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'The talk' with kids is critically important -- but families need support from others as well

The Talk. We hear from parents all the time that they are anxious and fearful of the talk. It's true — it can be a scary thing to talk to kids about sex. But it's also one of the most important things parents can do for their kids to set them up for a lifetime of healthy decision-making.

Consider that in 2010, Minnesota saw a discouraging rise in sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates. And, in 2009, HIV rates among young Minnesotans rose by 13 percent, marking a 17-year high. These daunting statistics, coupled with the fact that each year almost 750,000 U.S. teenagers aged 15–19 become pregnant, drive home the importance of communicating with young people about sex.

The good news is that a majority of parents are talking with their children, according to a new poll commissioned by Planned Parenthood and the Center for Latino and Family Health (CLAFH) at the Silver School of Social Work at NYU. In fact, the nationally representative poll, called "Let's Talk: Are Parents Tackling Crucial Conversations about Sex?" shows that 82 percent of parents are talking with their kids about topics such as healthy relationships and their own values about when sex should and shouldn't take place.

Tough topics sometimes avoided
But there's still work to be done. The poll also showed that parents aren't always tackling the toughest topics that are key to helping their teens delay sex or prevent pregnancy and STIs should they become sexually active. For example, one out of every four parents aren't talking with their kids about how to say no to sex and only 60 percent of parents are talking with their kids about birth control.

Studies have shown that teens who report having good conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners, and use condoms and other contraceptives when they do have sex. That's why Planned Parenthood puts the focus on encouraging parents to talk to their kids during Let's Talk Month in October. To honor the importance of parent-child communication, we'll be hosting daylong parent-child retreats throughout October and hosting a family dinner night with our Twin Cities Teen Council.

But our work to assist parents with these conversations doesn't stop there. Throughout the year we offer education programs to facilitate parents starting and continuing conversations with their children about these issues. Our programs include PASE (Parents Are Sexuality Educators) and Mother/Daughter and Mother/Son Retreats, both of which help parents open up lines of communication with their kids around human sexuality, healthy relationships and healthy decision-making.

Parents also want comprehensive sex ed in schools
Through our work, one consistent message we hear from parents is that they want support for their efforts to protect their children's health, and they want it in the form of comprehensive sex education in schools. That fact was once again reinforced by the results of our Planned Parenthood/CLAFH poll, which found that well over 90 percent of parents support comprehensive sex education being included in both middle and high schools.

What's more, the vast majority of parents support information on birth control being included in sex-education programs. These findings underscore the need for legislators to understand that effective sex education requires a tag-team effort between parents and trained educators. Just as kids need help from parents and teachers to excel at math, reading, writing and the arts, children need a similar joint effort to be made on behalf of their sexual health.

Many policies out of step
Despite all this, the majority of state sex-education policies are out of step with parents' beliefs and children's needs. That's why it's important for parents and sex-education providers to use Let's Talk Month to make their voices and sage advice heard by the children they seek to protect and by legislators who determine whether our children receive effective sex education.

So, parents, it's time to roll up your sleeves. We know you are concerned about making sure your kids stay safe and healthy — and we're here to help. Let's talk.

Sarah Stoesz is the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

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