With a maxi-pad slapped on her shirt, Julie Metzger, a nurse, opens her Great Conversations sex education class by using bright boards stamped with images of a vagina to explain puberty and intercourse to her audience—packed with parents and their tweens and separated into boys and girls sessions. Besides presenting the facts in the most direct way during the first half of the class, her goal is to answer the kids' questions in the second half of the class completely, honestly, and with no hesitation or embarrassment.
For example, at a session where a New York Times reporter attended, Metzger received the following question: "Can boys stick a tampon in their penis?" Her response: "Absolutely not. They can try, but I wouldn't recommend it."
Presenting these topics in a humorous, down-to-earth way—while being factual—and sensitive to families' cultures and beliefs may seem like a hard balance, but it works for Metzger. Last year, her frank program pulled in 14,000 attendees in Seattle and the surrounding bay area.
"Our hope at Great Conversations is to have families walk out of our classes with a shared experience learning about important aspects of growing up and healthy relationships that gives them a starting place and a confidence to continue these conversations with each other," Metzger told Parenting.com.
She started her program after she wondered what it would be like if there was a class where parents and kids were able to sit together and hear this information at the same time.
"And what if that class was given by a health care expert and was actually fun and even funny? How would that change the dialogue?" Metzger says.
She says understanding your body, learning to respect others, articulating your emotions—while also practicing the art of decision-making—are all essential elements of sexuality and sexual relationships.
"Conversations on all those topics can be woven into our lives with children of all ages. The key to those conversations is communicating with a respect for the developmental space of the child—making certain that we offer five-year information that fits a 5 year old and a 15 year old receives information that is relevant for their understanding and life experience. There is not a single "talk" but a lifetime of talks that can even be as long as a single minute—all telling the important story about sexuality and making sexual decisions and caring for our bodies," Metzger says.
Metzger says conversations don't have to be limited to mom and daughter and father and son.
"Gender is not a criteria for giving or receiving important information. What is important is that the trusted adult is available and invested in the conversation with that child," she says.
If you don't live in the Northwest to take a Great Conversations course, Metzger offers these tips for talking to your kids about sex at home:
Get a book
The Great Conversations' book, Will Puberty Last My Whole Life?, is an excellent resource. The flip book is one half questions boys have asked in classes over the years, which were answered by Dr. Rob Lehman, and the other half is filled with questions preteen girls have asked, which were answered by Metzger.
"One Dad/Daughter duo told me that the two of them sat down together and read the book out loud to each other. The dad read the boys part out loud to the daughter, and the daughter read the girls part out loud to the dad. Love that!" cheers Metzger.
Have multiple conversations
Talking about sex, bodies and growing up is complex, important and not easy to absorb in a single conversation, according to Metzger. Her program often gives families a homework assignment consisting of having 200, one-minute conversations with each other about growing up, which you can also do at home.
"The important thing for parents to remember is that kids/teens don't need their parents to be experts on sex. They need their parents to be experts at listening and being available for important topics," Metzger says.
Use real-life examples as a springboard
Metzger encourages families to use the day-to-day life experiences around them to create opportunities for conversations at home.
"Having a sex-ed program at school, a pregnant friend or relative, a dog delivering puppies, a movie or television program, a story in the news, or even a bad joke that someone tells are all potential starting points for a moment to talk together. We believe that even events that don't share a family's philosophy or values on these topics opens doors to help parents and kids discuss and learn from the moment through the perspective of the family," she says.