Talk sex with your kids – For many of us, “the sex talk” went something like this: Mom and/or Dad sat you down at the age of, say, 12, announcing, amid sighs and seat shifting, that it’s time to learn about “the birds and the bees.” The conversation takes about two minutes because everyone’s so uncomfortable. Mom and/or Dad may explain, in briefed unsexy terms, the physical mechanics that happen between two loving adults, and then leave you with an approximate nanosecond for questions, then there is a silence and flows by I think that went well,” Mom and Dad may say to you, each other, or themselves, after another major exhale. The end.
What’s wrong with this picture? All of it It’s no one’s fault, really. We’re left with a centuries-old legacy that has made sex taboo, teen sexuality expert and author of Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex. However, kids who grow up in families where sexuality is openly discussed are not just healthier and happier, but they also postpone participation in a range of risky behaviors including sexual activity, talking with your kids is protective … a buffer against what goes on around them. As someone who had no knowledge about sex growing up and taken advantage of, I feel it’s necessary and important to write this article.
Efforts by public schools to correct misinformation from the street and lack of information from home often leave out a critical ingredient: the moral framework within which the facts about reproduction should be presented. Without an ethical context, sex education becomes little more than basic training in anatomy, physiology, infectious diseases and contraception.
Many churches have made laudable efforts to teach biblical principles of sexuality to their youth groups. But these important concepts are not always accompanied by accurate medical information or refusal skills. Furthermore, youth-group presentations usually begin late in the game during the teen years and rarely involve an on-going dialogue about this subject.
As we know, today’s youth live in a highly wired world, in which media exposure brings an onslaught of sexual subjects, oftentimes presented in superficial and distorted terms. “They’re seeing sex divorced from intimacy” and “from critical thinking, so what are kids actually doing these days?
According to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted every two years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse, down from 54 percent in 1991. By their 19th birthday, 7 in 10 Americans have had sex, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank focused on sexual and reproductive health. We can talk with our youngsters about the strong, pleasurable feelings they might have about people—whether those people are movie stars, famous athletes, or someone down the street. It’s helpful to remind youth that there are many healthy ways to express sexual feelings and that sexual intercourse is only one form of sexual expression.
Young people’s reactions often make them want to be close to the other person, to hug or kiss, or to be sexual with her/him. These feelings are enormously important in youth’s development. We should affirm our kids’ feelings, with clarity about our family’s values about sexuality and relationships. We can also talk about the possibility that strong feelings can be managed in appropriate ways. The pleasurable aspects of fantasizing about a famous person or of having a real-life relationship are valuable to everyone, and as parents, we play a critical role in helping young people to understand the meaning that these feelings can have for them now and in the future. We need to remember that young people explore their sexuality as part of a process of achieving sexual maturity and that adolescents are capable of expressing their sexuality in healthy, responsible ways.
Everyday life provides lots of opportunities for talking about sexuality.
When watching a TV show that shows a young person going through puberty or going out on a date, seeing an ad that prompts thoughts about body acceptance, or running into a pregnant neighbor, we can use that to initiate conversations with our children. These teachable moments occur every day and can help make the conversation easier and more natural. Teenagers benefit from conversations that identify the differences between love and lust and the self-esteem that comes from responsibly managing these feelings. Part of this conversation is about the positive feeling of intimacy that people can have without sexual intercourse. Getting emotionally close to another person, taking the risk of telling someone our thoughts and feelings with the hope that the feelings will be returned—this can be enormously pleasurable and also frightening. Young people need help in understanding this, and they especially need our support through their first dating relationships, even though teens often try at this time to push us away in their attempts to become more independent. This dynamic is developmentally appropriate, and we, as parents, should appreciate the fact that our teens will seem to be paying much more attention to their peers than to us. Nonetheless, we are critically important throughout this process, and we need to continue to be involved in our youngsters’ lives (although we should be less controlling than we were during their puberty).
If our parent-child conversations continue to balance messages about responsibility, healthy decision making, and values with messages about the positive and pleasurable aspects of developing relationships, we can continue to have close and caring relationships with our teens—relationships that will support our young people’s healthy sexual development.
- Ages 2 to 3: The right words for private body parts, such as “penis” and “vagina”
- Ages 3 to 4: Where a baby comes from. But they won’t understand all the details of reproduction—so a simple “Mom has a uterus inside her tummy, where you lived until you were big enough to be born” is fine.
- Ages 4 to 5: How a baby is born. Stick with the literal response: “When you were ready to be born, the uterus pushed you out through Mommy’s vagina.”
- Ages 5 to 6: A general idea of how babies are made. (“Mom and Dad made you.”) Or if your child demands more details: “A tiny cell inside Dad called a sperm joined together with a tiny cell inside Mom called an egg.”
- Ages 6 to 7: A basic understanding of intercourse. You can say, “Nature [or God] created male and female bodies to fit together like puzzle pieces. When the penis and the vagina fit together, sperm, like tadpoles, swim through the penis and up to the egg.” Explain what you think about sex and relationships. For instance: “Sex is one of the ways people show love for each other.”
- Ages 8 to 9: That sex is important, which your child has probably picked up from the media and their peers. A child this age can handle a basic explanation on just about any topic, including rape. (“Remember when we talked about sex being part of a loving relationship? Rape is when someone forces another person to have sex, and that’s wrong.”)
- Ages 9 to 11: Which changes happen during puberty. Also be ready to discuss sex-related topics your child sees in the news.
- Age 12: By now, kids are formulating their own values, so check in every so often to provide a better context for the information your child’s getting. But avoid overkill or you’ll be tuned out.
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