by Charlotte Hilton Andersen, REDBOOK
Explaining the Octomom to my kids was tough ("When a woman and the paparazzi really love each other sometimes they find a petri dish...") but that awkward moment was just a sign of things to come. With my kids-8, 6, 4 and 1-getting old enough to start asking the really difficult questions, listening to the morning news has taken on a whole new level of "infotainment" (meaning I provided the info and they provide the entertainment). So when the host of the morning radio program I listen to brought up the unfolding Arnold Schwarzenegger divorce/cheating/baby-with-his-maid scandal, I quickly changed the channel to NPR. "Mommy, what does 'sexually assault' mean and who's the IMF?" And back to the Governator it is! (Also, I'm not even sure exactly what the IMF is.)
The truth is that our culture loves a good sex scandal and at some point your discussions with your kids are going to have go past the How Babies Are Made talk that so scandalized previous generations. The sex talk came fairly early for my kids when my first-grader came home from the bus asking, "How do such big babies come out of such little holes?". Thankfully pictures were not involved, but rather an older child describing a picture to an audience of rapt younger children. Still, it brought up the subject in a way I was not prepared for and if I learned one thing it's that I would be having these little surprise talks often.
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How and when to talk to children about sex has long been a worry for parents. Tell them too much too soon and they are overwhelmed and unable to process the information. (You also run the risk of your words getting twisted and repeated for Show-N-Tell, Showtime edition.) But if you don't tell them anything then you are giving tacit approval to others-friends, media, infuriating older kids on the bus-to teach your kids. Honestly I'm way more afraid of the latter than the former. Plus if you talk to them about sex on your terms, it is the perfect opportunity to frame it in the values and moral framework of your family. You get no such guarantee if you leave it to Charlie Sheen.
Dr. Laura Berman suggests talking to kids about sex from infancy. The key, she says, is to make the information age appropriate. Better to have an on-going series of Q&As than to have one Big Talk that confuses as much as educates. You can download her complete guide to talking to kids about sex from Oprah.com (and it even includes anatomically correct charts!). For me, this has played out by simply answering their questions. I try to give them the information they are looking for and then I ask them if they have any other questions. If they do, I answer those too. If they don't, I let it be. This child-guided method has its pros and cons. For instance my kids learned about the mechanics of childbirth before they learned how that baby came to be in the uterus. But by and large it seems to be working for us. So yesterday morning when my son asked, "What does 'cheating' mean and not like on a test?" I got to have a nice talk with him about fidelity and what it means to treat women with respect and kindness.
What's your strategy for talking to your kids about media sex scandals? Has that changed as they've gotten older?
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.