By Rose Hoban

If you are an adult of a certain age, you remember how it went: A parent clearing their throat repeatedly, talking in metaphors, referring you to a book. Maybe when it was over, you were even more confused than before.

When, as a teenager, Anu Kumar’s mother wanted to have “the talk” with her, she sent her brother and father out of the house before sitting down to stammer out a few words about sex.

NCSU researcher Laura Widman said parents can't start talking to their kids about sex too early.
NCSU researcher Laura Widman said parents can’t start talking to their kids about sex too early. Photo credit: David Amsler, flickr creative commons

“That was the only time we talked about it,” Kumar said of her mother, a South Asian academic who was teaching in Utah. “That was a big deal for her. I mean, I come from India, no one talks about this stuff in India. For her to sit me down and have that discussion was big.”

Kumar, on the other hand, has been talking to her kids, a 19-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, since they were toddlers.

“You have to start talking about it pretty early, and talking about anatomy,” said Kumar, who now lives in Chapel Hill. “Kids notice differences in anatomy. So the more accurate you can be, you know ‘what it’s for, what you use it for.’”

Kumar’s approach is the right one, said Laura Widman, a psychology researcher at N.C. State University. She’s just published a study in JAMA Pediatrics showing that parents talking to their kids really matters.

“We found … adolescents who talk to their parents about sexual-health topics are more likely to use contraception and condoms than teens who didn’t have those conversations,” Widman said.

Friends, books, the Internet

Kids have many more places to find information about sex these days, Widman said. The Internet is a virtual cornucopia of information about sex, from porn websites to videos created by comedian John Oliver; from young-adult literature to movies that can be blushingly explicit.

NC State Assistant Prof. Laura Widman did much of the research for her JAMA Pediatrics paper when she was still working at UNC Chapel Hill.
N.C. State Assistant Prof. Laura Widman did much of the research for her JAMA Pediatrics paper when she was still working at UNC-Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“There’s so much that’s sex based that the kids have access to,” said Michelle Delin, a single mom to two teens, a boy and a girl. “The videos, the movies, the phone. Things are vulgar and one-dimensional.”

But Widman said parents really do matter. She studies communication between teenagers, how teens negotiate things like their first dating relationship and talking about safer sex.

“A big place where kids learn these skills is at home,” she said.

Delin said she tries to be a foil to the other information out in the world, talking to her kids “about self-esteem, about being kind, about caring.”

Starting early is important, Widman said, because, cognitively, kids are different when they’re 12 and 13, more easily influenced, than even a few years later.

You’ve convinced me. I’ll talk to my kids about sex. But I need some resources!

Advocates for Youth, a national advocacy organization that’s been helping parents talk to their kids since 1980 and has tons of resources.

Tools for parents, created by Planned Parenthood to help parents talk to their kids.

A resource page created by SHIFT NC. The website also has great data about North Carolina.

More tools for parents and kids, created by professionals from the Nemours Children’s Health System, based in Delaware.

Birds + Bees + Kids: Created by an educator with experience as a sex-ed counselor.

Wanna watch a TEDx talk about talking to your teens? Here’s one. Speaker Marnie Goldenberg calls herself the “Sexplainer,” and this is a link to her Facebook page.

A Facebook query of parents drew responses such as: “I started the day I brought them home from the hospital so they could never say I didn’t tell them anything.” And, “Had the first talk with my son last spring. He was six.”

But others made comments like: “Not there yet and fretting over it.”

Kumar recounted talking to her kids all along. And Delin said she’s always been “up front” with her kids about sex.

Widman said that’s smart.

Kids can get lots of information about sex from the internet, but parents are an important source of information about sexuality for their kids.
Kids can get lots of information about sex from the Internet, but parents are an important source of information about sexuality for their kids. Photo credit: Azureon2, flickr creative commons

“If you wait to have ‘the talk’ and that talk comes at 14, 15 or 16 when kids have already started experimenting with sex, and have already been heavily influenced by the media and by peers, you’re going to be much less effective than if that was an ongoing conversation that started much earlier,” she said.

Kumar has also used conversations with her son as a roundabout way to talk to her younger daughter. She said her son, who’s now in college, has been in a serious relationship for a year.

“So I’m talking to him about how you don’t want to be pregnant until you’re done with school, and my daughter is sitting there listening and absorbing it all,” she said. “You don’t even have to have the conversation with them, just around them.”

‘From you, mom.’

Schools teaching sex education do play an important part in the conversation, said Elizabeth Finley, a spokesperson for SHIFT NC, which promotes adolescent and young-adult sexual health.

“Kids who get zero sex education initiate a little earlier than kids who get comprehensive or abstinence-only sex ed,” she said.

Once kids do start having sex – and the research shows nearly 70 percent of high school kids will have sex before they graduate – that’s where the differences in education come in.

“Kids who get comprehensive sex-education programs are more likely to use contraceptives or condoms than kids who get abstinence-only,” Finley said.

But everyone interviewed for this story said they don’t look to schools to teach values. That’s done at home, by parents.

“I spoke to my daughter about what guys would try to do, to tell you, to get you into bed,” Delin said. “So you don’t fall into the lure of, ‘Oh, I love you.'”

Nonetheless, she’s made condoms available to her daughter, who’s just turning 16.

“Even if kids are getting really good sex education in schools, it’s always meant to be supplemental to what you’re saying at home,” Finley said. ‘Parents are the place to have conversations about expectations and values, because school will never have the capacity to get to those things.”

“When my son was in middle school, I asked him if they talked about contraception, and he said, ’No,’” Kumar said. “And then I asked him where he’s getting information and he rolled his eyes and said, ‘From you, mom.’”

Finley said much of the sex education in schools is often simply “anatomy charts, lists of birth-control methods, just the facts.”

But she also said more education about contraceptives has contributed to downward trends in the teen-pregnancy rate. In 2004, the teen-pregnancy rate in North Carolina was 62.4 per 1,000 girls. The latest data, from 2013, shows the rate down to 35.2 per 1,000.

“If you use more contraception and condoms, you’ll have a lower pregnancy rate,” Finley said. “When we look at the research on why teen-pregnancy rates have declined so heavily in recent decades, the biggest reason is increased contraceptive use.”

“The role of schools is not necessarily to communicate values around sex; that’s what a parent can do,” Widman said. “A school can provide basic health information – you know, what are sexually transmitted diseases, what are the symptoms, how can they be prevented?”

Widman said that her research found kids need information from lots of different sources.

“Getting it from families and parents, getting it from schools, getting it from friends,” she said. “I think each of those may have a role to play.”

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