthood.

“Most of the time, it is not ‘the talk,’” said Catholic media personality Dr. Ray Guarendi, a clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting and behavioral issues. “This idea that we’re going to give them a massive amount of life and reproduction information in one big swallow usually doesn’t happen that way.”

Take it slow

Children have bits and pieces of curiosity that arise as they get older. When that happens, parents should take the time to explain the issues in an age-appropriate manner, Guarendi explained. Parents can get flustered when their children pose questions, but in actuality, the child doesn’t want to know all of the details; they merely want their curiosity satisfied in a simple and straightforward way.

For example, a 5-year-old who asks where the baby in his mommy’s tummy came from probably doesn’t want to know the specific details. Likely, telling him God placed the baby there will suffice. As children pass through each stage of development, parents can give them more detailed information.

Parents often feel embarrassed and have a difficult time talking about sexual issues with their children because they believe the conversation will plant ideas in their children’s heads.

“They think that once the child knows,” Guarendi said, “then he’s going to lose his innocence and start to seek further. That doesn’t happen in a loving, moral family. The best way is to be open and explain these things.”

The key is to place the answers to our children’s questions in a moral context by stressing that God is in control of the entire life process. That’s contrary to mainstream culture in which children are instructed how to have sex and avoid “mistakes” by contracepting or aborting. Parents must counteract what society teaches — and what children are picking up from movies and television — by instilling a moral compass in their children.

“It’s important for religiously sensible parents to infuse their language with the presence of God, his plan and the sacredness of life,” Guarendi said.

Be clear, prepared

There are no magic words to use when discussing sensitive issues with our kids, but there are some basic approaches that will help us along. The first step is to discern how much the child really wants to know and what may have instigated the question.

Jennifer Madere, a licensed counselor who works with families in Cedar Park, Texas, advises that parents ask some questions of their own before launching into answers for their children’s questions.

First, ask your child to clarify his question. For example, if a child says, “Mom, what does abortion mean?” ask, “What do you want to know about it?” or “What do you think it means?” or “What happened that caused you to wonder about this?” This will give you some time to gain your bearing and ensure that you answer the true question rather than the one you think you heard.

When the conversation seems to be winding down, ask if there’s anything else he or she would like to know. If you’re not prepared to answer the question, don’t shut the conversation down. Instead, admit you’re not prepared and set a time within the next few days to do some research, and then follow up.

“If you follow up on a conversation, it’s great to provide a few pages of a book, a pamphlet from the local pro-life group or a page on a website,” Madere said. “However, don’t overwhelm them with a whole book or more than five minutes of information unless they ask for that much. Let them tell you how much information they want and respond accordingly.”

In God’s image

In general, it’s best to start the conversation by the time your child reaches puberty — between the ages of 8-13 for girls and 9-15 for boys. Being aware of your child’s physical development will help you gauge. For example, according to pediatricians, girls show signs of breast development approximately one year before they begin menstruation. As parents, you should equip them with knowledge to understand what’s happening to their bodies before the changes begin.

While it’s probable children will ask questions about these issues, it’s not prudent to assume that they will.

“Some kids do not ask questions,” said Jackie Wild, a mother of three and a certified Theology of the Body for Teens instructor who lives in Milwaukee. “In this case, there does need to be some initiation by the parent into the conversation. Otherwise, peers or other people that do not share our values may be teaching our children.”

When we speak to our children about sexual and life issues, we must stress that we are made in God’s image — male and female — and that we are good and that our whole bodies are good.

“We are made for love. And love means giving, not using,” Wild said. “We should speak to our children about how good they are, and how wonderfully made and beautiful their bodies are.”

Celebrate change

Wild points out that while it can be awkward to talk with our children about the sexual act, it will be much less awkward if we begin as early as possible in order to weave the moral fabric of our children’s characters, live our whole lives in an exemplary way and have a strong, trusting relationship with our kids.

“Of course, the physical part of sex is only one part,” Wild said. “The most important thing is passing on the meaning of our bodies and the meaning of sex — along with the true dignity of human life as created in God’s image.”

One way to unfold the richness of our sexuality for our children is to restore rites of passage in our families. In former times, a girl’s first menstrual cycle was celebrated as a symbol of her fertility. Boys upon reaching puberty were invited to hunt with the men and so on. These rites taught children that their bodies were holy and their sexuality precious.

“We used to have such passage moments, but not anymore,” said Vicki Thorn, who founded Project Rachel and the National Office for Post Abortion Reconciliation and Healing.

“That’s how girls learned how to be women and boys learned how to be men.”

No matter how or when we talk to our children about sex and life issues, the primary point must be that all human beings are uniquely and wonderfully made, with value and purpose according to God’s plan.

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.

Tips for "The Talk"
Joseph D. White, a clinical psychologist and Our Sunday Visitor’s national catechetical consultant, gives tips on having “the talk” with children in his book “A Catholic Parent’s Tool Box: Raising Healthy Families in the 21st Century” (OSV, $14.95). Here is an excerpt: