Talking to Children about Sex – Transmitting Your Values and Attitudes about Sexuality

Most parents worry and wonder about talking to their children about sex. The thought of it causes much angst, stress and confusion and raises many questions: When should I start? What should I say? How much should I tell them?

Remember that how you handle these issues is a very personal decision and will vary from family to family. There is no one right way to approach this important and intimate issue and each parent will need to consider his own values, his own comfort level, and use his own judgment about what he wants his children to know and when.

Just for starters, it is good to know that it is never too late and it is never too early to raise the issue of sexuality and begin sex education and discussion! You may wonder how it “could never be too early” to address the issue of our children’s sexuality?” The truth is that this topic is much broader than simply telling your children the ‘facts of life,’ having the “birds and bees” discussion, or the answering the question “Where do babies come from?”

 

Infants

As soon as your baby is born, you will begin his introduction into the world of sensuality, closeness, physical contact, and feeling comfortable with his own body. By believing that a person’s body and his sexuality is a wonderful part of life, you convey these messages early on, without saying a word. By your gentle attention to his body, by caring for his bodily functions, by rubbing his back or his head, by hugging and holding him, you are teaching him to care for and to value his own body. Through lovingly meeting his physical needs and through the respectful way you hold and touch him, he will learn to expect respect from others as he grows. Throughout your child’s life, you can reinforce this lesson by modeling an attitude of caring for and treating your own body and your partner’s body with respect and dignity.

 

Babies

As your baby grows a bit older, he will begin to explore all aspects of his body. Just as you see him holding and waving his hands slowly in front of his face, or touching his feet, you will also see that he is exploring all parts of his body. Allowing him to do so without judgment on your part is another way that you can communicate to him that all parts of his body are positive and can bring him pleasure. Just as you might name their mouth when you are feeding them, you can name their genital parts as you are changing their diapers.

 

Preschoolers

With verbal skills and increased curiosity about the world as children mature come questions about all sorts of things, including questions about birth and babies. Remember that toddlers and preschoolers think in very concrete terms, and you can answer their questions in very simple ways. Don’t read more into their questions than they mean – you know the story about a child who asks her mother where he came from, and after the mother goes into a long and pained explanation about parents loving each other, an egg and a sperm, etc., the child responds with: “Kim said she is from New Jersey. Where did I come from?”

Using the correct adult words for parts of the body related to sexuality helps to make talking about them more matter-of-fact and not something secretive, mysterious or forbidden. It allows parents to talk directly about sex organs and their functions rather than walking around the subject of sexuality. For example, you can say to your four year old, “The new baby is growing in Mommy’s womb. This is a special place that a girl has where babies grow until they are ready to be born.” If you tell him the baby is growing in Mommy’s tummy, he may get confused because he probably has heard that food goes into a person’s tummy. Simple, specific information is what young children need, not babyish words or long explanations.

Respond to their questions clearly and simply, and wait to see if they ask more or need more follow-up. Offer only as much information as they seem to be looking for. Little ones can only take in small bits of information offered in the form of simple explanations. If they ask questions, you can ask them first what they think about the issue in order to get their perspective.

 

Elementary Age Children

As your children grow, there will be many opportunities that will arise in everyday life to discuss issues of sexuality that are appropriate for their age. These teachable moments are simple, ordinary situations that occur in the normal course of living: your dog has a litter of puppies, your neighbor has a baby. All these kinds of situations offer an opportunity for you to teach, impart information, communicate your values, and help your children to feel comfortable talking to you about sexuality. The most effective approach is to be calm and matter-of-fact so that your children begin to understand that sexuality is a normal part of life.

There are books you can read with them and you can use television and other media (advertisements, movies, YouTube videos, current news events) as jumping off points for discussions of values, behaviors, consequences and facts. Sometimes just leaving a book on the counter is enough to get your kids to read and ask questions. For young children, the book, Where Did I Come From, is a classic and for older children, What’s Happening to My Body book for girls and one with the same title for boys are filled with important information for your children to have.

During the later childhood years, often called the latency age, kids really just want the facts, not long drawn out explanations. They also tend not to be interested in the opposite sex and primarily want to learn about their own bodies. Keep talking to your child during this time so that you know that he is receiving correct information (there is a lot of chatter about sexuality at this age among same-sexed children but what they are saying is often not accurate.)

In order to be the source of most of a child’s information about sexuality, it is important that parents begin communicating openly early in their children’s lives, ideally before the teenage years, when hormones and interest in sexuality rear their heads. Throughout children’s lives, parents can communicate both verbally and nonverbally that sexuality is more than just sex and is a wonderful part of our total being, to be nurtured and respected.

 

Preteen Years

During the preteen years, it is important that you are available to counter many of the fallacies that your children are receiving from their peers and from the broader culture and mass media. Often the values of these outside sources do not coincide with the values that you want to teach your children. You can take advantage of some of the reality television, music and videos that your children are exposed to: ask them what messages are being communicated and what they think about those messages. That can open a dialogue in which you can gently let your kids know your feelings about the issues raised.

At this age, your children are very interested in and aware of all the changes that are taking place in their bodies, providing another opportunity for you to give information and communicate your values. You can take advantage of their curiosity at this time to share facts about sexuality, intimacy, dating, relationships, even sexually transmitted diseases. If you are not sure of the facts, you can check online or find books that you or your children can read. Your children will be able to use all this knowledge to make responsible decisions about their sexuality as they get older.

