How do kids learn about sex? More importantly, how do they learn how to learn about sex? Do they feel comfortable coming to you about sex? Really?
Are you sure?
Most of us say, or will say, “You can talk to me about anything.” And we expect our kids to believe us. But, in reality, we give about a million messages that this isn’t true without even realizing it. Especially about sex. Our body language, tone of voice, rhythm of speech, mannerisms and emotional state give a child a strong indication of whether or not a subject matter is safe.
And, right from the start, many of us are giving messages that sex is not a safe topic.
Here are some problematic messages we give and strategies for doing things differently.
Problem 1 : Gag Order
We can’t or won’t say the names of a body part without laughing, giggling, blushing or stuttering. Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Scrotum. Yep, they exist and that is what they are called. End of story.
Strategy: If you feel anxious saying (or even reading) these words, your homework is to go home and say them out loud in front of a mirror until you can do it without flinching. If you want your kids to talk about those parts with you, you absolutely must show them that you can tolerate those words and body parts.
Problem 2: Nervous Reactions
We get anxious when we see our children touch their own bodies. We get uncomfortable and worried. We gasp and flutter and stumble around and tell them to stop immediately or say something like, “Put that away!” Our discomfort with this is clear. Visions of angry school marms with rulers or hairy palms or crazy sex starved maniacs in back alleys come to mind, and we just can’t deal. So we tell them to stop. The truth is that none of those things have anything to do with what they are doing, which is simply self-exploration. Kids touch their bodies. Every part of their body. When they are toddlers or preschoolers, they will do it in front of you. When they are older, they will do it behind closed doors. But rest assured. They will do it. And it is normal. No wait… It’s healthy for them to do so. Their bodies are their bodies and those bodies are important and healthy and beautiful. They are figuring them out and, in order to do that, they have to connect with them. And that means touching them. Breathe. Just because your preschooler talks about how his penis is magic doesn’t mean he will be a chronic masturbator. He is just figuring things out.
Strategy: If your child is engaging in self-exploration in an acceptable place (bathroom, bedroom, etc.), let them be. Walk away. You don’t even have to comment. Just let them be. If you are concerned about the location say something like, “You are thinking a lot about your penis right now. We are at the dinner table. So, you can either excuse yourself to the bathroom or wait until after dinner. Which one works for you?” If the child wants to talk about it, for example they say, “But my penis is really interesting/hurting/magic,” you can be open to the communication, even though the behavior isn’t okay at the table. You can say, “We can definitely talk about how your penis is interesting/hurting/magic right now, but if you need to look at it you will need to go to the bathroom.” It is okay to set limits and boundaries for where and when a child can self explore and at the same time encourage them to share their thoughts. Penises are okay dinner table topics of conversation, but penises have to stay inside underwear while we eat. Reasonable.
Problem 3: Role Modeling Self Loathing
We say negative things about our own bodies. I’m too fat. I’m not pretty enough. My body is unacceptable. Kids are struggling with so many challenging, exciting and sometimes painful changes to their own bodies. When we spend time and energy criticizing our own bodies, it is hard for them to believe that they can trust us to give non-judgmental feedback on theirs. If we want to teach our children to love, respect and cherish their own bodies, and to come to us when that is hard to do, we first have to model that we are capable of this for ourselves.
Strategy: Deal with your own body issues. Get a therapist, a coach, a self-help book. Whatever helps you come to terms with your own body. It’s really important. Not just because it will make your life better to stop waging war against your body, but it will help your kids develop a healthy relationship with their own body. Short of that, never, ever say anything other than loving things about your body, or anyone else’s body, in front of your children.
Problem 4: Not Now, Not Ever.
We set up times to have “the talk” and give the message that we won’t or can’t tolerate talking about these things at any other time. We say things like, “Come here, sit down, we are going to have a talk.” Cue doom music and you can pretty much feel everyone’s heart rate increase. Exact opposite of comfortable. Have this happen every time sex is the topic of conversation and then expect kids to want to talk to us? Not gonna happen. And if they do venture to bring up something sex-related, and we say something like, “Now is not the time to talk about that” or “You’re too young to be in love” or “Don’t worry about that yet” or “Someday I will explain it to you” or “Go ask your father,” we are putting them off from asking again. Saying “Not Now” repeatedly equates to telling a kid “Not ever”.
And it is important to realize that “sex-related” questions don’t actually have to be specifically about sex. It may be a three-year-old asking if the lady at the grocery store has a penis. It may be a four-year-old saying they want to marry the neighbor lady. It may be a 6-year-old asking what “French kissing” is after hearing the word on TV. It may be a quiet comment from a 9-year-old about having a girlfriend. It may be an 11-year-old asking for deodorant for the first time. Each of these questions is, in fact, about sex. And how we respond tells our child whether they can in fact come to us. If we dismiss the question or freak out about french kissing, how will we respond if they ask about condoms?
Strategy: Throw the idea of “the talk” out the window. Rather than working on “the talk,” work on “talking.” Respond seriously and genuinely any time your kid asks any question about bodies, relationships or sex. Make talking about bodies as normal around the house as talking about milk or laundry or sports. It’s a part of life. It’s something we talk about. A lot. Whenever. Where ever.
Telling our kids they can come talk to us about sex is pretty irrelevant. They know whether they can or not. We show them whether they can or not thousands of times. It is not our ability to say we are available to talk that counts. We must actually be available, all the time. From day one. So, come on. Say it out loud with me… Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Scrotum. Now, let’s talk.