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Fifty Shades of Blush: Why Is It So Hard to Talk to Kids About Sex?

Psychologists tell us that denial is the mind's first defense mechanism against anxiety. So, what exactly, are we so afraid of? And, exactly what kind of harm do we fear?
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USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Mother talking with daughters (10-11)
USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Mother talking with daughters (10-11)

In the early days of TV, humorist Art Linkletter tickled America's funny bone with riotous film clips on the aptly named show, "Kids Say the Darndest Things!"

Kids still do say the 'darndest' things, of course, but today, they are as likely to throw us into hysteria as hysterics.

One parent called me last week with this doozy from his 11-year-old: "Hey Dad, what's the deal on this 'S and M' thing?" The man described his immediate reaction as near total catatonia. When his vocal chords finally relaxed enough to move again, he faintly whispered, "I'll get back to you on that." That's when he called me.

"Tell me the exact words to use," he instructed, "Few enough so I'll to be able to breathe my way through it, but just enough so there won't be any follow up questions."

He seemed so traumatized. He reminded me of a woman I once met who'd finally forced herself to tell her young daughter the "facts of life." She promptly went into the bathroom and threw up. (The mother, not the daughter.)

Can you relate?

Comical images of red-faced, squirmy parents trying to get themselves through some variation of "The Talk" ultimately make us laugh at ourselves, and that's always a good thing. But, decades of work with generations of parents makes me think there's something deeper than learned discomfort and embarrassment (after all, none of us was born that way!) going on here.

Sexuality is one of the great equalizers in American society. Wherever I go, no matter the state or region, age, education level, religion, politics or socio-economics of folks in the audience, there's palpable hesitation if not downright resistance to "go there" in conversation with kids, and also a bizarre sense of cluelessness about how and when even to start. Such restraint and downright ineptitude -- especially among so many otherwise smart, savvy adults -- makes me conclude that what we have on our hands is actually a uniquely American case of cultural disability.

After all, we are grownups, right? It's hard, but we manage to figure out how to answer really tough questions from kids all the time, or we at least give it a try: Why did Grandma die? Why don't some children have enough to eat? What if my cancer comes back? What does "beheading" mean? Why did my friend kill himself? And, when it comes to subjects we know children need to learn about in the right ways, we do our best to bring them up before others have a chance to get there first with their "spin" instead of ours.

When the subject is sex, though, we Americans -- both in families and schools -- often take an entirely different tack: We avoid, divert, dance around, postpone, put off and/or happily hand off to others. I hear well-meaning rationales from parents all the time for why this evasion is indeed the correct way to go: You know, they're just not "ready." If you tell them, they'll think you're giving permission. Don't you have to wait until they ask? If you say too much too soon, they'll just go out and try it, or blab about it to all the kids at school. What if other children haven't thought of that question before? We don't want to put ideas in their head, do we? But what if they keep on asking more and more questions -- where would you draw the line?

While absolutely none of this "logic" is based in sound pedagogy or valid developmental principles, I hear it today -- especially from parents of younger children -- almost as often as I heard it decades ago. Its endurance reveals its true purpose, I think: to give ourselves cover and a back door kind of permission to take a pass on what is arguably one of our most important obligations as families and (schools). Another bonus: it means we don't have to make ourselves say any of those yucky words, and we can also keep our dinner down.

Then again, I'm not so sure we're quite as self-serving as that came out sounding. Sure, we may be protecting ourselves with our upside down logic, but on a more unconscious level, I think we're convinced that by holding back we're also protecting our children from some great imagined harm.

Psychologists tell us that denial is the mind's first defense mechanism against anxiety. So, what exactly, are we so afraid of? And, exactly what kind of harm do we fear?

What strikes me as I listen to adults expressing their worries is how often we Americans continue to channel our inner Puritan. The Puritans weren't against sex, as is commonly presumed, but they were opposed to talking about sex in any kind of explicit or public manner. Sexuality, especially your own, was to be kept exquisitely private and, indeed, violators of their strict rules often faced serious consequences, including public shaming. A tight connection between talking about sex and anxiety took hold, and, eventually, it begat a still-entrenched assumption: that there is a unique kind of intrinsic power embedded within sexual knowledge itself (as distinct from other types of knowledge, including long division) that if not handled very, very carefully might prove dangerous.

As a young child, I recall sensing that exact message whenever the topic came up even peripherally in my own family. Instantaneously, there was a diffuse yet palpable sense of anxiety, dread even, that thickened the air. I had no idea why and no one to ask, since the atmosphere made clear I wasn't supposed to. I hear remarkably similar accounts even from young parents today about their childhood experiences: sex came up, anxiety kicked in. No wonder that so many of us relive and revive that very association when we're the ones in the protective adult role.

But here's the irony: In "protecting" our children by trying to keep this subject under wraps, we've actually made the world a more dangerous place in which to grow up. What we know from literally decades of research is that young people raised in families where sexuality is openly discussed are less vulnerable to premature engagement in sexual activities, and, if and when they do become involved, do so with greater insight, forethought and sense of caring and responsibility. It's education, not evasion, that makes our kids safer.

Of all the things there are to worry about in children's lives, honest information given by an adult who only has their best interests at heart doesn't even belong on the list. In fact, kids always look first to trusted adults for the information and guidance they need. It's only when we're not accessible that they turn to the available default options. Peers, media, marketers, popular culture and the Internet as primary sexuality educators? Now that's really scary.

So, what did I tell the dad who called? All of the above.

Deborah M. Roffman, author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know about Becoming Your Kids' Go-To Person about Sex, has taught human sexuality education in elementary, middle, and high schools since 1975. Write her at:

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