How to have "The Big Talk"

IF YOU’RE ONE of those people who turns red in the face just reading the word “testicle,” then you may be tempted to leave your child’s sexual education to the school system. That, however, would be a bad idea. A survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP) reports that some 45 percent of kids aged 12 to 19 said that their parents are the No. 1 influence on their sexual decisions, while 31 percent said their friends are. Only 6 percent named their teachers and educators. In other words, teens want you to help them define their values and boundaries, even if you stutter while trying to wax eloquent about the miracles of baby-making and even if your teen looks at you like you’re an embarrassment to humanity (and he will). —Jill Davis

Half of parents of sexually active eighth graders are unaware that their kids are having sex.

Another reason not to rely solely on the schools is that the in-class curriculum can be spotty: Although Portland Public Schools does incorporate age-appropriate sexuality information into its health curriculum beginning in the fifth grade—covering topics from menstruation to HIV to safe dating—there are inequities across the district in the quality of the sexuality education kids receive, thanks partly to the district’s infamous funding problems. In some schools, kids may not receive sexuality education at all.

The reality is that, though your child may get medically accurate information in school, his attitudes and behaviors will primarily be shaped by you or, if you stay mum on the topic, by his teenaged pals. So how do you have The Big Talk? First of all, it is no longer de rigueur to have a Big Talk at all. Instead, have numerous small ones beginning when your kids are elementary-aged. These tips will help you work up your courage.

  • “Bring the topic up casually and often,” says Lisa Cline, an education specialist for Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette. Use what the popular psych parlance of the day terms “teaching moments.” If your teen has gone gaga for MTV’s The Real World, ask her what she thinks about the contestants’ riskier behaviors.

  • Talk to your sons, too. According to one NCPTP study, six out of ten teens think that the old double standard that asks girls to abstain, while boys get the wink and the nod, is alive and well.

  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” If your child asks questions you can’t answer, look them up online together (www.teenpregnancy.org).

  • Teaching both abstinence and safe sex does not send mixed messages. Eight out of ten teens view discussing both as sending a “clear and specific” message, according to NCPTP.

    h2. How to deal with a risk-taker

    SOMETIMES TEENS TAKE such downright harmful risks that it seems there’s something seriously wrong with their heads. In fact, something is—sort of. In recent years, a spate of neurological research has found that the prefrontal cortex—that region of the brain that governs sound judgment and is key to impulse control&#*212;doesn’t finish maturing until a person’s 20s.

    “This is the executive part of the brain,” says Amy Ruona-Banister, Portland Public Schools’ parent education coordinator. “Because it’s underdeveloped, teens are inclined to use emotion rather than logic to make quick decisions.” Which also explains why many teens are prone to experimenting with drugs. (The 2007 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey found that 39 percent of 11th graders reported having used marijuana.)

    However, if you help to stimulate their brains in positive ways, they won’t be as apt to try dangerous feats for a quick rush. “The real goal is to get them out of their comfort zone,” says Ruona-Banister, whose team also leads parent-education workshops in area schools. These ideas will give your teens the buzz they’re looking for.