Updated: Dec 4, 2019
I was talking to a good friend the other day. We were exchanging stories about how our tweens are starting to ask questions and I was pretty sure that I had grossed mine out by talking about body hair. My friend admitted that our conversation was causing her to break out in a sweat. She is not alone. Most parents I talk to tend to sweat "the talk" with their kids. But, in our current cultural landscape, we can't put this off. Our kids need us.
Teenage partying, sexual consent, and ethical conduct are dominating the news and it’s nearly impossible to look away. Americans have weighed in to support Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as she recounted the details of her trauma experience. The timing of events have turned political and Hon. Brett Kavanaugh is feeling attacked by accusations of events he does not recall and denies. I’m not here to talk about any of these details. Time will tell how this story ends and how our history is shaped because of it. I am here to talk about our children.
This topic has been on my clinical brain and weighing on my mama heart for some time. We must talk to our children about their sexual health. No more excuses. No more avoiding. And, no more thinking you are done with “the talk” after one conversation. Gone are the days where we can shy away from talking to our children about consent and sex. In my generation, I think it’s safe to say we got a little bit of information from our parents and a lot of information from our friends. But today, if parents don’t take the lead on this, then friends, boyfriends, and Google are their informants. Google does not know your child.
In conversations with parents in my psychology practice, the primary barrier to showing up for “the talk” is a parent’s own uncomfortable feelings. And what do uncomfortable feelings make us do? Avoid, squirm, and make it quick. Trust me, if you are uncomfortable, so are your kids. When we shy away from this conversation, we likely do a poor job of teaching our children about their sexual health, their rights to consent, and the expectations for respecting others’ rights to consent. We don’t think our kids are old enough to know the details, we put it off onto the same-sex parent, or we suffer through it as best we can, often leaving out important information.
Why Are We So Uncomfortable?
More often than not, we recoil when a child starts asking questions like “Where do babies come from?” or “Mommy, why can’t I marry you?” or, my personal favorite from my 5-year-old son, “Mommy, do you have a penis?" We are ill-prepared to field these questions and especially when they are sprung upon us…and they are ALWAYS sprung upon us. No child ever has said, “Dad, I’m planning to ask you about sex tonight, so be prepared.”
We are likely so uncomfortable because I would bet few of us received an open and thorough sex talk from which we can model. And because we never feel prepared for this topic, we fall back on what our parents did, which is likely not what our children need in this current generation of the internet and social media.
So, take a deep breath. It’s time to show up. Do some research. Read about how to talk to your kids about sex from Amy Lang at Birds+Bees+Kids HERE. Read about how to teach consent without even mentioning sex HERE. And then, watch a video about consent with your kids HERE. Our kids deserve to know about their sexual health and their rights. This is how we make an impact on their future.
What Are They Ready For?
If we truly want young people to respect each other’s bodies, we must teach them. Generally speaking, preschool children are ready to learn about body parts of both genders and privacy of these parts. We can teach privacy without making it taboo. We teach young children that private parts are the ones underneath their bathing suit. They shouldn’t show them to anyone other than at a doctor’s appointment or taking a bath and no one should ask to see them without a parent in the room. If you have ever lived with a preschool child, most are not shy about their bodies (yet), so this talk is simply about privacy and safety. Preschoolers can also learn about consent to be in someone else’s space. For instance, when another child does not want to be chased on the playground, we teach children to stop chasing them.
ELEMENTARY to TWEENS
Elementary children are ready to learn how babies are made and about upcoming puberty, body changes, and hormones. This is actually the best time to teach it because they are generally not embarrassed by these conversations with you (yet). They may think an idea is gross or silly, but you can laugh about it together. Tweens need to be prepped on the idea that as puberty begins, they may have feelings of attraction towards others. However, they may not act on this attraction unless it is mutual, just like the playground game of chase.
As tweens become teenagers, their primary mode of socialization shifts from family to peers, so it’s normal for them to talk to peers even more about these topics. However, they will hear all kinds of things that may or may not be true. This is when you really reap the benefits of the trusting relationship you’ve build so that they can ask you about something they heard. And, yes, they are going to Google things. This is why you want to have instilled a healthy sense of critical thinking in them, so that when they read or hear about something that doesn’t sound quite right, they question it and come to you, or another trusted adult, for clarification.
Dads Must Show Up for Girls and Moms Must Show Up for Boys
In my psychology practice, the most discomfort comes from the opposite-sex parent. I know. You are uncomfortable with “the talk” to begin with and you are especially ill-prepared if you are talking about an experience you have never had. When boys ask questions about their penis, moms are quick to say, “Oh, let me get your dad.” When girls ask about their periods, dads opt out and run to get mom. Yes, the same-sex parent may likely have the better explanation that comes with experience, but when we run out of the room, we model that we are uncomfortable with our child’s questions and, thus, send the message that this is an uncomfortable topic.
So, even if your partner does most of the talking, try to be present for the conversation. Think about how powerful it would be for a young girl’s dad to join in on a conversation about consent to be kissed by a boy. Of course it will be awkward, but this is an important moment when a father can help develop his daughter’s vision of male respect. This is especially powerful if you have, or have had in the past, a respectful partnership yourself and can share stories about a kiss between two people who both wanted it to happen. The same is true when talking to boys about consent with their mom present. Boys don’t want anything to happen to their mom, so to talk through respecting girls with their mom present has power. Logistically, both parents won’t be present for all of these conversations. Single parents have been handling both sides of these talks for years. Sharing different perspectives is powerful, and we can share others' perspectives through stories. The intention is that the child receives the message that you are comfortable with any and all questions.
Follow the Questions
You do not need to have all the answers in the moment. In fact, you won’t, because it will almost always be a spontaneous conversation. Good teaching is filled with honest conversations and at times you might need to pause, talk to the other parent, get the book that goes with the conversation, talk to a friend, or Google something yourself to get prepared to explain something on your child’s developmental level. Don’t feel you need to over-prepare and have answers to every question that could come up. Just follow your child's questions. Your child will ask you things you can easily answer. Answer their questions and then stop. The rest of the conversation will continue later. Talking about a child’s sexual health is never just one conversation. Children are developing human beings who deserve to develop their curiosities in conversations over time.
Use Visuals! Here Are My Favorites:
Consider Individual Differences
Consider your child’s specific brain wiring. If your child is impulsive, you are going to want them to understand this limitation prior to their hormones developing. If your child is a literal thinker, you will want to teach the ideas of “some people like this and some people don’t, so if someone says stop, you stop" to help them understand the gray areas of consent. If your child has delayed social skills, it is likely that they may develop hormones earlier than they develop the capacity to understand the nuances of romantic relationships. These are situations in which you may need to reach out to a professional to help walk you through the best way to support your child through puberty.
Above all, you want to start early to build your child’s trust when discussing sexual health. And building trust means that you have to get comfortable with it so you can stay in the conversation as long as your child needs you. You are the safe person with the most accurate information. Again, because Google doesn’t know your child. You've got this!
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