When your child was born, you might have looked forward to teaching her to ride a bike or introducing him to your favorite movies or teaching her to play your favorite sport. You probably didn’t eagerly anticipate talking with your child about sex.
Many of us don’t have a good model for such a conversation. Not many of our parents did a super job of talking about sex with us. In fact, when we think about teaching our kids about sex we most often either have absolutely nothing to go on or we have memories of really uncomfortable conversations that ended just about as quickly as they began.
But talking with children about sex is more important than ever. Sexual imagery is all around us and is included in much of the media even small kids enjoy. Sexual exploitation of children is a serious problem. Reserving a talk about the birds and the bees to just a film viewed in the fourth grade is not enough these days. If you’re a responsible parent, you’ve got to step up.
So what’s holding you back? Our own feelings of awkwardness, of course. And we’ll tackle that in a bit. But we make other excuses too. The thing is, our most common excuses are just wrong. Is one of these getting in the way of clueing your kids in to sex?
False Idea #1: If kids know about sex, they’ll want to experiment with sex. Children who know the facts about sex are not more likely than other kids to try out sex for themselves. There is simply no evidence to think they will. But by not telling your children about sex, you give them no tools to counter all the misinformation their friends tell them, and no easy way to ask you for better information. You close the door to open communication and leave your kids outside.
False Idea #2: If I don’t tell my child about sex, she’ll stay innocent and pure. Nope. Not telling doesn’t keep kids in the dark. Kids are curious. Sex is everywhere. If children don’t think you will tell them what they want to know, they’ll find someone who will. Not telling your kids won’t keep them from finding out. What not telling does deprive your kids of, though, is the context of your own values. Your child will not remain ignorant about sex but, if you don’t talk about it, he will remain ignorant of how to think about sex.
False Idea #3: My child is too young to know about sex. If children ask, they’re not too young. Three-year-olds who are about to welcome a new brother or sister into the family quite rightly want to know how this baby got where it is and how it will get out. Naturally, you will match what you say to your child’s ability to understand but your child is not too young to have her questions answered if she’s old enough to ask them. Again, by not telling our kids the truth – at any age – we leave them vulnerable to wrong information. We make a mistake when we hand over the responsibility for sharing information about sexual matters to unidentified others.
False Idea #4: My child already knows everything about sex. It’s true that if you haven’t shared conversations with your child about sex, then he still might have learned quite a bit from his friends or his own explorations. But he can’t know how you feel about the whole thing. He doesn’t have your guidance. So he doesn’t know “everything” about sex if he’s missing your thoughts on sex. Your perspective is an important part in guiding your child’s behavior.
Talking with children about sex is as important as talking to them about how to cross the street safely and why it’s important to eat your broccoli. It’s something good parents do. You could do this. Here’s how.
Start early. By the time your little person is ready to head out into the big world – by kindergarten, in other words – he or she should know “the basics.” Kids this age should know the correct names for genitals of both sexes and should know how babies are made. They should know that their private parts are indeed private and cannot be touched without their permission. If your child is older than five and you haven’t shared this information, the time to do so is now. By the time your child is nine, he or she – both sexes – should know about menstruation.
Answer questions honestly. This doesn’t mean you have to share everything you know, but it does mean that you won’t tell stories or pretty things up. If you want your child to continue to come to you with questions on into his adolescence, you have to demonstrate now that your information can be trusted. Sincere questions deserve sincere answers. Keep in mind that young kids will think the information you share is very interesting, but not embarrassing. This is another reason to start these conversations early… they are much less awkward when kids are young.
Make this a conversation, not a lecture. Think of your conversations about sex as multiple events – this is something you’ll talk about on and off for a long time. So “the talk” is not a one-time lecture, packed with every sort of fact. It’s a conversation that’s suited to the child’s age and ability to understand. When your child asks a question, you will answer that simply – in one sentence – and then wait to see if she asks a follow-up question. Or you’ll wait a moment, then add in another bit that fits with what you just said. Later, or tomorrow, or next week or next month, she’ll ask more questions or you’ll bring this up once again.
Be a friendly resource, not someone who communicates shame, suspicion, and evasion. Any conversation about sex will also communicate your values about family, honesty, and love. Treat your child with respect. Never laugh at him, never tell him he’s too young to know, never tell him to go ask someone else. He’s chosen you. He asked you. Remember, if you want your teenager to tell you what’s going on in his life – including his sex life – then you must build your reputation now, when he’s little.
Teaching children about sex shouldn’t be left to chance. By putting this off, parents risk their kids learning all sorts of things, without the filter of parental values. Open the door to honest conversations about sex right now. When you start early, it’s easy to do.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.