Sometimes it is easier for both you and your child to have these conversations when you are engaged in a task – cooking, weeding the garden, on a long car-ride. Then you don’t have to establish eye contact, and when you finish the task, you can be done with the conversation and move on to something else that is not so serious and is more fun.

 

Adolescence

During adolescence, teens still want their parents’ approval and still want a connection with them, but on their terms and their time-frame. Because teens are aching to become an adult, but often chafe at the idea that we expect them to act like one, this is a trying time for everyone. Most teens have mood swings that baffle their parents who are trying to make sense of it all. In their efforts to separate from their parents, teens often become critical, withdrawn and sensitive, and may be disrespectful as they do so.

With all the changes emotionally, physically and socially that teenagers experience during this time, teens feel disconnected from their previous, younger selves. One of their big questions during this time is whether they are normal. Even though you may have discussed these upcoming changes during their preteen years and earlier, before their hormones started raging and the radical changes have begun to take over, your kids will benefit from “refresher” talks since they will now hear the information differently. It is a good time to re-visit the facts about how their bodies are changing – and also what changes are occurring in the opposite sex – they are noticing it all so you may as well be the source of factual information that will help them accept themselves and make healthy decisions.

You can normalize what they are experiencing while also validating their concerns, anxieties, pride and excitement that is part of being a developing adolescent who is growing in fits and starts toward his new “more adult” self. Opportunities will arise for you to have talks dealing with the details of relationships, love, sex, crushes, pregnancy, birth control, menstruation, masturbation, etc. etc. Again, you can share your values and what your beliefs are about all of these topics.

Don’t underestimate the influence you can have on your children’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors even though they may seem to be pushing you away. In a national survey of teens, 80% said their decisions about sex and relationships are influenced by “what their parents have told them.” Teens who have a close relationship with their parents are less likely to become sexually active at an early age.

For more information about talking to your teens about sex, click here.

 

Uncomfortable Talking? Do It Anyway!

Most parents are uncomfortable talking about sexuality and sex specifically. Many of our parents did not talk with us about these issues. They hoped we would learn it somehow – from friends , books, a doctor or from health class. As Barbara Coloroso says in her book Kids Are Worth It, kids learn about their sexuality one way or another, even if it is not their parents doing the teaching. Often what they learn from peers or the media is misinformation and exaggeration and can be confusing or frightening for them.

Not talking is still communicating a message: if parents avoid talking about sexuality, they give the message that it is off limits, that they don’t want to talk about it, that being a sexual being is wrong, and that their children should not come to them with their questions , commentary and concerns. If we want our children to be informed and knowledgeable, the best way to ensure this is by talking to them ourselves.

If you find these conversations difficult to have, especially when your kids become preteens and teens, the experts say to have them anyway – there is too much at risk in terms of your kids’ health and well-being to leave your child’s sex education up to the mass media or to their peers or even to the health education program in their school. If you are too embarrassed, you can have an older sibling, cousin or close family friend broach the subject with your teen.

It will be helpful if you are clear about what your values are regarding sexuality and that you communicate these to your children, little by little, as occasions present themselves. The most important part of this equation to remember is that if you have a positive, close relationship with your children, they will be more open to listening to what you have to say, will want to hear your opinions, and will be more influenced by your values as they form their own.

 

How To Begin and Continue to Communicate

Talking to your kids about sex does not encourage them to become sexually active. Rather, it strengthens your relationship and helps your child to have a healthy attitude about sex and make healthy decisions about their sexuality throughout their lives.

  • Start early – don’t wait for the “Big Talk” . . Life is learned in snippets over time.
  • Present the facts . . . Name all the body parts using the correct words.
  • You are your child’s first teacher: It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I need to think about it.”
  • Learn accurate information and pass it on in age-appropriate ways.
  • Try to be honest. If you are uncomfortable, tell your child you’re having a hard time. Maybe your parents never talked to you and you are blazing a new trail.
  • Seize the moment: When they ask, tell. If they don’t ask, use your pregnant belly, a friend’s or even a stranger’s to open up conversation. Use books and everyday opportunities to talk: a story in the news, a program on TV, or songs on the radio.
  • Find out what they are asking. The question may require just a simple answer. Ask, “What do you think?” Or “Tell me what you know.” You may be surprised by what you hear and talking will bring you closer.
  • Create an open environment: Listen more, speak less, especially with the ‘older’ crowd. Shift from facts during the younger years to more about feelings as children grow and mature.
  • Put your child’s safety first. People die from AIDS. Sexually transmitted infections like herpes or Chlamydia become lifelong problems. Be prepared to talk about the seriousness of the issues.
  • This stuff can be hard to do! If you are not comfortable, enlist the help of a friend, relative, health care professional or religious leader.
  • Talk to the opposite sex child as well as the same sex child. Get your partner involved.
  • Know your values. Explore your own attitude about teenage sex, dating, abortion, contraception, masturbation, childhood sex play, family nudity, etc.
  • Communicate your feelings, especially with pre-teens and teens. Ask them what they think and how they feel.
  • Talk about sex within the context of a loving relationship: What it means to be in love and making decisions about when is the right time to share your body with someone else.
  • Talk to your children about what makes a healthy relationship and what would constitute an abusive relationship.

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