- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2001

Maybe you told your child the stork delivered him or God left him on the doorstep. Or perhaps you changed the subject or told him to ask the other parent.

What seemed like a good idea at the time could have consequences when the child finds out the real story of where he came from, says Anne C. Bernstein, a Berkeley, Calif., psychologist and author of the book "Flight of the Stork: What Children Think (and When) About Sex and Family Building."

"The main harm has to do with the trust relationship between you and the child," she says. "How are they going to feel when they realize you gave them the wrong information?"

Debra W. Haffner, author of the book "From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children," says everyone makes mistakes during the ongoing process of sex education. Instead of beating yourself up about it, collect your thoughts and look for a moment to reintroduce the topic later, she advises.

"Go back with the correct answer," she says. "It is OK to apologize or say you were wrong earlier."

Other advice from the authors:

• Simpler is better. Use words appropriate for your child's level of development. Offer the information in basic terms, then elaborate if the child asks for more of an explanation, Ms. Haffner says.

• Facts and values should go together. When talking about sex with young children, it is important also to share feelings, attitudes, values and beliefs, Ms. Haffner says. Begin an explanation of intercourse, for example, with: "When two people love each other and want to make a baby …"

"It is important to talk about values," Dr. Bernstein says, "but they shouldn't be confused with facts. For instance, you may want to tell your children they should wait until they are married to have children, but that could be confused as [meaning] if you are not married, then you cannot get pregnant."

• Knowledge doesn't equal permission. Deborah Roffman, a human sexuality educator at the Park School in Baltimore, says many parents think talking about sex will make children want to act sexually.

"The belief in our culture that sexual knowledge is putting ideas in a child's head is inherently dangerous," Ms. Roffman says. "Knowledge is knowledge. Children who grow up in homes where sex is openly discussed grow up slower, not faster. They are taught to think about it in logical ways. Knowledge leads to responsibility."

• Books are a good tool, but they shouldn't be the only teacher.

"There are some lovely books around," Dr. Bernstein says. "It is a good idea to read [them] with the child and respond to questions."

• Be prepared for unexpected questions. Issues such as Caesarean sections or miscarriage may come up if they occur in the family or to a close friend. Simple explanations exist for these complicated matters, too.

"If a child has the basics, you can explain anything," Ms. Roffman says. "For a C-section, if a child understands vagina and uterus, you can explain to them that some babies are too big to come out this way and sometimes a mom must have an operation for the baby to come out.

Laurie, who asked that her last name not be used, is the Reston mother of two boys, ages 6 and 3, and is preparing to deliver a baby by Caesarean section. She has discussed what will happen with her son so he won't be scared when the time comes.

"I told him the doctor will have to make a cut, but it won't hurt," she says.

As for miscarriage, an effective explanation might be to say, "Having babies is wonderful, but sometimes the baby is having problems," Ms. Roffman says. "The body knows that, and the muscles of the uterus push the baby out sooner."

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