Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Annoying Article in The Post

Was anybody else as annoyed as I was with this feature in The Post yesterday morning? As if sexuality has just gotten too complicated for ordinary people to understand it.
Early one morning, Nancy Nisselbaum was readying her 6-year-old son Marshall for school and herself for work when he asked: "Mommy, how does the sperm get from the donor to the doctor?"

A single mom by choice, Nisselbaum had neatly fielded earlier questions about why her son didn't have a dad. But this query momentarily stumped her. Then she took a deep breath and dived in:

"Let's start with . . . married people," she said, and explained the traditional sperm-meets-egg method. "Ewww. Gross," Marshall replied, as any self-respecting first-grader would.

Working up to his original question, Nisselbaum, who lives in New York, next explained the mechanics of masturbation. Marshall listened intently, then moved on to other crucial morning concerns, like getting dressed.

Even for a parent used to frank talk with her children, explaining this particular means of modern reproduction before 9 a.m. can make for a tough start to the day. 'The Talk': Forget the Birds and the Bees -- Kids Are Asking About IVF, Transgender Pregnancy and STDs

I know that readers of this blog will have their own answers for a question like that for a kid that age. It seems to me that this kid had heard part of a story and didn't have the background information to make sense out of it, like he didn't apparently understand about intercourse and fertilization -- it seems to me that masturbation is a topic to come in a later talk. I can't imagine that this kid actually understood all this stuff; I don't think any harm was done with this talk, though I doubt it was effective.

Funny, I just remembered being a kid. When I was little, maybe five or six, my mother had given me a talk where she told me the names of all the "important" body parts, and of course I forgot them all. A couple of years later a body part became relevant in a conversation and I couldn't remember what it was called. I can still remember trying to come up with it -- it seemed to me that the word "spine" was one of them, but what did it mean?
Changes in reproductive technology, a new openness about formerly closeted subjects and the flaunting of overtly sexual imagery in news and entertainment outlets have shifted the parameters of the traditional preteen birds-and-bees talk. (Remember? Mothers talked to daughters; dads talked to sons. End of discussion.)

Today, experts urge parents to welcome questions on sexuality by the time their kids can ask why the sky is blue. Recent research has shown that regular discussions of sexuality may improve parent-child relationships and even delay the onset of sexual activity by children. For some parents, that latter effect is taking on new importance in light of a recent study showing that at least one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease.

That last finding really shook people up. Never mind that the primary disease is HPV, which is spread by any skin contact and is not necessarily an STD. I suppose it's good that the news hit hard and made people aware of the risks of unprotected sex.

So far this story is just the usual cute stuff, it's excruciating but it's part of our world, people who think this is funny. Now we're getting to the theme that annoys me.
What a complex new world parents have to explain today. It's not just that some kids have two mommies, others two daddies or no daddy at all. Or that national debates on abortion and gay marriage, along with news stories on in vitro fertilization and sex changes, are generating a whole new set of questions.

We've also got a transgender person -- born a woman but now living as a man, albeit with female reproductive organs intact -- showing off what seems to be his six-month pregnancy bump on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Try explaining that to a 9-year-old -- or a 40-year-old, for that matter.

Okay, listen, it's not that hard for a kid to relate to the fact that some people have two mommies. You just say, "Bobby has two mommies." Maybe you don't get it, but your kid will, it's not that hard of a concept. Abortion? What's to say, a lady was pregnant and the doctor did something so she wasn't pregnant any more. A kid can understand that. If you want to moralize about it, that's what family values are all about, this is an opportunity for you to propagate your beliefs, whatever they are, to the next generation. A pregnant transgender man? He used to be a woman by mistake and they fixed him, but he's still got woman organs inside his tummy and now there's a baby there.

The controversies are in the adult world, these are actually simple things for a kid to understand. It really doesn't have to be hard, and somehow I'm not thinking it's that funny. There have always been gay and transgender people, the difference is that now mainstream society recognizes them as productive and likable human beings. They aren't hidden any more, they aren't ashamed of themselves and rest of us aren't offended by them. That's all that's changed. Reality hasn't changed, the public perception of it has. It makes sense to raise your kid for the world they're going to live in, not the vanished past.
What's more, some experts say there's a disconnect between the Bush administration's sex-education message (practice abstinence until you're wed) and the implicit media message (engage freely in sexual behavior). And in that disconnect lies a danger, says Baltimore-based sex educator Deborah Roffman, the author of "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex."

