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Speaking of Sex: Are You Ready to Answer the Questions Your Kids Will Ask?

When I first saw this book I knew I wanted to review it because:

* it is written by a Canadian sex educator who I know has a great deal of experience and is widely respected.

* I work in this field and wanted to see if her approach is different to mine and what I can learn from her.

* I admire anyone who actually writes a book since I have written scores in my head but never get around to committing them to paper.

* The cover page describes Meg Hickling as "Canada's Best Sex Educator".

Now I'm certainly aware that many things and people are "the best" (i.e., Tiger Woods is the best young golfer, the Blue Jays are the best baseball team -- just kidding), but I had not realized that there was a competition for sex educators. What does one win? A condom with a maple leaf on it? A cup to put on the mantle? We need to know when the next competition is to take place to let readers of CJHS send in nominations.

These frivolous musings are actually a good starting point for a review of a book that has lots of humour. One of the first things to catch the reader's eye is the effective use of children's questions and comments, in their own handwriting and spelling, which are spread throughout the book.

"How does sex make babies?" "Are you a pervert of you look up sexual words in the dictionary?" "Not that I want this to happen, but it happens to me and I want to know what it is. Every once a while my crotch feels like it is being tickled. (I'm a girl)." Humorous incidents and stories are also used to add variety and gently illustrate important points.

Early on, Hickling introduces one of her major themes, that parents are an important source for imparting factual information to their children. She states that while children can be embarrassed if a parent tries to talk about this subject, the parent needs to "talk through [...] children's embarrassment. If you hesitate to explain something because they're embarrassed, you're lowering yourself to their level of immaturity. This is knowledge our children should have."

Chapter One is full of information to tell children. Hickling tells parents to start by using terms such as "penis" and "clitoris" the day a baby is born in order to be really comfortable by the time a child is old enough to start asking questions. She goes on to talk about bladders and urethras, magical thinking and erections, why testicles are outside the body cavity, smegma, children's orgasms and sexual feelings when watching TV, reasons for painful sexual intercourse, and how babies develop. Then she explains that children need to know all of this information so they won't grow up feeling shame about their body or sex, so they won't be vulnerable to offenders, and so they will care for their bodies.

By the end of this chapter, called "Let's Talk (about the basics)", I was feeling that some parents might be a bit overwhelmed. I certainly agree that children need appropriate information and positive messages about their body and how it works, but is all of this basic information that children need to know, particularly in the detail provided? For example, Hickling suggests the following content for teaching young children about vaginas.

It (vagina) constantly makes

moisture, just like your eyes do.

Sometimes the moisture comes out

of the vagina during the day and you

can see it on the toilet paper; it looks

like water during most of the month

and like raw egg white when the

ovum (egg) is released from the

ovary. This is the time of the month

when you are most likely to get

pregnant. Sometimes it dries to a

yellowish or whitish colour on your

underpants. That is a good sign that

you vagina is clean and healthy.

It had never occurred to me to tell young children (I assumed she meant preschoolers) about cervical mucus. Since the first chapter does not clearly link suggested "basic" content with specific ages, this may be a source of confusion.

Things become clearer in Chapter Two when Hickling explains, "You cannot tell a child too much; they only take in what they need to know for that moment". She then outlines what people from age two to menopause need to know about human sexuality. Some of the information covered includes:

* standard advice about when and how to talk to preschoolers, including the suggestion that bedtime is great because they'll do anything to stop you from turning out the lights";

* some children are born more sexual than others; how to teach socially appropriate behaviour in a positive way to the child who loves to touch others;

* information about the astonishing range of questions children have about pregnancy and birth;

* puberty issues including male breast development, body odour, penis growth, sleep disorders and irrational fears;

* the distorted views children who view pornography might get about such things as penis and breast size, how far it is "normal" to ejaculate, and customary types of sexual activities;

* how to deal with the "sads, mads and glads" feelings of puberty;

* feelings of adolescents that they should know everything about sexuality and how it won't be cool to ask questions;

* issues about smoking, sexual health and body image;

* limit setting, double standards, dealing with difficult situations;

* birth control and STDs.

