10/03/2012 02:50 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Down With "The Talk"!: "Where Did I Come From?" Is Not a Question About Sex (Part 3 of 4)

And neither is the answer.

Here's how fifth graders almost universally define sex: "Well, a man puts (or sticks) his penis inside a woman's vagina (or hole) and the sperm comes out and finds the egg and egg goes to the uterus and grows for nine months and then the baby is born." Just think about that for a moment: By the age of ten, most kids have learned to conflate "sex" with sexual intercourse, and the entire process of human reproduction with "sex."

That would be like their thinking all vegetables equal broccoli, and that falling off a stool and breaking your leg are one and the same! Confusing a whole category with an individual example within it, and thinking that an action is the equivalent of its potential effects, is the kind of logic kids typically begin to outgrow when they are seven, and yet I see remnants of it in high school (like, for example, when I hear students equate "birth control" with birth control "pills").

What explains these teenagers' inability to think about sexuality at the same level of cognitive sophistication they so capably bring to practically every other subject matter?

Dig deeply enough, and we could trace these deficits back to the "The Talk," too. Starting at about age four, most young children begin spontaneously to think about their own origins, but in very concrete terms. "Where did I come from?," for example, is quite literally a where question, as in, "I'm here now, but where was I before I was born?" Instead of hearing the question for what it is, and supplying a "where" answer ("mom's uterus," for example, would easily fill the bill) sex-talk-anxious parents are inclined to project onto the question what they most fear the child is asking about:

"Oh no! He wants to know about adult sex!"

Lost in this muddled perception is the fact that explaining the mechanics of reproduction and illuminating the meaning and purpose of adult sexual behaviors, are entirely different propositions. The latter is best explained when children are older and capable of grasping more sophisticated concepts about relationships and intimacy, much as they can easily conquer addition at age six, but not long division. Relaxed, confident adults, in less of a hurry to put the "dreaded talk" behind them, or to put it off indefinitely, would know intuitively how to lean into children's questions and convey information in proper developmental sequence and context. They would simply let their good common sense--the first casualty of excessive anxiety--be their guide. And, yes, it would be that easy.

"The Talk" As Prototype

Ever noticed that when people say "The Pill" or "The Patch" or "The Shot" everyone knows exactly what kind of medication--out of the thousands and thousands on the market--they're talking about? Remember "The Film" that everyone, or at least the girls, saw in the fifth grade? And, we all know about "the little blue pill" (wink, wink) that's gotten so much attention ever since Bob Dole left politics. (Did you know he was one of the first spokespeople in the early Viagra ads?)

Each term, I think, is an apt expression of Americans' deeply mixed emotions about sexuality itself and how we are supposed to think, talk, and learn about it. While the quotation marks, metaphorical or actual, reflect our obsessive habit of highlighting and sensationalizing all things sexual, they're also stand-ins for the idea that sex is something to be contained, disconnected, and treated as separate.

The early childhood model for how to "do" sex education becomes an enduring prototype as our kids grow older. Parents and curriculum writers (and radio interviewers, too) typically visualize sex education in late childhood and adolescence as a series of separate, self-contained modules: the puberty talk, the masturbation talk, the abstinence talk, the birth control talk, the STI/AIDS talk, the how to use a condom talk, the "hooking up" and "friends with benefits" talk, the oral or anal sex talk, the "sexting" talk, the pornography talk, and so on. The problem is, nurturing sexually healthy children, teens, and young adults is not a paint-by-numbers affair, where parents or teachers simply make sure to fill in the blanks.

Knowing How to Think about Sexuality is the Goal

My older son was in the seventh grade in 1987, when AIDS awareness began to peak in the US and around the globe. Public health officials were just starting to roll out dire predictions about the epidemic's potentially devastating effects, particularly in large areas of Africa and Asia. When the very first news magazine cover story on "AIDS in Africa" appeared that spring, I sent my copy post-haste to my son's social studies teacher, since the class was in the middle of a comprehensive unit on the continent of Africa.

The tone of her response said it all: "What, are you kidding?" Even eighth grade science and health teachers weren't yet permitted to say the word AIDS in a classroom in the district where we lived. She estimated, sadly, that it would be years before it appeared in her department's curriculum.

How many missed opportunities could we count in this kind of scenario--still typical today--where adults simply can't get beyond "little box" thinking, and their need to contain, marginalize, and compartmentalize anything connected to sex?

Here's something to think about this fall as our kids head back to school: Issues of sex, gender, and reproduction are central to life itself and to the experience of living. There are few aspects of our humanity as vast, relevant, or complex. Our children's ability to make a lifetime of good decisions around sexuality--personally, inter-personally, and as citizens of the world--depends on how well adults teach them to think critically about the choices and situations they'll face. That kind of thinking isn't linear, and it doesn't occur in discrete boxes; it requires making sophisticated connections and seeing the intricate relationships between and among big ideas.

Coming Next in Part 4 of DOWN WITH "THE TALK"!: What would a new paradigm look and feel like?

Deborah Roffman, a former member of the National Advisory Council on Sexual Health, is the author, most recently, of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' Go-To Person about Sex. Her website is