As I got out my brand new 2011 calendar the other day and was going through the stacks of papers and emails in the “add to calendar” files, I found one about “The Film”. You know, that film, the one on human growth and development that they show to kids in upper elementary grades (well, there’s one for girls, and a different one for boys). Around here, there’s a film every year beginning in 4th grade and continuing thru 6th. The subjects get more “advanced” depending on the grade. And each time it’s shown, a letter is sent home to parents letting them know the date and also the date of the “parent preview” so parents can view it first. I guess some parents view it to see if they want their child to “opt out”, but I take time to go see it to stay on top of things, to try to discuss the subjects with my child first—I don’t want them to first learn about human sexuality from a film or from the students who will be buzzing about it that day. Since I already have a child in high school, you’d think I’ve “been there, done that” when it comes to those films and I wouldn’t need to go any more. But they change, and I forget what’s covered in each year’s anyway…so I go every year to see them, and then the pressure’s on to find time to discuss anything I haven’t already taught at home.
But when is the right time to discuss stuff like that, anyway? I always told my husband that I didn’t want to make sex and health topics uncomfortable for my kids by making them a “big deal”, by limiting them to The Talk, the okay-now-we-have-to-sit-down-and-discuss-something-important kind of talk like what our parents did with us. Squirm! Yuk! Aw, Mom! I heard an “expert” at a M.O.P.S. (Mothers of Preschoolers) meeting long ago say to work in these topics naturally and gradually, starting at a young age as kids are curious and start asking questions. I remember she talked about “teachable moments” like gardening.
But…what if these moments never come? She never told us what to do if our kids don’t ask a lot of questions about sex. Or if they ask them in the grocery store line when they’re old enough to read the nearby covers of Glamour and Cosmo. “Daddy, what does that mean—Twenty Ways to Make Him Scream for More?” Or if they ask them within earshot of a much younger sibling, and what you’d like to say to one might not be what you’d say to the other. It turned out I did have to have “The Talk” with each of my daughters, after all. With Allison, I at least tried to make it fun. We went on a mother-daughter overnight when she was 10, to a small town about 45 minutes away. I called it “Secrets and Surprises” weekend—there were surprises to be had (she got to get a pedicure with me and get her ears pierced) and secrets to be learned (the birds, the bees, the tooth fairy, and Santa Claus). (A friend of mine joked that the male version of that weekend would be called “Farts and Fantasies” )
With Emmie, as usual for the second child, she got the short end of the deal. I was too busy to squeeze in a weekend trip, and the first “film” was fast approaching. She literally learned about the birds and the bees in the backseat of a car—my “aravan”, to be exact. I’d checked out a few books from the library to help (there’s a great one by “Arthur” creator Marc Brown and his wife) and we’d gone to a local park, only it was too cold to sit outside so we sat in the car, side by side.
After I’d had The Talk with Emmie, teachable moments could finally happen more openly around here. It’s amazing what can serve as springboards to further discussion—teen moms, pop song lyrics, movies, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the news… even the growth and development films can be a great reason to talk, even if I don’t have to discuss anything beforehand. Soon after it’s shown to the kids, I’ll usually ask questions like “How did it go? What did you think of it? Wasn’t that cartoon part weird? What kinds of questions were asked at the end? How did the nurse answer them?”
So when I attend my 6th and final parent “film” preview next week, I don’t know if I should bring popcorn (to celebrate) or soda (to cry in)… Once public school kids around here hit 7th grade, they’re only required to complete one semester of Health before high school graduation, with only a couple days spent on human development and STDs. Just as they become teenagers, and society bombards them with all sorts of sexual messages, and just when their own body is going through lots of changes. Just when they probably have a lot more questions. And just when they don’t want to talk as much with Mom or Dad. And in Texas, which has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, the schools are severely limited in what they can teach in Health class.
If I could, I guess I’d bring both popcorn and soda. ‘Cause I think the school and I have done a pretty good job with sex education so far, but going forward, it sure would be nice to have a little more help.