As a parent, there will come a time in your life when you’ll have to address the question, “Where do babies come from?” It’s a query that many parents dread and few know how to handle. This is especially true in Asian cultures where sex is traditionally not discussed openly and hardly ever between parents and their children. Although attitudes are changing these days, the “birds and the bees” remains a tricky topic to navigate.
Dr. Rose Peng is a Child, Adolescent and Adult Consultant Psychiatrist and owner of the Rose Peng Specialist Clinic. According to Dr. Peng, there is no doubt that it is important for parents to speak to their children about sex. “However, talking about the bird and the bees is not about zooming straight to sexual intercourse, lovemaking or erotic and intimate behaviour, ” she cautions. “Rather, it has to do with talking about the individual’s role and conduct as a member of a particular gender in a particular culture.”
As Dr. Peng explains, every culture and family has a personal and unique way of understanding gender roles and sexual behaviour. “First and foremost, these roles should be learned from home. They are not taught merely by ‘talking’ but through a lifestyle example from the elders in that society or family.”
Facing the challenges
The main challenge that parents are likely to face when speaking to children about sex is their own uneasiness and misunderstandings about sex education, points out Dr. Peng. Prevailing misconceptions about sex education is what holds most parents back. “Many parents still feel that talking to their children about sex is like talking about their own ‘dirty, behind the bedroom door’ activities.” While sex is still a taboo subject in many Asian families and communities, according to Dr. Peng, we must bear in mind that it is unwise for any parent or community to leave it to those outside their own culture to teach their young. “What a child learns from the outside may not be applicable to their background. The child could get confused and get into a lot of trouble.”
In order to overcome this challenge, Dr. Peng recommends leading by example. The aim, she says, is to show our children how to play a nurturing and caring role towards fellow human beings of either gender. She also stressed that it is crucial for parents to guide their children in the gender roles that are appropriate to their own culture as well as with respect to other cultures and in terms of others’ gender roles.
Starting from young
So, how can parents tell if it’s the right time to talk to their child about sex? Should parents wait for the child to ask and what if he or she never does? The answer to both these questions, says Dr. Peng, is related to starting early. “Start while your children are young, and teach different things at different stages of your child’s life.” As a child grows from a toddler to a young child, then to a teenager and an adult Dr. Peng advises parents to talk to the child about the physical, social and emotional transformations that he or she will go through as well as how to best handle all these changes.
The broader picture
In Dr. Peng’s experience, parents often limit their conversations about sex to addressing wet dreams for teenage boys and menses for teenage girls but talking about sex is so much more than that. She says parents must also talk to their children about what to do when they are attracted to a member of the opposite sex and how to interact with each other respectfully and safely. “Parents must help their teenagers and young adult children to figure out what they can do if the attraction is strong, how to be safe and how to recognise any danger signs that the attraction is getting out of control,” she adds.
With the overwhelming influence of mass media, the Internet and social networks these days, parents are concerned that when it comes to sex education and children today, it’s a case of too much, too soon. Fortunately, attitudes about sex discussions between parents and their children are beginning to shift and parents are now more willing to speak openly to their children to help them become sexually responsible adults. According to Dr. Peng, “When we give our children the broader picture by talking to them about how to safely and respectfully interact with members of the opposite sex, our kids will not have too much curiosity about each other and they are guided to not only keep themselves safe but also to keep other parties at a safe distance.”
Being in tune with your child
In speaking to their children about sex, most parents wonder, “Do I have to adopt a different approach when speaking about sex to boys and girls?” While Dr. Peng recommends always communicating about reproductive health and information in a factual manner to both boys and girls, she advises parents to handle the situation based on their ongoing and past relationships with their kids. This is because, children will learn to live their lives based on the information parents provide them, which is very personal, differs among individuals and is not specific to the two genders.
The most crucial piece of advice that Dr. Peng has for all parents out there who would like to speak to their kids about sex is to establish a good communicating relationship with children, at the youngest age possible. She also says that it is crucial not to be judgmental. “Instead, always listen and try to understand where your child is coming from.” If you have concerns for your child, she adds, ask them with honesty and curiosity rather than with criticism.
No short cuts
Something parents should not do, however, is to take short cuts in providing explanations to their kids. “If you’re not sure of the answers to their questions, do your research and look up your references first. If you can, do this together with your child,” advises Dr. Peng. The trick, she says, is to always stay factual and avoid self-righteousness. If you follow this simple rule children will be more comfortable reaching out to their parents if they’re confused or unsure and less likely to experiment or to start risky relationships without their parents’ knowledge.
The topic of the birds and the bees has always been daunting to even the most well prepared parents and there simply aren’t any standard instructions on how parents should approach it with their children. In addition, there are no specific guidelines for the perfect age to start addressing the issue.
The most effective thing that parents can do is to take the matter into their own hands and work with their own instinctive understanding of each child’s character and personality. As lifelong guides and protectors, it is up to parents to equip their children with the knowledge that will allow kids to understand their sexuality and to live responsibly and with clarity.