Book Review: Beyond the Big Talk

Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens from Middle School to High School and Beyond by Haffner and TartaglioneBeyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens from Middle School to High School and Beyond
Debra Haffner and Alyssa Tartaglione

Ms. Haffner, former head of SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) is eminently qualified to write this book, having worked with adolescents for over twenty years as a sex educator.

Most parents have three big fears for their children, as they grow into young adulthood and greater independence: sex, drugs and alcohol, and automobile accidents. Beyond the big Talk addresses this first fear, and is a remarkable and practical guide for parents of adolescents.

How many of us remember a fumbling "big talk" about sexuality that one of our parents attempted with us during adolescence? These efforts are usually cut short by the adolescent's merciful attempt to reassure the parent that it's okay, they really don't have any questions. This approach clearly has not worked well.

Young people get most of their information about sexuality from the media -- and from each other. There are several problems with this. The first is that the "information" gained is very likely to be distorted or inaccurate. The second is that when parents are not actively involved in discussing sexuality with their children there are no opportunities to help the young person learn about and explore the values the parents want to impart to their child.

Haffner's book begins with a foreword written by her daughter Alyssa, 15. She charmingly talks about the burden she bears as the daughter of a sex educator ("My life is an ongoing teachable moment."), and at the same time expresses her appreciation for truly being able to talk with her mom about anything. She compares her experience to that of her friends who do not feel comfortable talking with their parents about sexuality.

Beyond the Big Talk emphasizes again and again the importance of clear and open communication in the family about sexual issues. Haffner points out that in this way the family is able to transmit its values about sexuality -- and she firmly upholds each family's right to its own values. She is not an expert who stands back and tells families what values they should have. But she does strongly advocate that families talk about their values -- and to be realistic about what is happening in their teenagers' lives.

Haffner reminds parents not to have amnesia about their own teenage years, but rather to use that experience to shape the kinds of conversations they have with their children. What do you wish your parents had discussed with you during your adolescence?

The book is filled with practical guidelines for communicating with teens about sexuality:

Remember that your teenager wants to talk with you about your values.

Do not have a "Big Talk" about sexuality with your teenager.

You do not have to be comfortable, and you do not have to have all the answers.

Listen to your teenager's point of view.

Let your teen know that you expect them to make mistakes and that you will love them no matter what.

Remember to show affection to your teenager.

Facts are not enough.

Do not be afraid of giving mixed messages.

Remember that sexuality education is for both teen boys and teen girls.

Make sure your teens have other adults they can go to for information and help about their sexuality.

Avoid closing down communication with your teenager.

Know what your teenager is being taught about sexuality at school, church, synagogue, or youth group.

There is no such thing as too late.

Get help when you need it.

Don't forget to talk about the joys of sexuality!

Beyond the Big Talk gives a realistic picture of teenage life today. There is an introductory section on Adolescence, followed by a developmental look at the challenges teens face in the Middle School years, Ninth and Tenth grades, and Eleventh and Twelfth grades.

Haffner doesn't pull any punches. She offers straight talk about sexuality and the consequences of sexual ignorance. She talks about kissing games, coed sleepovers, "hooking up", STDs, HIV, birth control, masturbation, pregnancy, abortion and much more.

One of the winning attributes of this book is the confidential, friendly tone which Debra Haffner adopts in talking with parents. She speaks in this book as both a parent herself and a sexuality educator and adolescent specialist. She acknowledges that many areas being discussed may be anxiety-producing to the reader, and takes a gentle and encouraging approach.

Most of all, this is a very positive book. It advocates for sexuality as a central part of human life, and encourages parents to know that it is possible to continue their active parenting of their children beyond puberty, to offer guidance, family values, and support as their teens are taking their first tentative steps towards adulthood and independence.

Beyond the Big Talk is a wonderful resource for parents, for teachers and for others who work closely with adolescents. It follows Haffner's earlier book From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, which focuses on how to guide and educate younger children about sexuality. Both of these books are important contributions, and highly recommended.