Let’s Talk About Sex!
I was a pimply faced 16-year old when I was out to dinner with my dad and ran into my girlfriend, who was also out with her dad. We pushed the tables together and had the most awkward dinning experience I can remember. When we left the restaurant, she and I quickly kissed and I got in the car with cheeks so red I thought my dad would call the fire department.
Instead he said, “Son, I think it’s time we had a talk about the birds and the—“ I quickly stopped him. We were silent the rest of the way home.
That was our “talk” and most likely mirrored many experiences of my peers. There were likely a few similar occasions, but they all followed the same formula. Sexual trigger + blushed cheeks = avoid the talk.
My dad’s intentions were spot on. He saw a teachable moment and took a swing. However, educators note that teaching kids about sexuality far pre-date the notorious Birds and Bees talk during our adolescent sexual peak. In fact, from the moment children are born, sexual education begins.
Imagine bathing your kid and calling his feet “footsies” or face “pooch” without ever using the words feet and face. A penis is not a pee-pee and a vagina is not a yah-yah. My favorite book on this subject is called A Very Touching Book, which explores the issue and normalizes our discomfort around naming parts. Another example can be seen in this video, where one college student recalls his confusion over the word Pagina.
A Very Touching book has also been incredibly helpful for understanding childhood sexual abuse and how to teach children the difference between what is Private (good touch) and Secret (bad touch).
Everyone knows the age-old story of the child who asks her parents where she came from. The parent stumbles, then gives a long lecture on reproduction and that having sex means, two people being in love (note: This often occurs in the context of monogamous heterosexuality and fails to mention diverse sexual experiences and orientations). Now feeling overly accomplished the parent checks in with their curious daughter who responds, “So I’m not from Austin?”
To avoid this situation, start by answering any question with a question. This will give you a baseline or sense of what the child already knows, and what the child is actually asking. For example…
Kid: “Mom, where do babies come from?”
Mom: “Where do you think?”
Kid: “Daddy, What’s that man doing to that woman on TV?”
Dad: “Have you seen anything like this before?”
These are great opportunities to communicate and teach healthy, safe, and consensual relationships and sexuality. Take as much advantage of these teachable moments as possible.
Teachable moments happen all the time. It’s just a matter of our awareness of these moments and our ability to bridge the conversation. Any animated Disney film will give you plenty of opportunity to talk about gender roles and body image. Any teen comedy will give you opportunity to discuses responsible sexuality and issues surrounding consent. Any R-rated film will give you the opportunity to educate your children about hyper-masculinity, sexism, and violence against women. The list goes on as the examples are thrown at us from every angle. Billboards taunt sexual ads. Pornography is easily accessible online. Sports Illustrated still has a swimsuit addition. Homophobia bites us at every direction.
Be a conscious consumer with you child. Learn to question these messages and find exceptions and positive moments. Notice healthy relationships on screen or point out ads with respectful creativity. Take moments related to sexuality, relationships and love and bridge it into a conversation.
Take advantage of your young child’s curiosity while they still look to you for guidance and answers. Before you know it, these little, adorable creatures will transition into adolescents and want nothing to do with you. Most likely they will be horny, hormonal, and hungry for experience.
Although the rebellious adolescent may not be the best listener, chances are they are still learning from you. Understand that you are their primary prototype and role model. They watch, observe, and learn form your every move. If you’re a romantic, respectful, and value healthy communication – they too will learn these skills. If you are disrespectful, sexist, and treat your partner poorly – kids may likely adapt these strategies as their own.
If you are concerned, you have a right to be worried and rule bound. In a recent study conducted by the CDC almost 50% of high school students reported having sex, while as many as 40% reported not using condoms.
Teaching adolescents about sexuality takes a sense of readiness. It’s about finding your balance as the authoritative parent and the curious, approachable one. Lead by example and plant the seed that if they have questions or concerns they can bring them to you. Be open and non-judgmental. Help them feel comfortable to be themselves, and teach them that no means no, and that silence does not mean yes.
Caution… These strategies although helpful, do not replace how difficult it is to have these conversations. It will feel awkward and that is okay.
I often provide my clients with a handout called the Dating Bill of Rights and Relationship Red Flags. I have also recommended the book, The Guide to Getting it On, which I have found to be honest, raw, and informative for both adolescents and adults. It is a helpful resource for a teen because it will answer all the Birds & Bees stuff for you. This way, you’ll avoid most the blushing. I trust in this information but encourage you to keep finding teachable moments to talk about with your kids.
If all else fails, and you need help with this process – call a therapist.
We are here to help.
Stay tuned for part 3…