Sex is Not a Four Letter Word (Talking to Kids About Sex)

Sex. It’s everywhere—including the bible. So what happens when children, in this case 4th graders, begin discussing bible stories in religious school that deal with sexually-charged topics? From the very beginning, the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar deals with reproductive issues.

 

In our community, this has created significant discomfort with some parents. A friend told me that since her daughter was born she had a plan that when her daughter turned 12, she would explain topics like menstruation and sex.

 

We’ve taken a different attitude in our house. I’ve always answered my kids questions—of course that doesn’t mean giving them adult answers, but doing so in age appropriate ways. This means starting with the most simplistic answer first and seeing where the child goes. Someone was told me a story about a child who had been watching television with her dad. When the commercial came, she turned to her dad and asked, “What’s a climax?” He turned red and got very flustered. Fortunately, he gathered his wits enough to ask where she had heard the word. Her answer, “The television just said ‘stay tuned for the climax.’”

 

My daughter knew the basics of menstruation from when she was a toddler. Why? Because sometimes I had to go to the bathroom when we were out, and in Washington, DC I was definitely bringing her in the stall with me. She saw things first hand, and it was either let her be terrified that mom was hurt or give a simplistic, yet accurate, explanation.

 

As for sex, when my daughter was in second grade, she wanted to know what those penguins were doing in March of the Penguins, and I answered her questions, while all of the time inserting our moral values into the conversation. I also told her two important things.

  1. This was not a topic for her to discuss with her friends. It is up to her friends’ parents to convey this information.
  2. If she did hear things from her friends, she should talk to me because kids often don’t have the facts straight.

My son hasn’t asked any questions yet. So for him, we just make sure he knows the proper names for all of his body parts. Including his scrotum—a word that caused a Newberry winning book to be banned by some school librarians. “The Higher Power of Lucky” includes the word “scrotum” to describe where a dog gets a snake bite.   At the time, NPR talked to boys in a Tuscon library and most had no idea what a scrotum was–much less that it was a body part that they had!

 

Many kids are taught all of the proper names for part of their body except for their genitals. In her book, From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children From Infancy to Middle School,” Debra Haffner notes, “When you use euphemisms only for the genitals, you are giving your child a message that these parts of the body are uncomfortable or different.  You may, without meaning to or realizing it, even introduce a sense of shame or guilt about this part of the body.”

 

Haffner’s book is the one parenting book I actually did read and highly recommend to any parent. I suppose I had my own parental induced hang-ups and wanted my children to avoid that. And, I really wanted to create an environment where they would get their information from me and felt comfortable coming to me with questions.

 

And when it comes to talk to my son about sex, I’ll be doing that too. Consider the findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

  • Teens who reported more satisfaction in their relationship with their mother were less likely to report having sex in the subsequent year, more likely to use birth control the last time they had sex and less likely to get pregnant.
  • The more disapproving adolescents perceived their mother to be toward their engaging in sexual intercourse, the less likely they were to have sexual intercourse.
  • Teens perceptions of their mothers’ attitudes toward abstinence are more predictive of sexual outcomes (e.g., intercourse, use of birth control, pregnancy) than actual maternal attitudes.

 

 

 

 

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Kid-sickness—Guilty!

Yesterday’s paper had an article on what AP writer Martha Irvine called a new disease, “kid-sickness.”

It used to be the homesick kid begging to come home from camp. Now [camp directors] have noticed that it’s often parents who have more trouble letting go.

They call it “kid-sickness,” a condition attributed in large part to today’s more involved style of parenting. Observers also say it’s being exacerbated by our ability to be in constant contact by cell phone and computer, as well as many parents’ perception that the world is a more dangerous place.

I don’t think of myself as a hovering parent. (Is there some sort of quiz I can take to determine this?) Yet, when it comes to “kid-sickness,” I plead guilty. And as Irvine noted, the need for contact played a significant role.

After my daughter begged to go to sleep away camp, I finally convinced my husband that it was a good idea. I had gone as kid for several summers and loved it. She had been away for 10 days before on a trip with her grandparents, so I figured I could handle a 2-week camp. Wrong! The major difference. No cell phone. No contact. Only snail mail.

