Dealing With Children on Issues of Sexuality


A sympathetic tone is set early on in Debra W. Haffner's new book for parents on helping children grow up to be sexually healthy men and women. Despite 20 years as a sexuality educator, she learned with her own kids the difference between theory and practice.

"To be honest," Haffner writes on Page 1 of "From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children" (Newmarket Press), "I wasn't prepared when my less-than-2-year-old daughter shouted, 'Vulva!' as she pointed to a Georgia O'Keeffe painting in a museum. I wasn't prepared to handle my son's newly circumcised penis several times a day. . . ."

Such down-to-earth anecdotes accompany how-to advice in this guide by Haffner, who has a master's degree in public health from the Yale University School of Medicine, worked at Planned Parenthood and for a decade has run the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS. The 35-year-old nonprofit organization publishes reports, teaching guides and other sexuality-related materials for professionals in medicine and education as well as for the public (its Web site:

Extending beyond sex ed and what she calls "The Big Talk," Haffner's book aims to help parents rear children who feel good about their bodies and about who they are as boys and girls. All of this, she writes, may shape their ability to have good adult relationships.

Even changing diapers offers what she calls a "teachable moment" to deliver positive--instead of negative--sentiments about the body and its functions.

The book's chapters take parents chronologically from childbirth to the preteen years, and each starts with questions parents should discuss and consider about values the family wants to impart. It is OK, Haffner said, if parents reveal that they don't always share the same view; this also may serve as a lesson to children that people who love each other can disagree.

Haffner addresses issues and questions within the age groups in which they most typically surface, and as a busy mom and wife she understands that not every parent has time to read the whole book. She helpfully cross-references topics.

Haffner's book is largely apolitical but she does reveal in passing that she and her husband have feminist leanings: Their daughter's birth announcement called her a "baby woman." She also seems to respect that values about religion and creation, nudity and privacy--do you care if your child sees you in the buff? Using the bathroom?--are personal and vary by family.

The wide-ranging topics include divorce, adoption, signs of sexual abuse, masturbation, swearing, AIDS, evaluating sexuality education at your local school, suggestions for handling Internet access and chapters called "Mom, I Think I'm Gay" and "Dad, Will You Buy Me a Playboy?" A glossary provides additional books, videos and other references.

Haffner urges parents to think about these issues before questions surface so that you feel prepared to handle them and avoid sending the wrong message. She is unwavering about the truth: Always tell it, albeit age-tailored. If you don't, she argues, the result may haunt you later. It is far better, she says, that you provide your child with the age-appropriate information--and you, the parent, can best determine what's appropriate--than have the child hear an erroneous version from a classmate.

Though some readers might resist Haffner's insistence that parents use correct terms for anatomy, she argues that nicknames or even the term "privates" suggests to your child that these body parts are different or, worse, even shameful to discuss.

Readers won't agree with every approach Haffner suggests. (My sister has no problem with "privates" even though her kids know the other terms, too. Haffner argues that this can be confusing to kids or, God forbid, when your child is injured--but I don't quite buy it.) But Haffner seems to understand that a parent ultimately has to decide when and how much to tell a child.

Haffner stresses above all that parents don't need to pretend to know everything and should assure their child that what they don't know, they will look up.

Finally, Haffner writes, not to worry if your little darling is 4 and you winced at every dirty diaper and still refer to their privates with cute nicknames. It's never too late to start.

Nancy Wride can be reached via e-mail at

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