Your child asks how babies are made—and that's only her first question! Don't fret. These pointers will guide you through your ongoing dialogue about sex and sexuality with your kids.
I remember when I finally sat down and had “the talk” with my daughter, A. She was around 6 at the time, and had sparked the conversation by asking about how, exactly, babies got into their mama’s bodies in the first place. I took a deep breath, remembered to keep it simple, accurate, and age-appropriate, and just told her. When I finished the lecture—which, as I recall it now, was probably around the same level of detail what you’ll see in a basic, solid picture book like It’s Not the Stork—she was silent for a minute, then looked at me and said, “I can’t wait to tell Nick!” Nick was her best friend, a fellow first-grader, and a boy. I just laughed. I never did check to see whether she spilled the beans to him, or if he already knew.
That’s not to say it was our last talk about sex. As she grew older, she had more questions, which I answered as directly as I could. (I also slipped a copy of the perennially useful What’s Happening to Me? onto her bedside table, and made sure she had access to my copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves.) I consider myself pretty lucky, as a parent, to have grown up in a family that wasn’t overly embarrassed or horrified by sex; perhaps the best thing my parents did for us in this regard was send us to Sunday School at the Unitarian church, where we encountered the “Our Whole Lives” curriculum, which remains the gold standard for a comprehensive, long-term approach to sex education. Talking to my daughter about her body and the whole realm of sexuality was made immeasurably easier because I had these resources to call upon.
That said, I don’t think it’s easy for any parent. And I still have one more to go: My son M. is 8 now, and hasn’t yet asked directly about sex, although I’m sure he’s curious (and who knows what he may already know, or “know,” courtesy of his friends).
So, partly for my own benefit and partly for you, dear reader, I’ve assembled a list of Do’s and Don’ts to guide us.
1. Don’t think it’s just one talk. Learning about sex and sexuality is a lifelong conversation. A preschool-aged child is curious about why her body looks different than her friend’s. A 9-year-old worries about the first signs of puberty, and wonders whether she’ll be considered attractive to people she wants to date. A 13-year-old has a friend who’s sexually active, and finds herself both fascinated and scared to death. A 20-year-old has seen things at college parties that alarm him. You, the parent, can be there to talk to your son or daughter at all these stages.
2. Do use accurate (and age-appropriate) information and vocabulary. It can be cute to hear little kids talking about their wee-wees and their hoo-hoos, but the pet names can trip you (and them) up later. I’ve wondered whether the rash of male politicians who completely misunderstand female anatomy owes something to their parents’ overuse of euphemism. There’s nothing wrong with penis and vagina (or vulva, if we want to be more accurate about the external parts of female genitalia), and even the youngest can understand uterus (or womb). Storks and cabbage patches may have come up in how our grandparents learned about sex, but now that we know better, we do better. The truth is always better.
3. Do remember you aren’t your child’s only teacher, but you can be the best one. Parents are and should be the first adults to talk to their children about things like how babies are made and what body parts are called, and to pass along their values and beliefs about those things. But once your child is in school and other activities—from church to sports to scouting—she or he will be faced with other messages, some of which might contradict yours. Be not afraid. Speak up. Speak out. Be like the mother who live-tweeted her teenaged son’s abstinence-based (and truth-challenged) sex-ed class. Be like the dad who pointed out the wrong-headedness of a school dress code that sent home his 5-year-old daughter for wearing a sundress. Our daughters and sons will face a lot of foolishness out in the world, a lot of it having to do with sex and sexuality. But parents who have thought deeply about issues—whether about sex education, sexism, rape culture, homophobia, what you have you—we can not only talk to our children about our ideals, we can model their forceful advocacy.
4. Don’t just talk about sex; talk about the whole range issues related to sexuality. Gone are the days when the world is just filled with straight people getting married and having babies—oh, wait, those days never existed! As society begins to recognize (and hopefully, embrace) people of diverse gender identity, sexual orientation, and family formation, part of good parenting is making sure your children are ready to inhabit that world—including sometimes having to do battle with people who still cling to sexism, homophobia, and other symptoms of narrow-mindedness. On a Girl Scout camping trip recently, a lesbian friend of mine watched her 7-year-old and the other girls discuss same-sex marriage. While most of them piped up quite naturally that “anyone can marry anyone!” (let’s hope the Supreme Court agrees!), one of their fellow Scouts expressed her belief that any marriage other than heterosexual was a quick ticket to damnation. What’s a gay mom to do? My friend tried to redirect the conversation: “Let’s just come from a place of love,” she suggested. And while love can’t solve every dispute (and didn’t really resolve this one), I think she’s right that there is no other starting point.
5. Do show your child that you love and respect their body—and your own. Expects agree that one of the things babies need most is loving touch (those delicious snuggles are useful for brain growth and emotional development), but also for them to get the message early on that they are in control of their own bodies (no forced hugs and kisses). Not shockingly, those are good lessons for adults, too. I’m not saying you should let your kids see you have sex (though it’s not the end of the world), but modeling a reasonably satisfied sex life—as well as a sense that you own and love your own body—will provide them a roadmap for the happy, healthy, sexual adulthood you want them to have. After all, you know where grandchildren come from, right?
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