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Parents encouraged to discuss sexuality with their children on PACT Night HOWARD COUNTY HEALTH


If you haven't already discussed sexuality with your children, Thursday night would be a good time. PTAs around the county are sponsoring the third annual Parents and Children Talking Night when students and parents are encouraged to discuss the birds and the bees.

"If you start talking to them now in first grade, by the time they're in middle school you'll have developed a dialogue," said Cindi Miller, nursing director for Howard County General Hospital and PACT chairwoman.

To get a jump on PACT Night, some Howard County parents attended a March 10 seminar called "Techniques for Talking about Sexuality with Your Children." Sponsored by Howard County General Hospital, the program showed the seven adults how to discuss homosexuality, menstruation, and where babies come from with their elementary school children.

"I came to prepare myself and to keep myself informed," said Linda McDonnell, of Columbia, who has an 8-year-old daughter. "You can never know too much. There are no easy answers in raising kids."

The free two-hour program is part of PACT, a development of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy designed to encourage parents to open the lines of communications with their children about human sexuality and teen pregnancy.

Sponsored by the Howard County PTA Council, PACT is a subcommittee of the Interdepartmental Committee on Adolescent Pregnancy, a coalition of the county's health, juvenile services, employment training and social services departments, as well as the schools.

The hospital seminar included hand-outs and a video that featured vignettes of parents and children talking about sexuality.

"It's kind of like a parent training session," said Ms. Miller, who also has an 8-year-old daughter.

Speakers were Pat Johnston, AIDS prevention specialist for Howard County Public Schools, and Anita Trainor, a Prevention, Action and Resolution coordinator at Waterloo Elementary School.

Both said they hoped the seminar would put parents at ease when discussing sexuality with their children.

"I want them to feel encouraged and supported in their role as primary sex educators of their children," Ms. Johnston said.

Parents said they hoped the seminar would help them establish a lifelong discussion with their children about sexuality and other issues.

"I just want to keep the dialogue going between my daughter and me without giving her too much information," said Ms. McDonnell, voicing a concern of many parents at the meeting.

Before answering their children's questions, the speakers advised parents to clarify the questions first by asking, "Is this what you are asking me?" or "What do you think?"

"Ask a clarifying question so you make sure you're really answering what they're asking," Ms. Johnston said. "Or answer very simply."

If parents are unsure how to answer a question, Ms. Johnston suggested postponing the answer by saying, "That's a very good question. Let me think about it."

Elementary and middle school children usually ask factual questions, whereas high school students ask for guidance in their relationships, Ms. Johnston said.

But no matter what their children's age, parents should become the primary sexuality educators of their youngsters, the speakers said.

"If you wait too long, they've already heard stuff," Ms. Trainor said. "If kids don't get correct information, it can damage them for life."

During the hospital seminar, parents described how they learned about sex and formed a list of questions they found most challenging to answer.

Parents considered questions such as, "How much information and at what age do you discuss homosexuality?" and "At what age should you provide information about menstruation?"

In answer to both questions, parents said age-appropriate information should be given whenever the child asks a question.

"You give them an answer," said Ms. McDonnell who said she told her child about menstruation when she was 7 or 8.

But some parents said answers are not always possible.

"Sometimes you have to let the kids know you're human," said Nadine Pfaffman, who has three children. "You don't have all the answers."

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