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Great Conversations teaches preteens and parents how to talk about the hard stuff

Seattle’s experts on adult-child conversations discuss their work



Dr. Rob Lehman and Julie Metzger co-founded Great Conversations, the go-to program on puberty and sex ed for Seattle area families.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

Growing up can be hard, and talking about growing up can be harder. For 30 years, Seattle’s Great Conversations (https://www.greatconversations.com/) has promoted dialogue about the hard stuff. They offer classes for preteens and the adults they live with on topics like puberty, sexuality and decision-making. The instructors at Great Conversations allow adults and kids to come together to talk and listen, and they help make these conversations fun, respectful, and factual.

We asked co-founders Julie Giesy Metzger, RN, MN, and Robert Lehman, MD, how their work has changed and how it has changed them:

JM on the girls’ classes: The content of the classes is really driven by the questions girls ask, and over the years their questions have taught me and helped me. It’s not a one-way thing to teach this class. I see families from all different cultures, and I get to see the way girls are taught to grow up in many different ways. The power of this, the pleasure in this — it never goes away even 30 years on.

The importance of the information we cover in class has never diminished. There’s an endless hunger for this information. And it’s not just information. Parents come back because of the shared experience they have with their children. We’ve seen a mother of four return with each of her daughters. It’s not just the information at that point; it’s the shared experience. It’s not simply a checklist of topics. It’s the moving experience of being there. If it was just information we could give a handout to every pediatrician in the country. Rather, this is a chance to sit and laugh and cry and talk, and then you get in the car, and it just keeps going. What we do is open up the conversation.

RL on the boys’ classes: Some of what we do in class comes from prior classes. For instance, in the past I’d point to a penis on an anatomical poster and ask, what is this called? No response. I realized many were freaked out at the thought of saying that word aloud before strangers, so I asked the whole class to yell PENIS! three times. They all laughed. End of problem.

It’s amazing how much has not changed since the early ‘90s. The boys still ask terse, pithy, often misspelled questions about mechanics. But there have been a couple of big changes. Sexual orientation rarely came up as a question in the early years. Then parents began asking how they could tell if their son was gay. Then came questions from boys about what it means to be gay. Several years ago we changed our curriculum to include sexual orientation in every class.

A realization came early on for me that this was not primarily for the boys. I had to talk to them in language they’d understand, but the message is really for the grown-ups — to model how to talk to their boys on these topics, to make it easier by speaking in a relaxed and frequently humorous way, and by throwing a lot of topics out there that are sometimes new territory for them.

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