For those of us growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, watching television with our parents was about mastering a unique skill. We had to sniff out the exact moment that an interaction between a male and female character on screen progressed from relax-it’s-aimless-conversation mode to the run-it’s-a-sex-scene mode. Some of us coughed and politely excused ourselves from the room; others suddenly discovered unfinished homework. The skill was critical to our TV-watching experience because as far as parents were concerned, we liked to pretend that sex didn’t exist.
Cut to the era of open economy, HIV/AIDS and MMS scandals. A mother of a 15-year-old boy is horrified to learn about a version of spin-the-bottle her son’s classmates at a prominent Delhi school play during free periods. It goes like this: A boy spins the bottle and whichever girl it points to will have to read a chapter from a textbook while the boy holds her breasts. If in the course of reading the chapter the girl giggles, she has to read it all over again.
Growing up: Twelve-year-old Ahona gets a lesson in human reproduction from her mother Ajanta. Sarang Sena/Mint
Of course, children are growing up faster. Even until 10 years ago, adolescence hit around the age of 14-15, nowadays it comes as early as 12, says Mamta Sharma, psychologist, Delhi Public School, RK Puram, New Delhi. It is becoming increasingly important for parents to have the bird-bee discussion with their children sooner rather than later, because if they don’t some pop-up window on the Internet will.
“Information on sex is simply everywhere and kids have easy access to it. Along with the Internet, even the print and television media has become a lot more prone to featuring sex; Femina and Cosmopolitan regularly have questionnaires on techniques, mindsets of men/women and so on,” says Sharma.
But with the excess of information comes the “perversion of information”, says Ameeta Wattal, principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi. “The overload of information hasn’t necessarily made us a freer society because the sexual revolution has been accompanied by these disturbing stories of images being circulated and incidents such as the MMS case, and more recently, the Nithari murders (serial murders of children in Nithari, Uttar Pradesh, in 2005 and 2006),” she says. In fact, many children have had their introduction to sex through this dystopic lens.
Twelve-year-old Ahona Chatterjee, for instance, first learnt about sex in the context of the Nithari killings that she saw splashed across newspapers. Her mother Ajanta Dutta, who teaches English literature at Delhi University, explained to her that this was only a violent manifestation of sex and that sex wasn’t necessarily a “bad thing”.
“She’s still been a bit wary of the concept. Then just a couple of months back I told her about the reproductive process, actually explaining the science of it. I told her that if it happens with romance and marriage, it’s a good thing,” says Dutta.
Not all parents find it easy to have the “talk” with their children. Wattal, who has been a member of the Central Board of Secondary Education’s (CBSE’s) Adolescent Education Programme training module, has over the last 7-10 years had more parents asking her to conduct sex education talks in school.
What helps is that children are forthcoming and will come up to you and ask questions if the home environment is liberal, says Gona Singh, a homemaker. She recalls her six-year-old son (now 14) going up to her husband and asking him the meaning of the word sex. “My husband asked him what he thought it was, upon which he said, ‘It’s when people take off their clothes and kiss for 2 hours’. My husband said, ‘That’s pretty much what it is and anytime you have any more questions on the subject, please come and ask me’,” she says.
There doesn’t have to be just one “talk”. It can be spread across several instances, to constantly reinforce some of the things you’re trying to communicate, says jewellery designer Shyamali Anand. She uses even a news item on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as an opportunity to alert her 16-year-old son about the dangers of HIV/AIDS.
The trick lies in keeping the line of communication open. Anita Dhawan, who coordinates exhibitions for women entrepreneurs and runs a company, Great Indian Bazaar, doesn’t necessarily approve of the kind of activities her 16-year-old son’s peer group seems to engage in (“making out” is what makes you “cool”), but says she doesn’t try to stop or scold him. “I don’t preach safe sex, I preach no sex; I have made it clear that when they’re capable and financially independent, they are free to get into a relationship, but this can’t be done casually,” she says. “I don’t let them spend nights out, and am strict about money. They know what I discourage although I don’t ever say ‘don’t do it’ outright,” she says. “Saying ‘no’ won’t necessarily stop them but it will, for sure, stop them from communicating with me,” she says.
The idea is to keep them talking. If need be, like Dhawan, befriend them on Facebook. Keep track, but don’t snoop. Importantly, don’t try to tell them how things were when you were an adolescent.