I didn’t worry about her being hurt; I knew I’d hear about that right away. But was she happy? Had she made friends? Was she lonely? When her first postcard finally arrived, it was brief, but to the point. She loved camp. And she closed with these four words, “I am perfectly okay.” Clearly, my daughter knows me well.

When we picked her up, she cried to stay. No homesickness, just the joy of being a kid at camp. She even seemed more confident and outgoing as well. So, while 2-weeks seemed like forever to me (and even longer to her brother), we’ve agreed to let her go back next summer for four.

In the article, Irvine quotes Bob Ditter, a therapist has acted as a consultant to camps since the early 1980s.

“Parents love their kids a lot,” Ditter says. But they also need to let go sometimes. He is, for instance, absolutely opposed to the idea of Internet webcams that allow parents to monitor their children at camp.

 

I agree. Part of going away to camp, is going away.  It’s often a child’s first real taste of independence from parents. And that’s a good thing. As my mother-in-law reminds me, one of the major jobs of parenting is teaching your kids to become independent.

 

For Jewish families there may be another benefit. In article in the Baltimore Jewish Times, Doug Mankoff, executive board member of the Foundation for Jewish Camps said, “We know kids who go to Jewish summer camp are more likely to grow up with positive feelings about being Jewish.” And even more importantly, camp produces Jewish leaders.

 

Jerry Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, told the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES that as of 2006, 65 percent of Jewish leaders attended a Jewish sleep-away camp.

 

I imagine the same is true of camps for other religions. Does anyone have stats for those?

 

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To Quit or Not to Quit

Piano lessons. Parents want their children to have them. Children find practicing the bane of their existence. Is the battle worth it?

For our oldest, we decided it definitely was not. She got no enjoyment out of playing . . . ever. We were exposing her to a variety of things, and we wrote this one off as one that did not interest her. And frankly, (sorry JB if you are reading this) of her many, many talents, music is not one of them. I say that with some hesitance. I don’t want to teach her that if she isn’t good at something she should just quit. However, in other things that she’s tried out of her own genuine interest (like ice skating), we did not let her give up just because it got harder.

Then there’s my son. He has responded to music since the day he came home from the hospital. It instantly soothed him. From the time he could talk, he has spontaneously broken into song at any given moment. And he performs an entire self-composed operetta whenever he plays with his Playmobil castle, dragon and knights.

While ultimately he wants to learn how to play the guitar (at 6 he is a Guitar Hero junkie—and yes, video games are a whole other subject), he’s been told he must learn piano first. He tried a lesson, loved it, and impressed the teacher.

Yet, I know the day is not far off that he too will battle us over practicing. I am committed to not letting him quit. Clearly music brings him joy—and sometimes we all have to work at having a little joy.

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about singing and learning. FPG now has a whole page devoted to music resources.

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Hold the Peanuts, Please

After eating less than a ¼ of teaspoon of hummus, my son broke out into large red welts all over his body. Honestly, we did not panic. We were too ignorant to panic at that point. We called the doctor, gave him some Benadryl, and watched the hives disappear as fast as they had come. He was about 16 months at the time.

After some allergy testing, we learned that the culprit had been the sesame in the hummus. We also found out that he was allergic to eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. And so we began our introduction to the Epipen and the world of food allergies. And that’s when the panic ensued. When tested at age three, his peanut reaction was so large that they marched him around the allergist’s office to show the other doctors and nurses.

I could write forever about our experiences and the emotional roller coaster ride, but we’ll save that for another day. Fortunately, with the help of time, education, and an excellent allergist, we have things as under control as one can. And in the context of the things that many families have to face, I know how lucky we are that we have a healthy, vibrant child.

That said, some of the normal experiences of life have to be undertaken with a bit more thought. Eating at restaurants requires asking a lot of questions, (BTW, Red Robin is amazing at catering to allergic customers.) We take treats to birthday parties as he can’t eat the cake. And travel can present a unique set of problems—everything from will the airline serve peanuts to will the relatives be willing to avoid peanut butter for the week.

Debbie Dubrow has written an excellent and very thorough article in Delicious Baby on the subject—Tips and Advice for Traveling with Severe Food Allergies. She also wrote a separate piece about why she cares about the issue (she does not have children with food allergies). Please read her commentary.

