It's the one conversation which parents agonise over most – when and how to tell their little ones about the birds and the bees. And now with the internet and social media, the once taboo topic of sex education is one which mums and dads are under pressure to broach earlier and earlier.
This week it was revealed that actress Emma Thompson learned the facts of life from legendary actor Sir Alec Guinness when she was just eight years old.
The 54-year-old's parents found the perfect solution by enlisting the help of their famous family friend.
Thompson's mum Phyllida Law (81) said she felt faint when young Emma asked Sir Alec about the details but revealed that he reacted with "a calm and accurate response". Emma herself has previously revealed that she once created a 'sex handbook' for her own 13-year-old daughter, Gaia. Even today it's a subject which can make grown adults blush with embarrassment, as we found out when we asked a number of local personalities how and when they discovered the facts of life.
Popular broadcaster Alan is single and lives in Portrush. He says:
My lesson on the facts of life was a mixture of biology at school and a very frisky cousin.
“I was about 11 when I was on a family holiday and walked into a room and caught my cousin in the act.
“I asked my rather embarrassed aunt ‘What’s going on there?’ There certainly were no birds and bees involved.
“My aunt didn’t really enlighten me. She used some funny phrase to explain it — something like he was enjoying the big holiday and I asked ‘When do I get to enjoy the big holiday?’
“It was quite confusing. In fairness it was back in the days when there was no Facebook, Twitter or Google.
“I lost my father when I was very young and grew up with my lovely mum.
“In fact, I’m still waiting on someone explaining it all so if there is anyone out there who can give me the basic instructions I’d be glad to hear from them. I don’t do diagrams, though.”
BBC NI presenter Stephen Watson (42), from Bangor, says:
I think that the first I learned about it was in a biology lesson at my school, Methody, in second or third year. We had a big text book opened up at the relevant page.
“There was no internet then and I think I had talked vaguely about it with friends but that was the first time it hit home. I was a bit of an innocent.
“I remember that we all felt embarrassed to be talking about women’s and men’s bits and pieces.
“Before that, the stork was talked about in our house, and I remember when my younger sister Katherine was born and I was staying with my aunt she told me mum had gone off to see the stork to get my sister.
“I think that my dad did eventually talk to me about it when he thought I was old enough, but I can’t really remember all the details.”
Lynda Bryans (50), a lecturer in media studies, is married to Mike, leader of the UUP. They have two sons, PJ (18) and Christopher (16). She says:
Talking about the birds and the bees was something that just didn’t happen when we were young.
I didn’t get a lesson in school and my parents never had the conversation with me as I think the subject was a bit taboo back then.
“It wasn’t until well into |secondary school when you |picked up bits and pieces here and there.
“Jackie magazine was most informative, especially the Cathy and Claire problem page, which was terrific.
“These days things are very different and with my own sons we have had a few chats and laughs about it over the years.
“I remember them announcing that they were having a sex chat in school in P7 and then again |having another one, maybe in a bit more detail, when there were around 15 or 16.
“I have chatted to them too about it and tried to have adult conversations with them and make sure they know what the limits are, even from a practical point of view, by talking to them about condoms and STDs.
“Now that they are a bit older and starting to go out with girls I have reminded them that they are getting to the age when they have to be mindful of these things.
“I usually just get a shrug from them and then they tell me: ‘Mum we already learnt all that stuff in school, you really don’t need to remind us about it’.
“But I think it is important they know the consequences of these vitally important things.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson (48) is married to John (50), a farmer, and lives in Waringstown. They have two boys, Elliott (23) and Mark (21). She says:
I found out about the birds and the bees when I was about 13 from friends in school. My mum did have the chat with me later. She is a very young mum — she is only 19 years older than me and more like a big sister, so she was great. I think I was more embarrassed than she was.
“I’m on the education committee at Stormont and personally I do think it is better that children get proper sex education at school rather than be misinformed with all the information that is out there now with smartphones and the internet.
“With my own two boys growing up on a farm I didn’t have to explain too much to them.
“They had just to walk down the farm and see nature taking its course so Mother Nature explained it very clearly.”
EMMA LOUISE JOHNSTON
Freelance broadcast journalist Emma Louise Johnston (35) lives in Maghera and is married to Jonathan Crawford (35), a businessman. They they have two children, Emily (2) and JJ (seven months). She says:
I recall it very clearly. I was about 11 and my mum told me. She was far more embarrassed than I was. I remember she went beetroot and talked to me more about women’s things than anything else.
“Looking back it seems really funny because mum is a really chilled and liberal person and I find it humorous that she was so embarrassed.
“My children are very young but the whole subject does fill me with fear as with the internet now there is so much stuff out there and so much horrible stuff online that is readily available.
“It’s stuff that doesn’t tell them about the joy of love or what it is like to be in a happy, stable relationship.
“You want to be the one to tell them and these days children are growing up so fast, so when is the right time to tell them?
“I think it is important that they get the right information and that they know it can be a lovely thing.”
HOW TO TALK OPENLY...
- It’s not an easy conversation but experts agree that finding ways to talk openly to your children about the birds and the bees is good for them — and for you. Research shows that in families where this happens, teenagers are more likely to delay starting sex, and to behave responsibly.
- Try making it a casual conservation rather than something too serious. You could use incidents from TV soaps or |magazines to get a conversation started.
- Also, experts advise making discussing sex a part of everyday life so it’s a good idea to bring up the subject as you clear the table or drive the car.
And the advice is to start early as leaving it until your kids are in their teens will make it even
AND WHAT TO SAY WHEN...? an
- * Pre-schoolers
- Very young children ask questions like, ‘Where do I come from?’ You should tell them the truth, without going into too much detail. If they ask tricky questions in public, suggest talking about it when you get home, but make sure that you do.
- * Ages 5-8
- Puberty can start as early as eight, and children need to know how their bodies work, and what changes will happen as they get older. Don’t overload this age group with information, but answer their questions honestly.
- * Pre-teens
- Ten-year-olds can start growing up very fast. You should tell your child what you think and believe but also be open, and listen to their ideas. Talk about feelings and behaviour as well as biology.
- Keep it light, and use a sense of humour. Try telling them about how you felt at their age.
- * Teenagers
- Check out teenagers’ websites to learn what they’re thinking and saying about sex and relationships. Again, it is important to listen to them. Don’t lay down the law or probe, and respect their need for privacy. If you can build trust, they’ll be more likely to confide in you. If it’s hard to talk, give them leaflets or books suitable for their age group.