dilemmas

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this week's problem

Deirdre's children of nine and 10 are pestering her with questions about sex, such as: what do homosexuals do to each other in bed, and what is rape? Their father thinks they should learn from playground friends, but Deirdre, who once gave them a book about the facts of life, feels this is a cop-out. Should she explain these `secondary' facts of life to them?

If Deirdre hasn't been used to discussing sex with her children (her way of explaining the facts of life to them has been to chuck them a book which she doesn't even know they've read), then how on earth does she think she's going to explain the secondary facts of life to them without dying of embarrassment, or without them getting the wrong idea if she appeared to talk too easily? What kind of mother do they have, they would wonder, who was too shy to talk about normal, hum-drum sex, but all too willing to yak on for hours about bondage, transexualism and anal penetration?

No. Deirdre must start at the beginning and end at the end. The first thing she must do is to hoick that book out from the cupboard and go through it with her children, adding her own personal feelings and explanations along the way.

I always remember the first book I had on the facts of life. It started: "Your body is built of tiny bricks - or `cells' as they are called." Even now I imagine my interior constructed like a miniscule Victorian house. As for the facts of life bit - a small paragraph at the very end - it was all about eggs and seeds and totally baffling, particularly as it came after those complicated diagrams of eyes and how we really see upside down.

Only when Deirdre is certain her children have grasped the basics can she develop the theme - if they're really that interested, though I suspect their questions about more unusual sex are just a way of asking their mum to explain the basic facts of life, since she's been disinclined to do so in the past.

And before she answers their slightly zany queries, she should be sure she explains the things that aren't always in the books, such aswet dreams and masturbation - lonely discoveries that can alarm as well as please a child who comes across them for the first time.

And what if the children persist in their questions? Rape needs only be described as sex with violence, with the emphasis on the violence, which is what rape is all about. As for what homosexuals do in bed, she need say no more than that she presumes they kiss, cuddle and pleasure each other in the same way that men and women do. If they want to know more, she might plead sexual ignorance, since only a homosexual knows what homosexuals do in bed. There is, after all, a moment when the answer "God only knows" is quite valid in reply to a child's precocious sexual questioning. Not only might it be the truth, but it also shows the child that to be sexually ignorant in some areas is nothing to be ashamed of. To be adult, you don't have to be a sexual encyclopaedia.

If she runs over the answers to the most difficult questions in her mind before she addresses them, she should be able to provide them with a reasonably satisfactory, truthful and unembarrassing explanation of everything from S&M and voyeurism to fetishism and oral sex. Having written three A-Zs of sex in my time for fairly prudish publications, I've been surprised to find how you can make the most bizarre sexual activity sound quite unthreatening if you use the right words.

If her children start asking increasingly tricky sexual questions, however, her answer should perhaps not be so much of an explanation but rather, "Why on earth do you want to know?" and, more importantly, "Who told you about these things in the first place?"

readers' responses

One can give too much information as well as too little. My parents believed in frank answers and, having the courage of their convictions, arranged for a homosexual friend to give me a little chat. Within limits (I found him creepy and he, poor man, was acutely embarrassed), he did his duty, although all that information ever got me was a lecture from my headmaster about filthy talk in the dormitory followed by six with a can across my bare bottom.

Seriously, though, nobody told me or my wife in any detail what to do with each other, and we seem to have managed well enough.

Charles

I don't think that it could be considered cheating if you do leave it to the children to sort out. For the time being, just give them the reply, "Wait till you get a bit older."

Stephi Jones

Oxfordshire

All questions should be answered as fully as possible, taking account of the child's age. If I explain certain acts to my child, and I find that they sound ridiculous, well, then maybe they are. Certainly, to a child they will seem that way. My nine-year-old son found a packet of condoms in the bedroom and, of course, wanted to know what, why and how. I gave him a matter-of-fact explanation and he proceeded to try one on. "Weird," he proclaimed, standing with the plastic tube dangling from his nine-year-old penis.

Now, three years later, he trusts me and I get to hear of all the antics behind the bicycle shed. This gives me the chance to add another version to some of the misconceptions that circulate in the playground. The most import thing, I feel, is the open and loving explanation from the parents to establish a shame-free and guilt-free attitude towards sex.

Almuth Tebbenhoff

London

I have discussed all aspects of sex with my 10-year-old son whenever he has asked and also when he hasn't. This has been a continuous process since he was quite young.

We also look at books and have had them as bedtime reading in the past. My son's latest reading is a book approved by the Family Planning Association, Let's Talk About Sex, by Robie H Harris, published by Walker Books. I would recommend this to every parent to pass on to their children.

My son is getting sex education at school now and he said there was a lot of giggling, but I feel that what he learns there will maybe reinforce what we have already discussed without any embarrassment. I don't think what they learn at school can be considered enough: this is a topic to be talked about in the context of a loving family relationship.

I just hope that he continues to feel he can discuss these things with me.

Sarah Lawson

Edinburgh

I would answer any questions as sensitively as possible, while giving practical advice on personal safety. As for explaining oral sex or other intimacies to children, just tell them, it involves lots of kissing, loads of touching, usually (but not necessarily) without any clothes on.

By this time my daughter (10) will be giving a horribly convincing display of someone puking, while my son (nine) will be saying, "That's really gross, Mum!" End of subject.

And quite right, too. I can't think of anything worse than a liberal Mummy of the Nineties saying to her daughter in a Joyce Grenfell voice, "Imagine licking an ice-cream cone, darling, only terribly, terribly slowly ..." Yuk!

Sharon Kendrick

Surrey

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

At 47, my children have grown up, my parents are dead and I am divorced. I have an extremely good job that I've been in for 20 years, which, now that I am at the top of my profession, brings me a very large salary. I also have more friends than I can handle. Outwardly, I am extremely happy and successful. Inwardly, however, I feel empty.

I have lived in the same area of London all my life, and the prospect of continuing my life as it is fills me with a kind of horror. I long to give it all up and live abroad somewhere, just to get away from the sameness of the life I lead. To do what? To write poetry in France, make pots in India ... I don't know.

My friends say I am completely mad, that my dreams are just romance, that I'd miss my lifestyle, and that if I came back I'd never be able to get back to the position I'm in now. What shall I do?

Yours sincerely,

Polly

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