Even though we are immersed in sexual messages, there are few times that we enthusiastically engage in conversations about sex – especially when it comes to our children. I’ll admit, many conversations over the years with my friends, mostly ending in wildly funny anecdotes of the joys of sex and the humility of a failed tryst. And of course, we have conversations with our partners, though these usually take place on a “need to know basis” as opposed to a place of eager participation. As the kids grow older, parents naturally filter conversations based on their child’s age and maturity level. Taking down these barriers can be tricky.
When it comes to talking to our children about sex, we face one of the most demanding of all parenting duties. Sure, we can give the correct names for private parts to our six-year-old, but what can we say to our 14-year-old?
Sex conversations with your own teenager can mimic a trip to Abercrombie: the intensity of youth culture can throw you off-balance even though you know that you are the wisest, most competent person in the room. I’ve witnessed the dazed look of other grown-ups at Abercrombie in the vortex of blaring music, over-sexualized, wall-sized black and white images of “kids,” the oppressive presence of men’s cologne and low, shadowy lighting. We shut down.
Yet, we know these conversations must take place. Therefore we grasp through the onslaught of pop culture for the right message, and we drum up the best version of ourselves for the right tone. Even so, the response from our kids is pretty universal. “Eww!”
Many parents decide, let’s call the whole thing off. The schools handle this. Kids get the moral message at church or at religious education. For some families whose children attend private schools, they expect this to be done for them. This is exactly why they are paying all of that private school tuition. In addition, the pregnancy rate is the lowest that it’s been in decades, and research shows that the numbers of high school seniors who have engaged in sexual intercourse are lower now than they were when we were in high school. 1
But then we catch a simple sitcom on CBS and wait, is this prime time? Two lawyers in a business meeting and now they’re what? Really? And I’m watching this? With my teenager! Let’s face it, the doctors and nurses at Seattle Grace have been having sex at work, for 11 seasons! (Does anyone, besides me think that this is odd?) And have you seen your kid’s phone lately? YouTube? Snapchat? Bumble? Did I mention sexting? Friends with benefits (is that still a thing?) Hook-ups? Sexual assault on campus? Tinder? Have you seen Girls? Oh, and one more thing: porn.
Yes, we need to talk about sex. If you want your child to know your views and your values, you need to use your voice. Once again, we realize that we can’t outsource parenting. It just doesn’t work that way. Just like changing a 3-year-old’s diaper. The grandparents are done with that (they potty-trained you at 18 months.) The preschools won’t do it. Now, it’s up to you. It’s messy, it’s unpleasant, and it’s your job.
To begin, ask yourself, what do you wish you could say to your kid about sex? My suggestion? Say it.
Admittedly, you might have to clean it up a bit, but you could still say it. For most of us, we err on the side of caution. We fear that we are giving our child permission to think about sex and therefore, permission to engage in sex. Research supports the opposite. Those children that are uninformed are at risk.2 What do you wish your child knew about sex? Try telling them, freely and honestly.
We each have our own style of communicating which feels most comfortable. Some parents use humor beautifully. Some are all heart. Some use facts, and some are silly. Find your voice.
My friend “Ginny” who has a houseful of boys and girls uses humor. She jokes about first kisses, pimples, unwanted erections, middle-school dances, girl-clicks, alpha-males, shame, desire and social belly-flops. Somehow, it’s all age-appropriate and the whole family, including her husband, joins in. It’s awesome. The door to sexual content is wide open. As much as I admire this style, I know that this would never work in my house. All kids have an exceptionally accurate radar for inauthenticity. They know bullshit when they hear it. That type of humor is simply not my style.
Another amazing Mom I know has a deep spiritual life and her four girls, ages 8 thru 13 join her in prayer each day. Her house is full of readings focused on living a life of virtue. Her children are delightful: full of energy, polite and kind. When I see her girls dressed in stylish and appropriate outfits I recall conversations about the importance of modesty. My attempts to dissuade my daughter from wearing short-shorts using this message made us both feel shame. She cried, I stammered. It simply didn’t work.
Me? I take a practical approach. And unfortunately, for my children, I sometimes have a hard time keeping my mouth shut. I don’t infuse morality but instead, focus on the natural consequences and every-day realities of sexual interactions. Here is a sample of some of the things that I’ve said to my kids over the years.
On how to get a girlfriend: put the phone down and talk to a girl, face-to-face.
On middle-school dating: everything is a competition, including, how far a boy can get with a girl.
On learning about the opposite sex: platonic friendships are the best.
On sex in high-school: that’s not allowed in this house.
On porn: women do not like to be treated that way. Those people are actors who are acting.
On sexual consequences: since pregnancy and STD’s are adult problems, sex is an adult activity.
On heartbreak: condoms do not protect you against emotional pain.
On why have sex: if it’s to be popular or liked, it doesn’t work.
On campus rape: if you ever see a girl incoherent due to alcohol, it is your job to get her to safety.
On teen pregnancy: your girlfriend is thin and happy. If she becomes pregnant, she will be fat and sad.
On enjoying sex: Wait for it. Wait until you know yourself, know your partner, are in a committed, monogamous relationship, and you can engage in open communication, use protection and oh, let’s not forget, trust, respect, and love. It will be worth the wait.
This approach works for me. I still struggle for the right words, the right time, the right message. When I get the eye-roll, the exaggerated sigh, I know that my timing is bad and I back off. Recently a friend suggested that my message is a bit harsh toward men. My message does tend to be cautionary for girls. When I think about the burden of “prom-posals” for boys in high school and the shy, decent nature of my sons, I worry that he might have a point. I continue to work on my message, and it changes as my children change.
What is your approach? I encourage you to find it. It’s there. Nobody in the world loves your child more than you. Say it. Find your loving-kindness place. Speak from the heart and just say it out loud.
In return, expect silence, outrage, disgust, sarcasm, disrespect or possibly, if you’re lucky, interest. My daughter recently told me, as a side note, that she wished that the teachers explained things more like I do. Wow, that’s a first for me. Within these conversations, anything can happen. Keep in mind, this is only one moment, one conversation and it is not the end game, but a process. Your child deserves YOU. I encourage you to be there.
Please see the following links to what I hope, are helpful resources. The first is a short TED Talk by Julia Sweeney and relays a sex talk with her daughter. This is perfect for parents of young children. Julia Sweeney is wise and funny, and all parents can appreciate her story. The second is a link to a book and other resources by Michael Domitrz. He provides a unique, clear message on the navigation of dating and intimacy for teen years and beyond.