"You could do a real disservice with this assumption that you wait until the child asks," she said. "The truth is that we've left our children in a vacuum around these topics, and popular culture has just waltzed into this vacuum."

Good, the aggressive approach. Tell your kids the whole story from the start. Most of the time girls fall in love with boys and boys fall in love with girls, but sometimes they don't. Most of the time people who get pregnant are happy to have a new baby, but sometimes they really can't. Sometimes when a baby is born they think it's a girl but it's really a boy, or vice versa (don't say "vice versa" to a six year old, okay? I'm just trying not to have to say everything both ways here). You can tell a little kid these things, they can handle it, and then it won't sound like you're covering up something later when you have to explain something slightly complicated like pregnant transmen -- and why is your six-year-old watching Oprah, anyway?

By the way, you might remember Deborah Roffman from our education forum back in 2005. She was articulate, knowledgeable, full of insights and surprising perspectives.
Which leaves many parents asking: How do you give your kids the tools they need to safeguard their physical and emotional health? And how much should you tell kids to reassure them about their own sexuality but not encourage risk-taking?

No one claims finding age-appropriate words to explain sperm donation -- or even simpler topics -- is easy. Self-consciousness and embarrassment sometimes trip up even those who work in the field.

I am somewhat puzzled by this. It is not apparent to me that a child's physical and emotional health are threatened by the knowledge that there is diversity in the world. Chances are, the kid will grow up heterosexual, identified with their assigned sex, but not necessarily. You're talking to a little kid, you don't know how they'll turn out. It's not like lying to them is going to make their life better later.

It just seems to me that all the assumptions in this article are wrong.

Half-informed kids can be a menace, they tease and taunt, they bully, they are anxious about their own identities. I don't see why all of this has to be a big secret. Some people are gay. Some are transgender. Sex and marriage go together but not always. Just explain it right the first time, then you won't get confused by some of the more complicated examples.

There's a lot more to this article, you may find it interesting.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

andrea- not anon
Why are parents so embarrassed to talk to their own kids? I think that is why some people are scared of sex ed/health ed- they think if it isn't brought up at school- their kids will not ask questions and the kids won't do it! yeah, right! Telling a kid you are not old enough to know about it guarantees asking another kid about "it". you can explain differently at different ages but the conversation needs to be started early- and once the child starts asking- you need to be a good parent and respond.

April 16, 2008 1:10 PM  
Blogger Tish said...

I thought the opening of the article was poor - the parts you've selected and written about. From the point where the author quotes Roffman, it gets better.

After a bizarre introduction, the article makes it clear that there's no such a thing as "The Talk," because what our kids need is an on-going conversation. Medical experts from across the country are in agreement that frequent and open communication between parents and teens is what's best for our kids. They point out that we need to talk to them about feelings, that these conversations are good times to talk about our values. I thought it was interesting that one mother has her best talks when she and her kids are in the car. Of course, they have her captive and can ask their toughest questions, as she points out. But she can answer the questions without looking her children in the eyes. I hope she finds another way.

I found a lot in the article that supports what we have been advocating all along. Trying to keep kids in the dark about sexuality doesn't "preserve their childhood," but it can teach children not to ask their parents about sex.

April 16, 2008 10:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim's observation that half-informed youth tend to tease or bully make's sense to me. My experience is that when students know about lgbt people they tend to see such as something other than objects of ridicule. Groups such as CRC encourage lack of knowledge, and PFOX preaches misinformation, which lead to negative results.

My own father, when I came out, worried that I was gay because he never really had "the talk" with me. I needed to reassure him that it was not his fault. A major message of FOF's "Love Won Out" conference is that parents are in fact to blame for their children's minority sexual orientation or gender identity.

April 17, 2008 8:28 AM  

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