Much of the information out there is actually misinformation,” says Sara Diament, who has led workshops on intimacy for the past six years.
The Bergenfield resident – who holds master’s degrees in both Jewish studies and health and behavior studies – is trying to fill “a really big gap,” answering teenagers’ questions about sexuality and helping their parents do the same.
Diament, who leads workshops for 10th- and 12th-grade girls at Ma’ayanot High School in Teaneck and has led sessions at Paramus’ Yavneh Academy as well, said there are “areas of physical and emotional health not being adequately addressed in the Jewish community.”
“Students have so many questions and [some schools] don’t have anyone on staff who can comfortably answer,” she said. “Even some school psychologists are not comfortable with the topic.”
The problem is not limited to the Jewish community. Diament, who is certified as a health education specialist by the National Commission for Health Education, leads similar workshops for girls in Bergen and Somerset county public schools.
Talking about sexuality should be an ongoing conversation, beginning in infancy, when children may ask what to call body parts, said Diament. Through her workshops, she has discovered that some teens still rely on information provided to them by their parents when they were young. Many are distressed to find that the information is not accurate.
Generally, she said, “parents have not been a great resource” in this area. All parents, Jews and non-Jews, religious and non-religious, “have a certain level of discomfort.”
This is even more pronounced in the Orthodox community, which “has a strong sense of tzniut, or modesty,” she added. “This is a positive quality but must be channeled appropriately. Issues related to personal sexuality are private but shouldn’t prevent open and honest conversation with children.”
Diament – who said her recently published “Talking to children about intimacy: A guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents” was strongly supported by Orthodox leaders such as Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, and Abraham J. Twerski – said “using ridiculous labels for body parts, and allowing children to use them, gives the message that there’s something terrible about what they’re asking.”
As a result, she said, “the kids will find the answers themselves or concoct something in their imagination.”
Those answers, she said – most probably gleaned from television, Internet, or magazines – will probably be inaccurate and most certainly will not reflect Jewish teachings.
“Parents are the ones to have this conversation,” she said, adding that schools can also have a role in conveying correct information.
Diament wrote her book after counseling a number of parents on addressing issues of intimacy with their children and finding out “that they didn’t feel confident or have the basic skills. It’s not a typical conversation,” she said. “You need to do prep work.”
She noted that mass market books on teaching sexuality are generally not appropriate for an Orthodox audience.
“They don’t impart any of the Torah philosophy about the beauty and holiness in a physical relationship,” she said. Also, “If Orthodox parents hope dating will be later, and sexual activity much later, and a book talks about preparing a 12-year-old for a date, you don’t want to go there. You just want to shut the book.”
“I felt that parents needed a basic resource, a tool box,” she said. Each of her chapters focuses on a particular question, such as how to prepare for a discussion, how old children should be, and how to maintain the dialogue from infancy into adolescence.
“You need to prepare for how you want to frame the issue and explain things, or you may start stuttering and stumbling. The kids will sense a negative message.”
If you are still uncomfortable, she said, be honest with your children, telling them that that you’re not used to speaking about the topic.
“That’s okay,” she said, “but always answer a question and do it honestly, using age-appropriate answers.”
Diament also suggested that parents should respond in “tiers,” using minimal information at first and letting their children guide them. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information, she said. “They will let you know when they are done.”
For more information, visit Diament’s Website, www.torahparenting.com.