by LaShay Harvey, M.Ed.
Parenting can be simultaneously the most amazing and most terrifying event in life. In one breath, children make you smile and laugh, and in the next, they make you want to give them back to the baby-making gods. As they grow up, the heavy conversations about friends, the importance of brushing your teeth every day, and education show up. You think you knock these out of the park with your amazing parental mantras only to have one topic that hangs around like a pimple just before prom: sex and sexuality. It’s like sprinkling a ton of anxiety on top of an already bizarre situation.
Well, take a deep breath, grab a drink (if you’re into that) and take this journey with me to the land of Awesome Sexuality-Talk Parenting! I’ve compiled a few points here on how parents can create safe spaces to talk about sex and sexuality with their children without feeling weird or awkward. So if you want some anxiety-reducing, minimal sweat-creating ways to approach your children about sex and sexuality, then keep on reading!
1. START NOW!
I mean like, right now. Stop reading this post, find your kid, and start the conversation. Ok, maybe not right this second, since you should probably read this post first so that you have your game plan in order.
Research shows that the earlier children begin sexuality education, the better equipped and more confident they are about sexual decision-making in the future. Children are also less likely to bully others when they are informed about sex and sexuality, no matter how controversial the topic. Here is a question for you: would you wait until your child turned 10 years old to teach them how to brush their teeth? Of course not! That would be too late, right? Exactly. Putting off conversations about sex and sexuality is like waiting to give your child their first toothbrush at 10 and then wondering why their teeth are rotting. No matter the age, children are very capable of processing complex information. Which brings me to the next point…
2. Stay age-appropriate
You could teach your child how to fly to the moon, as long as the information is tailored developmentally for that child. What is most important here is the language used and the amount of information given. You can break down really complex topics like same-sex marriage, orientation, and even where babies come in a way that young children can understand. For example, when a 5-year-old asks where babies come from, they really don’t care about sperm cells, ovulation, vaginal canals, and placentas. They just don’t. They really just want to know how a baby goes from being an abstract thing inside a “stomach” to being a crying, screaming poo-factory that everyone loves so much. And there are many, many creative ways to answer that question and satisfy your child’s curiosity, but a full-on anatomy lesson is not the answer. So think about where your child is developmentally (as evidenced by the sort of questions they ask) and the language they respond to, and blend those together to tailor your answers.
3. Use your child’s learning style
Timing and age-appropriateness are very important to creating a safe and inviting space for children to talk about sex and sexuality. Even more important is making sure that your children comprehend these complex nuggets of knowledge. You can have the best lesson prepared and time it perfectly for their age, but if your child’s learning style isn’t taken into consideration, you may miss the mark completely. Here’s a novel idea: ask your child’s teacher(s) what teaching styles they respond to best in the classroom. If your child is a kinesthetic learner, take them out and do stuff to facilitate sexuality education. If your child loves to read, then give them a book or blog or article to read and follow up with them. If your child loves music, find songs by their favorite artist and use them as tools to discuss sexuality via lyrics. Be careful not to bash their music, even if you think it sucks, because this is more about your child feeling comfortable talking about sex and sexuality with a medium they enjoy than it is you telling them how good music used to be when you were a kid. HINT: lectures rarely work for young people.
4. Remember: Silence is a very loud message
Every semester, roughly three-quarters of my students say sex and sexuality was never discussed in their home. The majority of my students say they were left to “figure it out” on their own, and in some cases this led to poor sexual decision-making. Parents spend so much time building character and teaching responsibility (and begging kids to clean their rooms and brush their teeth) that conversations about sex and sexuality can get placed on the proverbial back-burner. But here is the strangely fascinating thing: children are very perceptive. They recognize what particular topic(s) get the most attention and begin to make their own assumptions as to why this happens. More importantly, when they realize that they are “missing” information they assume you are supposed to teach them, they will attempt to find the information out on their own (from the big, bad, ugly internet!). Avoiding the conversation only adds to the mystery of sex. And it is the mystery of sex and sexuality that entices people to do things that they probably wouldn’t if there was no mystery surrounding them.
5. Talk often—This ain’t Christmas!
Research shows that continuously engaging children in sex-positive conversations reduces risky behavior and delays sexual debut (the age at which a person first has sex). Research also shows that the more parents and children discuss sex and sexuality, the easier it becomes (yes, the awkwardness does go away). Creating safe spaces for your children to discuss intense topics like sexual orientation, identity, gender, and sex has to be done continuously—it can’t be “celebrated” only once a year. I’m not saying you have to talk to your child ad nauseum about it either, because talking too frequently about sex and sexuality could cause your child to shut down, which is the exact opposite of what you want.
6. Relax—This is your child
At the end of the day, this is your child and you can discuss whatever you want to with them. You can follow whatever ethos you have created in your home to help guide you and your child(ren) through the sometimes scary world of sex. Simply by reading this blog post, it is evident that you care about your child’s sexual development, and that is commendable. So relax, take a deep breath, and know that everything will be just fine. Kids are super resilient and so are their parents.
LaShay Harvey, M.Ed., is a sexologist, professor, and researcher from the south, currently living in Baltimore, MD. LaShay teaches a course on sexuality and a course on gender at The University of Baltimore. She also coordinates a study on pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) at The Johns Hopkins University. You can find her at www.LaShayHarvey.com and follow her blog LaShay Holds Court.
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