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Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011

Uh-Oh, My Kids Found the Condoms

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How do you explain condoms to children who find them?

This depends on the age of the child or children and how much they already know about the mechanics of sex and reproduction. But, first, a word about the tone and delivery of your response.

I have taught sex education classes for kids ages 5 and up. I have also led orientation sessions for parents and provided support for parents for these types of issues. I train volunteer sex educators too, who are often parents themselves. It's sometimes hard to predict exactly what kids will ask about and when, meaning that whatever pat, prepared answers you had ready for their sex-related questions go out the window when you find them in the front yard making a spacesuit for Spider-Man out of your glow-in-the-dark prophylactics.

So, in my trainings, I suggest that parents worry less about exactly what they say and more about how they say it. The tone of your answer speaks volumes. Do you seem upset? Ashamed? Angry? Are you unconsciously conveying to the kids that they have found something bad, forbidden or dirty? Try to take a deep breath and give your answer in a neutral, matter-of-fact tone. If you act like everything's normal, children are more likely to accept your answer at face value and move on.

In addition, follow the K.I.S.S. rule: Keep it short and simple. Younger children, especially, want factual, concise answers that connect with what they already know. If you choose this moment to nervously unload the entire history of human reproduction and/or the HIV epidemic on the child, he or she will be more, not less, confused. Limit your answer to one or two short sentences, then wait to see if the child is satisfied with that information. Leave the door open for more questions in the future.

If a child finds condoms and already knows the basics of “how babies are made” or the mechanics of sexual intercourse, you can remind the child of the book, class or discussion where they learned about sex or reproduction, followed by brief information about what condoms do (e.g., “Remember your book about how babies are made? This is something that keeps babies from being made before parents are ready for them.”). If the child doesn't know a lot about sex and reproduction, you can answer in a less specific way about what condoms do (e.g., “This is something that grown-ups use to keep themselves healthy and safe.”)

If you have an older child who discovers your condom stash, there's the added issue of your right to have an active, adult sex life and a reasonable amount of privacy. You may choose to discuss how condoms are used in more detail with an older child, but this might also be a good time to have a conversation about “snooping” and establishing a mutual respect for each other's boundaries.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.
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