Kids need to learn about their bodies and sex; parents know that. But most parents struggle to find the right way to teach them. A good book, carefully chosen, can help you teach sexual health and safety, but where to start to find the perfect book?
The local branch of a chain bookstore had sections for pre-schoolers and teens. In the area for very young kids, I found a few books with catchy titles and age-appropriate graphics, dedicated either to helping little kids learn where babies come from or how to avoid stranger danger.
While several books had good information, each book I read had at least one point that killed it for me. For example, one book offered the fact that "penises get hard so they can go into vaginas". That's no help to a child whose penis gets hard in the bath, in his sleep or worse yet, at the touch or a predator. A parent reading this book could add their own explanation or substitute their own words for the author’s.Parents may think that adding their own commentary defeats the purpose of using a book to help communicate the most sensitive points, but what it really does is underline that books are not a substitute for an on-going conversation between parents and kids.
Books written to teach kids to protect their 'private parts' from predators aren't a great choice as the first or sole source of information about genitals, mainly because we don’t want the child’s first knowledge to be based on fear. Initial conversations should focus on everyday things, like toilet and bathing hygiene and responses to questions. If you find a book with this message that fits your values, read it with your child and consider it the opening to an on-going conversation.
When I moved on to the teen section, most of the books that I found did a decent job presenting reproduction. In that context,some books did OK discussing sexual arousal for boys; after all, a male needs to be aroused to reproduce. Books directed to girls generally did a good job explaining ovulation and menstruation, but female sexual arousal was nowhere to be found. Only one book even mentioned that vaginas produce fluids other than menstruation, but it did not present the anatomical fact that female genital lubrication is analogous to male erection as a reflexive physical sign of arousal. This is something that teens of both genders need to know so they can understand that reflexive responses to thoughts or stimulation are very different from emotional feelings.
If forced to choose one book for kids approaching or experiencing puberty, I'd land on You: The Owner's Manual for Teens, written by a group of experts including TV's Dr. Mehmet Oz. This book goes from head to toe explaining the changing human body and is written in a way that shows respect for a teen's intelligence. I caught Oz's daughter Daphne on her television show teasing easily and appropriately with colleagues about her sex life as a young wife -- his advice seems to have worked!
Are you ready?
Before you chose a book, decide what you want your child to know. Then read the book in the bookstore, in your library or on-line and see how the book meets your goal. Parent reviews of some of the highest rated books on this topic include the complaint that the book will open up topics and lead to questions before the child is ready. A well-researched book written by a credentialed and reputable author carefully considers child development; it is much more likely that the parent doesn't feel ready to deal with a topic.
If you need help getting comfortable, use the advice I offer in The Sex-Wise Parent. One of the easiest things to do is to practice by reading the book with your spouse, partner or a trusted friend and anticipating comments or questions from the child. Resist the temptation to just give a book to an older child until you read the entire book! You need to know what the author is teaching, and its context. National research results shows that teens report parents having more influence on their decisions about sex than peers or the media; a discussion about the contents of a book is a great way to share your opinions whether they match or differ from those in the book.
Books can be helpful components of promoting the sexual health and safety of your family but you're never going to find the perfect book. No book can transmit your family's values and beliefs wrapped up in love for your child. But a good book, carefully chosen, can be an important addition to your efforts.
Rosenzweig is the author of The Sex-Wise Parent. For more information, see her website, read her blog, follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group.
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