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New smartphone app helps parents walk kids through first birds-and-bees conversation

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A smartphone and tablet app helps parents answer the inevitable question, “Where do babies come from?”

CHRIS WARE / KRT Enlarge Image

A smartphone and tablet app helps parents answer the inevitable question, “Where do babies come from?”

For some parents, having "the talk" can be uncomfortable -- particularly with the curious preschool set.

That's why Dr. Jillian Roberts, a Victoria-based child psychologist, created The Facts of Life, a smartphone and tablet app that helps parents answer the inevitable question, "Where do babies come from?" The app, which sells for $1.99 on iTunes, is geared toward children aged four to six and introduces sex in a G-rated way.

Through her practice, Roberts, 41, noticed that an increasing number of kids were coming to her with questions about inappropriate images they'd stumbled upon on the Internet.

"I'd have to debrief with them about what they had seen and what it meant," she says. She realized that, in a tech-saturated era of tablets and smartphones, the age-old (well, decades-old) advice of keeping the family computer in the kitchen was becoming rather antiquated.

So, she began encouraging parents to have the birds-and-bees talk earlier.

"You need to give (kids) a framework so they're not embarrassed about what they see, so they can come tell you about what they saw or heard at school," she says. "We need to jump in the game and take back the conversation. Parents would ask me, 'How early?' and I'd say, 'As early as you can.'"

Roberts began thinking about what that introductory conversation would be like -- and how she would have gone about it if she had a do-over. The mother of three didn't have an easy time when it came to talking sex with her eldest daughter, who's now 12.

"It was not comfortable for me -- and I'm a child psychologist," she says with a laugh.

"I was reading Today's Parent or Parenting and I read something that said, 'If you haven't had the talk by age nine, you're too late,'" she recalls. "I remember being really nervous about that. I sat her down and I really quickly said it."

Roberts says that, while helpful, the books she picked up to support her discussion were either too graphic or too overwhelming with the amount of information they provided.

The Facts of Life app is neither, she says. Rather than shunning technology, Roberts decided to embrace it, teaming up with students from the Centre of Digital Media in Vancouver to design a resource that is "wholesome and beautiful."

The app asks a series of basic questions, such as "Where do babies come from?" The answers are intentionally vague: "A baby comes from a woman's body." A child can continue the program by clicking 'Tell me more.' Conversely, he or she can also select 'Enough.'

"At every step they can decide if they want to learn more or if it's enough for one day," Roberts says. As for the vague answers, "we just give them what they need to know."

The app uses storybook imagery and illustrations to avoid getting "too technical or medical," although words such as vagina are used. For example, to answer the question of how a baby gets inside a woman, the app explains that a mom and dad's bodies fit together like a puzzle. The accompanying image is of a man and woman holding interlocking pieces. And when they fit together in a "special embrace," a seed is planted in the mother's womb.

"The understanding of where they come from should be beautiful, not disgusting, painful or violent," Roberts says. "This is meant to be a starting point."

What it's not meant to be is a substitute for a real interaction between parent and child, Roberts stresses. The Facts of Life is meant to be done with a parent, which is why there's no voiceover.

Dr. Jennifer Theule, a Winnipeg clinical psychologist and an assistant professor of clinical and school psychology at the University of Manitoba, says the The Facts of Life app is useful to parents who could learn simple ways to explain these introductory topics to preschoolers, but wonders about its effectiveness for older kids.

"Older children need more sophisticated information. I think the app avoided the difficult topics kids really want to know about -- sexual intercourse, puberty, etc."

Theule is also concerned that, by using the app, parents are actually communicating their discomfort to their children. "What I'd like to see is parents who are open and answer these questions as they arise at a level their child understands.

"Ideally, 'the talk' isn't a talk, it's a huge series of conversations you have over the course of your child's life," she adds. "This app fits into the model of one talk, but a child needs this info again and again at different levels over an extended period."

And there's an app for that too -- or, at least, there will be. Roberts has a series of apps in the works for older kids, including puberty for girls, puberty for boys and adolescent sexuality. For parents who are having trouble striking up that open dialogue, The Facts of Life and other apps like it could prove to be an invaluable aid.

"Strengthening that relationship is going to keep children safe," Roberts says. "That's my hope."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2013 D1

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Updated on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 7:08 AM CDT: Replaces image

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