Elizabeth Schroeder has vivid memories of her first sex education class in high school. “Our health teacher had a tennis ball in his hand and he told us he was going to throw it to us and say the name of a sexual body part. We would have to catch the ball, throw it back and repeat the word he said. So he throws the ball at this poor kid and shouts out the word ‘penis’ and this kid catches the ball and has to repeat the word ‘penis’. Then this teacher throws the ball again and bellows out ‘vulva’ and the next kid would miss the ball or drop it but still have to shout back the word ‘vulva’. It was the most laughable, ridiculous way to teach teenagers about sex. This was in the ‘80s, right at the start of the whole HIV thing and it was an opportunity to talk about so many important things but we missed it.”

Schroeder has made it her life’s work not to miss any such opportunities to teach young people about sex and sexuality. She is the executive director of Answer, a national organization whose mission is to provide teens and their families with a realistic outlook on sexuality and help teens make responsible decisions related to sex. Answer is part of the Center for Applied Psychology at Rutgers. She has received numerous honors throughout her career, including one from the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists for her approaches to teaching Internet safety to youth. She is also a former chair of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Schroeder will speak on Thursday, February 11, at the Pennington School. The talk is free and open to the public.

“Young people today are getting the information earlier than we as parents are talking with them,” says Schroeder. “Do we want the world, the media, and their peers to convey their values and beliefs about sex — some of which can be exaggerated and inaccurate — or do we want to take control of the conversation so we can pass on our own values and beliefs to our children?”

Schroeder says that the traditional notion of the birds and the bees implies that there is only one talk about sex, when in reality sexuality is a much more general, holistic concept. “Life is one big fat teachable moment, and they happen all throughout a child’s life starting at the earliest ages, so look for the opportunities. If children ask about something at a young age because they’ve overheard a word or phrase spoken by adults or even their friends or because they’ve seen something on TV, we want to be prepared to respond to their questions about it.”

So how do you respond to questions that can be embarrassing and pop up, so to speak, at the wrong moments? “You have to use language and concepts that are age-appropriate,” explains Schroeder. “Let’s say, for example, you’re watching a football game and a commercial comes on and your child asks, what’s that? You don’t want to say that’s a medicine for erectile dysfunction which affects some men during sexual intercourse — that’s too much information and more than they need to know. Answer their question but don’t go into uncharted territory that isn’t necessary for them at that age. You can say ‘that’s a medicine that some men have to take.’ That’s fine and in most cases, that’s all they want to know. Make sure you know what your child is asking you.”

Schroder points to television and media today in general as a place where many children get their earliest and most vivid impressions about sex and sexuality. There is iCarly, for example, a Nickelodeon show about a group of friends who start a web show, that is popular with lots of tweens and younger children, including Schroeder’s own seven-year-old son. “Watching it together with your kids is a perfect opportunity to use it as a starting point for your conversation,” says Schroeder. “You might ask your child, ‘At what age do you think it’s okay to have your first kiss? At what age do you think it’s appropriate to go out on a date?’ This kind of honest and open communication sets the stage right from the beginning. Later on, when they’re older, it’s easier to move on to such questions as when do you think it’s okay to have sex for the first time. Think of it as building blocks for conversation. If you build a solid foundation early on, the rest will follow much more naturally.”

Though starting early is important, Schroeder doesn’t want to discourage parents who have not initiated the conversation yet. “I want to assure you that it’s also never too late to start. The important thing is to communicate with your children no matter how old they are.”

In today’s fast Internet times, technology adds several other dimensions to the conversation. First and foremost, it is forcing parents to bring up the subject of sex much earlier, or least, they should be. “Pornography has been around since we were kids,” says Schroeder, “but now a nine-year-old can be on the Internet and looking at something explicit. It is just so easily accessible and also easily misunderstood by both kids and their parents.” Parents are often alarmed by what they think their children are seeing when in fact they can use that moment as a teaching opportunity. “They might think, oh my God, I saw this site my kid was on, does that mean he’s growing up to be a pervert.’ They’re worried there might be a pathology there when in fact there’s nothing wrong with the child, and there is no long-term damage. But it does mean the child is being misinformed and they are getting a very myopic view of what sex is like and sexuality too. You don’t want them to see images of bondage, for example, and get the impression that this is what sex is supposed to be like.”

Another hot issue today is sexting and the dangers it highlights about being an adolescent in the Internet age. Schroeder says kids do stuff they’re not supposed to because developmentally, they’re not consequential thinkers. Present in the here and now, they often don’t think about the after. “It’s a big temptation for us as parents to demand ‘what were you thinking’ when in fact, they weren’t thinking at all because they’re growing into becoming abstract thinkers and that takes time. The Internet has made this much more dangerous. In the past people flashed and mooned, and that was the big risque thing but it was done and then it was over. Now this image is sent on to other people and the moment you realize this wasn’t a good idea is when you hit send and at that point it’s too late.”

So what is a parent to do? Schroeder says talk to your children before they face consequences that can’t be taken back. Repeat what you say and then say it again even if you get the eye-roll and crossed arms. “The more we can reinforce the message the better it will sink in. With technology, you have to spell it out for them and say something like, ‘If you send something to someone on the Internet, you have no control over what they do with it. They can forward it to the whole world.’”

Schroeder was born in New York City and raised in the Westchester County town of Scarsdale, the youngest of three children to parents who were attorneys. She says that she does not remember that they ever broached the topic of sex education. “It’s not they weren’t caring or didn’t think it wasn’t important, but I grew up Italian Catholic and there are lots of cultural and religious values that come with that.” Schroeder says another part of the silence was generational but a similar silence still exists in today’s generation of parents. “It’s that fear that if you talk about sex with your kids they’re going to do it, when, in fact, there’s an abundance of research that shows that the opposite is true. The reality is that if kids don’t have the right information they won’t know how to protect themselves against things like STDs and pregnancy.”

After graduating from Scarsdale High School in 1983 where that memorable sex education class took place she matriculated at Connecticut College in New London and majored in French. After graduating she helped a friend start up a Shakespeare company and then continued her flirtation with the arts by moving to New York to work as a fundraiser for the New York City Ballet. But all the while, her heart was set on working for Planned Parenthood. She did end up there, as manager of education and special projects at Planned Parenthood Federation of America and then as associate vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City.

It was at a meeting about sex education that she had one of the biggest moments of clarity in her entire life — that “aha” moment that determined the course of her future. “I was struck by a number of things in that meeting but what really stood out was the openness and candor with which people were talking about sexuality. Here I was gathering information for a proposal, and I kept thinking if only everybody could speak openly this way what a much better world it would be.”

Schroeder earned an MSW from NYU and a doctorate of education in human sexuality education from Widener University. She says sexuality is still a topic that is one of the most misunderstood. “Because of religious and cultural overtones, this is one area where somebody can take their beliefs and trump someone else’s,” she says.

That is why she believes education for teens — and open communication with their parents — is so vital. “For teens, sexuality is so much a part of their lives, going through puberty, hanging out with their peer group, figuring out who they are. Decision-making skills are so important. I believe that if people are healthy about their sexuality, they could be healthier in general.”

Lecture Series for Parents, Common Ground, Pennington School. Thursday, February 11, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. “How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex” presented by Elizabeth Schroder. Register. Free and open to the public. 609-924-6700 or www.princetoncommonground.org.

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