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CHILDHOOD SEXUALITY: SEX EDUCATION

In the last decade, there has been an unusual amount of controversy on the topic of sex education. While almost everyone seems to agree that teaching children about sex is necessary, there is much disagreement about what should be taught, where it should be taught, and who should do the teaching.

The background can be summarized as follows. A number of studies indicate that only a minority of parents provide meaningful quantities of sex education for their children. American teenagers, for example, report that they learned most of what they*know about sex from their friends, not their parents. Until relatively recently, this problem seemed to polarize communities into two groups: those who favored sex education in schools to prevent lack of knowledge and those who insisted that sex education in the schools was unnecessary and unwise. Opponents of sex education in the schools argued that: (1) exposing children to information about sex would liven their sexual curiosity and draw them prematurely into sexual behavior; (2) teaching about sex is so closely linked to moral and religious values that it should be done at home or in a religious setting; and (3) the quality of materials and teaching in public school sex education was uneven at best, and quite poor in many cases.

Today, although opposition to sex education in the schools continues, its tone is somewhat muted. Seventy-seven percent of American adults believe sex education should be taught in schools, and when such courses are given, less than 5 percent of parents ban their children from attending. An increasing number of school systems have some form of sex education (often called "Family Life Education") offered in the curriculum, and three states — New Jersey, Maryland, and Kentucky — as well as the District of Columbia now require it. Perhaps even more encouraging is a broad coalition of community-oriented programs, including the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A., the Girls Clubs of America, the Salvation Army, Four-H, Campfire, Inc., and a number of other youth-serving groups who have now begun to implement sex education programs geared to both children and parents.

Despite these signs of progress, there are still a number of problems with sex education today. Certainly one of the most pressing dilemmas is that relatively few American fathers play an active role in providing their children with age-appropriate sex information. Another aspect that requires attention is the fact that sex education, beyond the most rudimentary "birds and bees" facts of anatomy and reproduction, is often ignored by parents and schools alike until a child reaches adolescence. Since children are exposed to a great deal of information about sex at an earlier age — through television shows, movies, books, and a host of other sources — parents run the risk of allowing them to interpret what they see as accurate depictions of what sex is all about, which may have unfortunate consequences. Put another way, this is education by default.

Despite the fact that some parents are vigorously opposed to sex education for children, parents don't really have a choice about whether their children get sex information: they can only choose whether or not to participate in the sex education that is already taking place. Realizing this, and wanting to do a good job in providing sex education at home, many parents approach this task with great trepidation, being at once unsure of how to begirt, uncertain of what to say, and worried that they'll overload or frighten a child with inappropriate detail.

The truth of the matter is that teaching children about sex need not be different from teaching them about lots of other things; you don't need to have a Ph.D. in agriculture to teach children about gardening, for example. And just as you wouldn't wait for a child to ask you about the alphabet before exploring the A-B-C's, don't wait to talk about sex, either — take the initiative in talking about this topic.

Here are some straightforward suggestions for parents to keep in mind when it comes to sex education:

When you discuss sex with your child, try to do it in a matter-of-fact manner, the way you'd talk about anything else.

Avoid lecturing about sex. While it may relieve your anxiety to cover the whole topic in a 15-minute talk, young children don't usually have a long enough attention span for this approach and also need to ask questions about what they're learning.

Be sure that your discussions include more than just biological facts. Children need to learn about values, emotions, and decision-making, too.

Don't worry about telling a child "too much" about sex. Children will almost always tune out what they don't understand; in most cases, it will just go over their heads.

When your child uses four-letter words, calmly explain their meaning, and then explain why you don't want him or her to use those words. For example, you might say, "Other people get upset if they hear those words," or "I don't think that's a very good way of explaining how you feel." Remember that laughing or joking about your child's four-letter words will usually encourage repeat performances.

Try to use correct terminology for sexual body parts instead of using terms like "pee pee" for penis or "bottom" for vagina.

Even preschool-age children should know how to protect themselves from sexual abuse. This means that you need to let them know that it's okay to say "No" to an adult. Here's a good example of how this might be discussed with a four or five year old:

You know, there are big people out there who have a hard time making friends with other big people. So sometimes they make friends with kids. And that's OK, but sometimes they ask kids to do things big people shouldn't ask kids to do. Like, they ask them to put their hands down their pants, or to touch each other sexually. I love you a lot, and if anyone ever asks you to do that« or asks you to do something you think is funny and asks you to keep it a secret, I want you to say "No" and come tell me right away.

Don't wait until your child hits the teenage years before discussing puberty. Physical changes like breast development, menstruation, and wet dreams commonly occur before age ten.

Be sure to discuss menstruation with boys, as well as girls, and be sure that girls understand what an erection is. Also, don't leave topics like homosexuality and prostitution out of your discussions. Most children see and hear these subjects mentioned on television or read about them and have a natural curiosity about what they are.

Help your child feel comfortable in coming to ask you questions about sex. Don't embarrass a child or tell him or her "you're too young to understand that now." If a child is old enough to ask questions, he or she needs to understand it at some level.

If you don't know the answer to a question your child has asked, don't be afraid to say so. Then either look it up or call on someone, such as your family doctor, who can help you with the necessary facts.

After you've tried to answer your child's question, check to see if your answer is understood. Also see if you've told him or her what he or she really wanted to know and give a chance to ask more questions that may arise from the answer you've provided.

We believe that waiting until a child's teenage years to provide him or her with sex education is waiting too long. Educating all children in an age-appropriate fashion about sexuality will ultimately help them make informed, responsible sexual choices in their lives and play an important role in the long-term prevention of sexual disorders.

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