Dodging the facts of life

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The Independent Online
SEX has been uppermost in my thoughts recently. I don't mean anything as simple as working out whether Madonna's book is shocking, disgusting, liberated, or an unabashed effort to make her pots of money. If only . . .

I recently decided it was time to introduce my children to some simple sex education. By this I mean the facts about reproduction, the way your body changes as you grow up, and the need to take care in encounters with people you do not know.

The warning lights started flashing mid-summer. Picking up my daughters from a week's residential riding course, I was startled to find that my nine- year-old, who looks angelic, had been pursued by a besotted 16- year-old Italian. This came to light as we loaded up the car in the stable yard. She summoned over a lanky youth called Dario: he came running.

'You can kiss me,' she said. As he leant over, she bit him hard on the chin. 'Serves you right,' she giggled, 'for being such a pest.'

The other two girls I was escorting home burst into laughter. Then they all piled in. They explained that Dario kept trying to sit next to my daughter at meal times. He had raved over her blonde hair and asked her for a kiss.

I was astonished; they dismissed it out of hand. They spent the journey home discussing, in minute detail, every pony they had ridden and every obstacle they had jumped. I could just imagine all that forensic skill being turned from horses to boys in a few years' time.

Then, in the school playground, another mother warned me that girls in the top junior classes, aged between 10 and 11, were receiving instruction in the facts of life, because they matured so early.

I decided to grasp opportunities to pass on useful information as they presented themselves, to be natural and not to create artificial conversations. I remembered the embarrassment of being trapped in bed at night while my mother sat at my side, uttering stilted homilies.

But talking sensibly about sex to children in a matter-of- fact, everyday manner is turning out to be surprisingly difficult. You might think that the current atmosphere, assisted by Madonna, David Mellor and Fergie, has been so sexually supercharged that the subject would be unavoidable. Since July, sex has been everywhere. But it hasn't been the right sort of sex. The sole thing to catch the children's imaginations, and turn up in meal-time conversations, has been toe-sucking. The thought that a grown woman might suck a man's toes for pleasure has them falling about in peals of laughter, even now, months later.

I agree with them: it is funny. (Putting myself in their shoes, I can imagine they would describe making love as two people bouncing on top of each other.) As an opening for a more serious conversation, toe-sucking is hopeless.

The only use of the Mellor affair has been in explaining that husbands and wives sometimes form friendships outside marriage, and that this can cause heartbreak. But modern children are only too aware of this.

The next opportunity came while I was driving my daughters and one of their friends past a poster advertising the new female condom. The friend, aged nine, piped up: 'Oh look, the female condom. Mummy and I have been wondering how you actually use one.'

At this point I was attempting to squeeze the car along a road just wide enough to take two lines of parked cars and two of traffic. This took a minute or so of concentration. I prayed that they would not ask me to explain the technical problem: I didn't know the answer.

I started to say that condoms, worn by men or women, are important because they stop you having babies when you don't want them, and protect you from diseases, but their attention was already far away - they were singing the song from the forthcoming school play.

I was going to finish by saying that, despite my best intentions, progress is slow. Except that this morning, at breakfast, I was asked a straight question: 'What is Aids?' I was just replying when the milk boiled over and the person sharing the school run knocked on the front door. As I turned round, the children rushed out into the hallway.

At least, I thought ruefully as I was let off the hook again, they are not afraid to ask questions. Perhaps one day soon we will get to the answers.