[This is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Read Me: A Parental Primer for The Talk“]
It’s now or never, baby! You’ve put it off, but you can’t any longer. Your kid is getting info from other sources that may or may not be healthy or correct. It’s time for you as a parent to do what many parents have dreaded before you. That’s right. It’s time for the talk. Don’t worry! I’ve got you covered. Below are my sure-fire tips for getting you through this critical time.
Relax and know that your anxiety or nervousness about this topic is not your child’s.
Relaxing may not do much to ease your own discomfort at the moment, but please don’t let it paralyze you around a topic that has so much to do with helping your child develop a healthy adult sexuality.
Adults sexualize non-sexual situations.
A child touching his/her genitals is not the same goal-oriented experience we adults have come to identify as masturbation. But our experience is not our child’s experience. Sometimes children are just merely exploring – do you have parts that are different than what I have? For example, if you stumble upon toddlers playing doctor with each other, a calm response or redirection works positively for the children’s natural curiosity. Then you can talk to the child about what they wanted to know or see. A parents’ shocked reaction can unnecessarily emotionally scar a child.
Realize you are not alone.
There are a lot of parents out there that want to do the right thing. Others just don’t know what to say/do or when. That’s why you need to have good resources. There are lots of sex-positive sex educators out there who have answers to your questions. There is an educator for every audience and subject. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing who to ask. I have a fantastic group of friends in what I lovingly call The League of Sex-Positive Heroes I go to if I don’t know the answer myself (reference list in my book).
Remember, sexuality is natural.
It is a normal human behavior like eating. And remember too, shame is a learned negative emotion that makes a person feel unworthy.
B) Plan ahead.
Talk to each other.
What worked (or didn’t work) for you when you were growing up? Do you have a philosophy? Make a plan to figure out who will say what. Some boys want to hear about sex from dad and about relationships from mom. Some girls prefer to hear about the physical changes, etc. from mom and about relationships from dad. But if you do not have both genders in your household, don’t worry. Your kids still want to hear from you because you are their parents.
There is never a perfect time to talk about sex.
Waiting for the right time to talk to your child about sex is sort of like waiting for the right time to have a baby – if you wait too long, it will never happen. Sometimes, when puberty education starts in school, (most often 4th or 5th grade!) parents want to coordinate having “The Talk” with their children. Waiting until a child is nine or 10-years old is waiting too long. If you have waited – please start now. Pro tip: When a child is strapped into seat belts, these children become a captive audience. There are opportunities to chat if you become adept at identifying them.
In sex matters, adults want to know they are “normal.” Kids are no different.
Why do you think kids ask those comparative questions, like, how old were you when you got your period? What’s the earliest a boy has a wet dream? They just want to make sure everything is happening when they think it’s supposed to happen. Puberty, in particular, can have such a huge range for the age at first onset. Early bloomers get anxiety about being first, thinking there’s something wrong with them. Late boomers worry there’s something wrong with them because things aren’t changing yet. Tell them your story, and they most likely will relax a bit. Chances are they will follow you or their other parent regarding development.
Try to give only accurate, honest information to your child.
In particular, do not supply incorrect info. For example, to tell your daughter that kissing causes pregnancy might make her second guess giving dad or any other male relative a kiss. You may think this little lie is protecting your child, but in reality, it is not. Giving them incorrect information will only undermine you as an authority. Be honest. Answer directly, in one sentence as best you can. Let the child drive the next question.
Respect your child’s experience.
Most parents don’t want to consider their children will one day grow up and be sexual. As much as we would love for them to remain children forever, they will grow up, hopefully with your guidance and communication. In reality, they will grow up whether you want that or not. Don’t fast forward in your mind too soon. There are plenty of years for that. Stay in the here and now. They’re still children and focus on figuring out what will help them now to develop a healthy adult sexuality.
C) Start talking early and do so often.
This is not just for your child’s benefit – it’s for your best interest as well.
Attaining a sense of ease and comfort around the necessary words is a beautiful thing when the more difficult conversations will come. Starting in infancy when you are changing diapers, a parent can say, “I’m wiping the urine off your penis” or “Let’s get that anus clean” or “looks like you need some diaper rash cream on your vulva.” Get used to saying the proper names now, and it gets easier later. Reframe if it’s easier.
Think about these conversations this way: Our children learn math and some of its basic concepts when they are toddlers. They learn one block, two blocks, three blocks, etc., Then over time, we teach them how to add and subtract. Hopefully, they’ve gotten those concepts down when we add into the mix multiplication and division– and so on. The same approach follows with discussions about sex and sexuality. You can’t teach a child basic math when they already know multiplication.
Start naming the parts of the body – using the anatomically correct terms.