Any parent will certainly learn new information and get many helpful suggestions from this extensive chapter which makes up close to half the book. The wealth of material, while it will probably teach adults things they did not know, may be a drawback for some readers in their parenting role. Adults who feel insecure or have great discomfort about talking to their child may feel overwhelmed by the amount and level of information it appears they should impart. Other parents may take Hickling's suggestions as absolutes and put unrealistic expectations on themselves to teach or on their child to learn. For example, she says that among the things a preschool child (2-4 years old) NEEDS to know are the names for genitals -- penis, testicles, scrotum, anus, vulva, labia, vagina, clitoris, uterus, ovaries. Is it really essential that a child knows all these names at this age? How will it harm a child who only knows penis and vulva at age 3?

I also felt parents could conclude that they had failed if, after giving a factual description about reproduction to a four year old, the child comes up with an explanation that doesn't fit the facts (e.g. babies are made at the hospital). Hickling says that "little ones do a lot of magical thinking around the issues of reproduction, if no one tells them the truth". According to the research of Anne Bernstein (1994), described in her book The Flight of the Stork, even the child who is told "the facts" may come up with interesting explanations. Bernstein concluded, after studying how children understand information about reproduction and birth at various ages, that magical thinking about sex and reproduction is developmentally appropriate, although our goal is to help children move beyond this understanding.

I felt more comfortable with later chapters which include: "Alternate ways to get pregnant"; "Straight answers to the questions your kids will ask"; "The sexually active teen"; "Sexually transmitted diseases"; and "What happens in the doctor's office". Children today hear about and need help to understand a wide range of issues including artificial insemination, orgasms, homosexuality, sex change operations, sex toys, masturbation, oral sex and pornography. Hickling helps parents understand why their child might know about such things, and suggests various ways of talking about these subjects. She shows different ways to deal with personal questions -- "Do you and Dad do oral sex?", "Were you a virgin when you got married?" -- and points out the importance of teaching children to respect the privacy of others and set boundaries for themselves.

The book ends with two short chapters. In "Parents and Families who are Faithful", Hickling acknowledges that she is practising Christian. She says that religious people do not need to apologize for expressing their understanding of the role of spirituality and sexuality and that no one religion has the comer on The Truth. Her concluding chapter celebrates the diversity of children and how, as parents, we will take different approaches in teaching each child about human sexuality.

The eight pages that make up the annotated bibliography are an excellent resource. Many well known, respected, and recent books for children and adolescents (and some for parents) are described. They include subject areas such as sexual abuse, puberty, understanding homosexuality and HIV/ AIDS.

I am glad that I got to review this book. It made me think - always good for aging gray cells. I hope parents will come away from the book with the feeling that it's okay to answer a child's question by saying, "That's a good question. I'm glad you asked me. I don't know the answer. We'll have to see if we can get an answer". I think this is as valid a response by a parent as always being able to provide the facts. For me, it is not so much what a parent says as how the parent says it that provides a child with a positive message.

This book will be an asset for adults who are already comfortable talking about sex with their children and are looking for further facts and ideas. Hickling identifies this audience when she states, in the section on pregnancy, "Since so many parents now share their conception trials, errors, and successes with their adult friends and relations, as well as with their children [... ]". However, for those parents who need help getting started, who feel intimated by the task, or who come from a background where talking about sex was not done, I'd recommend Pamela Wilson's (1991) When Sex Is the Subject: Attitudes and answers for young children, which I was surprised to find was not in the bibliography.

Bernstein, A. (1994). Flight of the Stork: What children think (and when) about sex and family building. Indianapolis: Perspectives Press.

Wilson, P. (1991). When Sex Is the Subject: Attitudes and answers for young children. Santa Cruz: ETR Associates.
COPYRIGHT 1997 SIECCAN, The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Barrett, Ann
Publication:The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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