The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network also posts good travel tips.

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What’s your cortisol level?

Here in North Carolina, we have high stakes testing beginning in third grade. If you don’t pass the End of Grade test (EOG), you might not go on to the next grade.

We dread this time in my house. Despite the fact that she is incredibly smart with nothing to worry about, my daughter falls apart the week leading up to and the week of the EOGs. This year, she even created the Evil EOG man. She drew him everywhere and showed him failing kids. Clearly, she’s stressed.

Thankfully, she doesn’t know the kind of stress (from enduring abuse or witnessing violence) that too many kids experience. Stress, that research suggests affects not only a child’s future mental health, but their physical health as well.

According to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a professor of child health and development at Harvard, the incidence of heart disease, diabetes and cancer increases based on high levels of childhood stress. He said that stress hormones, like cortisol, disrupt a child’s brain development.

He also noted that genetics played a factor. This got me wondering if kids that are programmed to react more intensely to the normal ups and downs of life also are at greater risk. Given the demands many parents and schools place on children, maybe we should be routinely checking cortisol levels in children.

Dr. Shonkoff’s presentation was part of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission hearing investigating how factors outside the health care system – such as education and housing – shape and affect opportunities to lead healthy lives.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America: www.commissiononhealth.org/

News and Observer Article about the hearing: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/story/1106522.html

Families Featured by the Commission: http://www.fpg.unc.edu/news/highlight_detail.cfm?ID=784

Also, check out PRMom in the following blogs:

Zooglobble: www.zooglobble.com

Simple Songs: simplesongs.blogs.com/

Bay Kids Museum: www.baykidsmuseum.org/blog/

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Stealing from Barney

Is Barney still on television today? Thankfully, the purple dinosaur was not popular in our house when my kids were younger. Yet, while the show annoyed some parents on oh so many levels, many of us still felt free to steal from it.

You know who you are. When you couldn’t get your kids to start cleaning up, you broke into song, “Clean up. Clean up. Everybody, everywhere. Clean up. Clean up. Everybody do you share.” And like magic nine times out of ten, the kids actually started cleaning up.

If I’d been really smart (and significantly less sleep deprived), I would have noticed the dramatic affect that music could have on behavior. I might have made up some song to get my toddler into his car seat without a major tantrum and meltdown. Or written some lyrics to make teeth brushing not a game of hide-and-seek.

I had the opportunity to talk to a music therapist last week who readily confirmed that music does in fact make transitions and routines easier for children. You can listen to the conversation and hear what she had to say.

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First Words

It is with great embarrassment that I confess that my daughter’s first word was “mall.” This was shortly followed by “shoes.” I don’t even want to think about what this must say about me. Ironically, it says little about her.

Anyone who knows my daughter knows that fashion is of no concern to her. Her only rule is comfort—although this has a daily changing definition and frequently does not fit into the norm of what you and I might define as comfort. For example, she takes after my husband and is quite thin. Pants cannot be loose under any circumstances. And when she was in kindergarten it was our morning ritual for her to throw a temper tantrum about her socks. Of course in hindsight I wonder why I just didn’t let her go without them—it only gets so cold in North Carolina in the winter.

But I digress. Yes her first words were shopping centric, but the point is she spoke them pretty early. And she continued to develop language skills at a fairly rapid rate. I’m sure there were many factors that influenced her language development. What I learned recently from researchers here at FPG is that I also was lucky that she was in a quality child care program.

I have always been under the misguided notion that parents could make up for anything academic that might be lacking in a child care environment. Perhaps this was how I made myself feel better since I had to go back to work when she was three months old.

Well I was wrong. This study showed that in every language development measurement used, children in higher quality child care programs significantly outperformed those in lower quality care. The kids in the study all came from two-parent families who had some level of higher education and were of middle income.

So how do you find a quality program? There are lots of resources out there to help guide you. One that I used when looking at childcare programs was an interview sheet I downloaded from BabyCenter. They have an updated version available online. The National Association for the Education of Young Children also is a good resource.

If you want more info about the study, you can read the summary online.

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