Yesterday, I did a grandmotherly deed that most would consider natural. I went to a children's clothing store and bought each of my five grandchildren an Easter gift. Then I did a deed that many readers will probably consider not associated with grandmothers: I gave the owner of the clothing store, after I had learned that she has two teenage daughters, the URL to one of my favorite websites, Sexetc.org, by teens for teens, based on Sex, Etc., a popular, subscription-based magazine about sex and relationships written primarily by New Jersey teens for their peers across the nation.
Now I want to do what some may consider a "dirty" deed: call upon grandparents to get into the sex education act and get personally involved in helping their grandchildren receive age-appropriate, accurate, honest information about sex and relationships.
I want grandparents to become sex educators along with the other groups in our society currently charged with it, such as schools and religious institutions. Kids need to learn about sexuality from a variety of sources, and why shouldn't grandparents be one of them?I recently conducted a workshop for approximately 60 grandmothers at a women's club in Princeton, NJ. I called it "How to Talk to Your Grandkids About Sex," and I am still alive to tell you the tale.
To prepare for the workshop, I consulted a wonderful friend Bob Selverstone, Ph.D., who's a behavioral health psychologist, former popular sex educator of high school-age kids, and grandfather of five. Bob and his wife, Harriet, the former president of the American Association of School Librarians, had taught some classes for grandparents in Connecticut, and I wanted his suggestions.
Why should grandparents get into the sex ed act? I asked Bob.
"They're a natural for the job," he said. "Unlike the kids' parents, who have to apply discipline, grandparents offer only love. Their grandkids trust them, and trust is the essence of being a good sex educator. They'll listen."
Bob gave me a warm-up activity for my audience called "Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down," and I opened my talk with it. The activity is geared to getting at the underlying messages that the grandmothers had received about sex from their own parents. While I read out a list of nine items, I had the women in the audience react to them by putting their thumbs up or down, depending on whether the messages had been positive or negative.
The items were: your body, including the sexual parts; touch and the need for expressing affection; gender roles; loving and intimate relationships; appropriate sexual behavior; sexual pleasure and masturbation; sexually transmitted infections; sexual orientation, homosexuality and bisexuality; and birth control.
The results were sad for me to see. Almost all the women in the room turned their thumbs down on every item. I brought the activity to a conclusion by urging the grandmothers sitting before me to make sure that the messages they transmitted to their grandchildren were, whenever possible, positive. I hoped they would approach sexuality as a positive part of their grandkids' lives and not one that would be shrouded in fear and shame, as their own messages had seemed to be.
I suggested that buying and reading books about the topic with their grandchildren were terrific ways to begin a conversation about sex, particularly with the younger ones. I had brought 15 or 20 books along with a list for audience members to take home.
I told about a delightful little book, Belly Buttons Are Navels, by Mark Schoen (sadly now no longer in print), which I had put under the Christmas tree for my grandson when he was three. After the hoopla of present unwrapping had died down, I pulled him on my knee and read the little book to him, which is the story of a little girl and boy, both nude, taking a bath and learning the correct names of their sexual body parts. My grandson learned that he has a penis and testicles and that the latter reside in a sack called the scrotum. (The little girl in the book, of course, learns about her vulva, vagina, and clitoris.) When I had finished the book, my grandson paid me the highest compliment I think a young child can give a reader: "Please, Grandma Susie," he said, "read it again."
Now as my grandson gets older, I shall be able to give him books about sexuality that are age- and developmentally appropriate, and we can keep the dialogue moving right along.
I discussed what I consider to be the "Core Principles" about sexual knowledge, which I learned from Deborah Roffman, a very well-regarded sex educator. Some of the most important of Deb's principles include: sexual knowledge is good; too little sexual knowledge, too late, not too much, too soon, should be our biggest concern; sex is not the same thing as sexual intercourse; sexuality education is much more a matter of who we are than what we do; values education is the heart of sexuality education.
I ended my pitch for grandparents' involvement with one of my favorite pieces of advice to adults talking or teaching about sexuality to children and teens. Its source is Pamela Wilson, M.S.W., another highly respected sex educator and friend. She wrote a charming little book some years ago titled, When Sex Is the Subject: Attitudes and Answers for Young Children.
In it, she suggests, "Don't forget the music." She uses the analogy of going to a Broadway show to make her point. "When you leave a musical show," she writes, "you may not be able to remember the exact lyrics of a song, but you may be able to hum the tune and move in time to the music."
"When talking to children about sex," she says, "they may not remember your exact words, but they will remember your tone of voice, the smile in your eye, and the love and patience you convey when answering their question."
I urged the grandmothers in my workshop to follow Pam's advice.
During the question-and-answer period that followed, the most important concern voiced by some of the grandparents was that they would be usurping the role of the children's parents. Some said they would never dare to bring up the topic of sex without first getting explicit permission from their own children.
Having had some push back from my own children when I first asked them if they were talking to their kids about sex, I understood their feelings. Ideally, both parents and grandparents should talk to their children and grandchildren about sex. But I told the grandmothers, "If you feel uncomfortable in this role, then urge your own children to start talking early and often to their children." Then I added, "But don't be afraid of bringing up the topic as well. You have a legitimate role to play."
One grandmother asked me what I would suggest if grandparents' values about certain aspects of sexual behavior -- let's say having sex before marriage -- differed from those of their own children, who grew up in a different era. I suggested they tell their grandchildren, "This is what I believed and did, but Mommy and Daddy might feel differently. Go and ask them." Children grow up hearing a cacophony of values and have to learn to make their own decisions.
At the end of session, as I was gathering up my materials, the program director approached me and told me that a group of members had boycotted the talk. They did not believe the topic was an appropriate one for the monthly luncheon meeting. Apparently, the membership chairperson had had to activate a telephone tree in order to round up an audience, which I thought was quite a sizable one.
I went away mulling over still another example of the controversy that swirls around sex education. I have encountered it many times and became quite accustomed to it in my 30 years of work in the field. Somehow, I always find something redeeming which compensates and it happened again at this workshop. I balanced the concern voiced by some about the inappropriateness of the topic with the words I heard from many of the audience who approached me after the talk.
"This was helpful, very helpful."
I went home a happy grandmother.