Geek Speak: Mary Roka, cofounder of GoTo Educational Technology

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Mary Roka believes that parents should talk to their kids about sex at a young age in order to avoid difficulties when they’re older. The Deep Cove resident is the cofounder of GoTo Educational Technology, a local startup that’s developed an educational app that helps families deal with the subject.

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Launched on February 28, Birdees is a free iPad app. Interactive modules covering the ages of two to five and six to eight are available as in-app purchases. An iPhone version is in the works, as well as a separate app that will offer modules for ages nine to 12 and 13 to 15 and older. A set of e-book is also planned.

Before starting GoTo with Squamish’s Jennifer Weidemann, Roka worked as a recruiter and in pharmaceutical sales. She has a young daughter and son.

The Georgia Straight reached Roka by phone in her car.

Why did you make Birdees?

My daughter asked me how babies are made, and I found it difficult, after even reading books, to communicate what I wanted to tell her. I thought there had to be a better way. Looking at how kids interact with the iPad, I thought, “Wow, what a great way to communicate this.” During my research, I was also surprised with how early we should be teaching our kids. It can protect them, give them body awareness, self-confidence. They can delay sexual activity until later on in life if they’re communicating with their parents properly. There’s less incidences of STIs—all these negative health consequences. It was very surprising to me.

There’s really two goals in what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to accomplish awareness in early education, and we’re trying to facilitate communication for the child and parent—and give them the extra support with the sex educator through Beetriz [a feature of the app].

Where does the information in the app come from?

It comes from many books, websites, researchers. We worked with a researcher at SFU. Saleema Noon is our expert here, and she’s local. We collaborated with her on this project, and she’s reviewed all the content. It’s been a year and a half in the making. It didn’t happen overnight.

GoTo Educational Technology’s Birdees app aims to help parents and children talk about sex.

How might a family use the app to explain sex to their kid?

We recommend going through the content first to get a better understanding on how to communicate. To go fishing, you teach them how to fish. You buy them a fishing rod, not just give them a fish. Using the proper language for body parts, you start there and start young. From there, you build a conversation around open communication, asking them a lot of questions first.

If your child comes to you and says, “How are babies made?”, people panic, they freeze. The first thing you should do is throw it back to them. “What do you think? What have you heard?” You have to see where they’re coming from and why they’re asking you to get the context. From there, you can use your language and attach your own values to it. The iTools, they’re very respectful visuals that you can press on, with talking points at the bottom that show parents how they can talk through it. We’re adding to the talking tools and more questions.

How do you plan to handle material for older children and teens?

That becomes a lot more complicated. For the nine to 12—and that’s part of the reason we want a separate app as well—it’ll have a different look and feel. With the younger ages, a lot of the talking points are there for parents. There will be more interactive quizzes. A lot of those interactive sections will be busting myths and misconceptions wrapped around sex and things that they hear. A huge component is, when your parents are not communicating with you and educating you, you’re picking up other things from our sexualized world around us, which is so much more than it used to be—music, Internet. All these ideas about what sex is and sexuality come from these messages, and really we want to look at being the myth busters.

What we’re really trying to encourage parents to do is talk to their children before they get in certain situations when they’re a little bit older, in their early teens. So, if they’re at a party and someone approaches them and they like that person, what would they do in a situation where they were asked to do something they were not comfortable with and still stay safe? We give role-plays that parents and children can go through. You’re giving them the tools later on to get out of a situation that maybe every teenager has experienced.

Birdees is a sex education app designed for families.

Does Birdees acknowledge the diversity of sexuality?

Absolutely, even in the two to five and six to eight, we have a whole section on diversity of families. We go from same-sex couples to single parents to grandparents, different ethnicities, adoption. Our message around that is every family—no matter what it looks like—is just based on love and deserves respect.

How early do you think parents should talk to their kids about sex?

It really depends on the family—as soon as the child is interested. A child who is not ready to hear the answers will not absorb it. It will just go over their head. My daughter came to me at age five. But I have friends where their child was coming at age four.

The mistake parents make is they bring their own baggage into the conversation. When they’re asking how babies are made, it’s just science. It’s just reproduction. It’s not sex at that point. They’re not asking about the sex part. They just want to know how its doable and why. We complicate things as parents because we have all these tie-ups.

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