It came unexpectedly: the question that most parents try to rehearse the answer to, but inevitably mess up when reality strikes. My six-year-old turned to me out of the blue and said: “But what I don’€™t understand is how the seed from the man gets into the woman’€™s egg.”

My initial response was to gloss over her question. After all, at six a child shouldn’€™t know about sex, I reasoned. But she persisted, so I had little option but to dive into a quick-‘€˜n-basic lesson on anatomy ‘€“ which both amused and fascinated her.

Afterwards, I felt enormous relief. My child’€™s reaction had been so natural as she was too young to be embarrassed or awkward.

Jenny Shain, a social worker with the Johannesburg-based Parent and Child Counselling Centre, says parents “should start talking to their children about sex when they are young. From the age of seven or eight, they should introduce them to the basic facts and let them feel that it’€™s OK to talk about it”.

Talking about sex to children is not the easiest thing to do. Many parents are embarrassed and opt out, assuming that their children will pick up all they need to know from their friends, teachers or the media.

But parents if leave it to others, they have no control over the information or values conveyed. In contrast, if they talk to them openly, they can help their children to be in control of their lives and protect them from abuse, unwanted pregnancies and disease.

Shain says many parents are “naïve”, preferring not to acknowledge that their children are sexually active, but that “girls are generally sexually active from around 13 or 14 and boys may start even younger”.

According to loveLife research, “sex is the main form of recreation among adolescents”. This is not surprising, considering that almost 70% of South Africans under the age of 20 live in rural or semi-rural areas where entertainment opportunities are scarce and poverty is the norm.

The research also shows that most young people don’€™t know much about the mechanics of sex or how their bodies work. They also feel they have nobody to talk to about their sexual problems and often feel alienated by judgmental staff at family planning clinics.

A young person who lacks clear information about sex is far more likely to fall pregnant, or contract sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV/AIDS, than one who is making informed choices.

“Parents need to establish open communication about sex with their adolescent children,” says Shain. “If they are heavy and stern, their children will not talk to them and may hide what they are doing or become more rebellious.”

Young people face many more pressures than their parents’€™ generation did. HIV/AIDS has no cure except prevention, so parents might actually save their children’€™s lives if they help them to act responsibly. ‘€“ Health-e News Service.