Would you ever tell your daughter her nose was called something else? Would you tell your son his ear was called some different or goofy word? Why would you treat the genitals any differently? I know saying these words out loud can be embarrassing. Children, especially tweens and teens, know what’s embarrassing to you. If you hide the words or say them secretively instead of matter of fact, the chances are good that your child will put you in an embarrassing situation in a grocery store. However, if you are honest – like “I didn’t have anyone to talk to me about this stuff, so it’s a little uncomfortable for me to talk about this with you, but I think it’s important that you get the info I didn’t,” chances are they’ll respect that honesty.
Talk to your church leaders and schools.
Make sure the information they are giving to children about sex/uality is accurate and honest. If they take a position on something, make sure they own the values and motivations behind their teachings. Make sure neither church nor school is lying to the children. The cost of finding out the “authorities” were incorrect can undermine that authority and the respect for same. Kids won’t go back to that resource again.
Praise your child for coming to you.
“I’m so glad you asked,” is a great way to stall and take a moment to get your thoughts together before moving on to the question at hand.
Answer questions as they come up.
Alternately, you can bring up the topic when you notice something noteworthy, like an ad on TV or a billboard along the road. When the thing you see is NOT a good example, talk about why.
To find out what your child knows about sex, the simplest way to find out is to ask them.
D) Know why you feel the way you do about sex.
Ask yourself why you feel the way you do about sex and sexuality
– Especially if you are preaching something OTHER THAN what you practiced in your own life. If your behavior doesn’t match the values you espouse, your children will pick up on that hypocrisy. A crude example is a man who denounces abortions when really he once encouraged his partner (or mistress) that got pregnant to have one. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a terrible approach for parenting.
Keep in mind that avoiding these critical conversations makes children vulnerable. Pedophiles groom children to be silent and secretive, so if parents are framing sex to be secretive or shameful, then parents can be unwittingly laying a foundation for their children to be unable to talk about if or when things happen sexually without shame or guilt. Think about our culture of disrespect and the #metoo movement – lots of women don’t come forward because they fear they won’t be believed or that somehow they asked for it. Our children don’t deserve to feel like this if they need help.
Remember the frame of reference.
That first touch of their genitals as infants may have been a random act, but the fact that touching those parts feels good is NOT random. It’s pleasurable. Children touch their genitals; it feels good. Once it feels good, classical conditioning and learning begin. It will cause them to want to feel good again. Our genitals are always with us, within arm’s reach! The shame starts that first time a parent yells and slaps their hand away, or otherwise stops the behavior in an abrupt, shaming way. It’s easy enough to whisper, “honey, that’s something people do in the privacy of their bedroom or bathroom at home” if the child is touching themselves in a public place. The best you can do is give your child information about appropriate place and hygiene. Yes, it feels good, and it’s ok for them to touch their own body, but it’s best to do that with clean hands and in a place where they are not going to be disturbed or where they might disturb others. Consider this: if you were caught doing something you didn’t realize you shouldn’t be doing, wouldn’t you want someone to redirect you in the most polite, quiet way possible?
Stay in the here and now. They’re still children. If I guess, you want your child to have good, happy, positive experiences to develop a healthy adult sexuality. Experiences as good as you had –perhaps even better than you had.
Physical touch feels good.
Not all touch is sexual touch. Once my child became a tween, I noticed more interest and inquiries into the topic – more than I expected. My child is not alone either: there were lots of parents in my daughter’s grade who noticed more awareness in their kids. Of course, it’s not universal; there are plenty of children at that same age that don’t show any outward interest in sexuality, at least none that the parents saw. We do plenty to shame other adults. Do we want to do this to our children, too? Sex has the potential of being a delightful experience; however, since lots of us didn’t have that experience we can’t conceive of it for others either.
If all else fails, Get help.
Kids respect when you call in reinforcements.
E) Think K.I.S.S.
Lots of parents think that talking to children about sex is about sexual positions.
To me, it’s more fundamental than that. In my opinion, there are 5 Building Blocks to a Healthy Sexuality – Communication, Consent, Respect, Pleasure, and Fantasy. These are the core concepts that a parent should keep in mind when talking to their children about sex; that it’s about an all-encompassing experience than just sexual positions and sex terms and other technical sex stuff.
Please note that the underlying theme in all of these reasons is shame.
To paraphrase Brene Brown, while guilt says, “ I feel bad,” shame says, “I AM bad.” It is self-driven.
In summary, I would say there are dozens of good reasons why parents SHOULD talk to their children than finding excuses not to. There is plenty of incorrect information out there. Would it be so harmful to a child to be armed with facts that can keep them safe? Information that can help them make healthy decisions when the time comes?
I’m not a big fan of leaving these critical conversations to anyone else. Parents are the BEST source of values, morals, personal motivations, and ethics about sex and sexuality. This post is a section of the book I wrote called “Read Me: A Parental Primer for “The Talk.” My book contains more detail on these concepts and more.