Being a parent is a humbling endurance event … every day. One minute it can be incredibly rewarding and the next incredibly frustrating. So often when my kids were little I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants. Of all the areas of parenting that send our tails between our legs, I think teaching our kids about their bodies and sexuality is definitely one of the most challenging, uncomfortable and fear inducing. This is largely because 85-90% of people grow up in homes that are mostly silent around issues of sexuality. The deafening silence and loss for words gets passed from one offspring to another. We don’t know how to talk to our kids, because no one knew how to talk to us. We don’t have words to say, because no one had words to say to us. We are at a loss, because our parents were at a loss with us. And so the story goes, from one generation to another.
But with each generation is a desire to figure out how to ‘get comfortable’ so our kids don’t have to feel so in the dark, isolated, ignorant, and naive as we did.
To help in this endeavor … to help us all find the words to give to our kids the knowledge they need to understand, celebrate and take care of their fabulous and beautiful bodies, this will be a mini-blog series for those with toddlers, preschoolers, young grade school and late grade school aged kids. Now, you might wonder, why I would stop here … or you might wonder why I would start here and not start at the junior high age. Well, actually, our kids are in their prime to learn and understand about their bodies, gender and sexuality during ages 2 – 12. If you have not started the conversation by then, they will have absorbed their knowledge from culture, media and their friends long before you have your first conversation. You will be late in the game. Maybe not too late, but later than is ideal. You will see as we go through this series how early childhood curiosities about gender, bodies and sexuality emerge in a child’s life. Ideally YOU want to be their primary voice and resource for accurate information.
We begin with an overview of basic communication guidelines –
1. Remember, your kids want to hear your thoughts and feelings about your values – what is important to you. Kids need to hear your point of view. They want to know the facts, but they also want to hear your stories too. While they want room to form their own thoughts, they want to know how you came to believe what you believe. What experiences led you to where you are now.
2. Don’t wait for them to ask you questions. Some kids ask questions non-stop. These are often the same kids whose every thought is spoken out loud. But many kids are all internal. This kid may not ask many questions. I remember my oldest son did not have an internal thought that was not spoken until he was eight. My youngest daughter on the other hand, was internal from the day she was born. Think of it this way. We do not wait for our kids to ask us about safety issues or how to get dressed before we teach them. We just teach them as we go along and as it is appropriate for them to have the knowledge. Gender and sexuality information needs to be seen in much the same way.
3. It’s OK to not know. I have talked to so many parents who say they don’t broach the subject because they are afraid they won’t know how to be helpful. I have heard kids say right back to these same parents, “It’s ok. You don’t have to know. We can find out together. Just be there with us. Tell us your stories. Don’t judge us. Help us to learn.” They just want you at their side learning with them.
4. You don’t have to feel or look comfortable. It is alright that this topic makes you squeamish, uncomfortable and insecure. Just say so. Tell your child that your parents never talked about this, even tho it is an important and wonderful part of life. But because they never talked about it, it feels odd to talk about it now. You want it to be open and more comfortable for them, so you are learning right along side them to talk about it … and being uncomfortable is ok and natural.
5. Stay watchful for everyday natural moments to teach a new concept. Once we begin to shape our mind to watch for gender issues, relationship issues, and sexuality issues that emerge on TV, in the movies, in articles, in social situations in our kids lives, we find there are natural teaching moments happening all over the place. These kinds of moments allow us to teach a gender or sexuality concept right as it is occurring in its natural context. This kind of teaching helps them understand sexuality, gender and relationships as an integrated and sometimes complex part of life, rather than a separated issue.
6. The facts and the trimmings. One of the downfalls of the kind of ‘sex education’ that is often present in our public schools is that it is a biologically based data driven set of facts that are often completely detached from person or circumstance, context or values, relationship or situation. Kids want to understand the whole picture. They want to understand an issue in a way that makes sense to how they understand and experience the world they are living in right now. What are they expected to understand about their friends, how you treat people, how you treat your body, how you take care of yourself, others, and why. They want to understand whatever aspect of gender or sexuality in a similarly appropriate context as well.
7. Educate both your sons and your daughters. If you have a two parent household, both parents ideally need to be involved in teaching these things to ALL the kids – the boys and the girls. The girls don’t need this more than the boys, any more than the boys need this more than the girls. Both little boys and little girls deserve the right to grow up fully cherishing and understanding their bodies and sexuality. It is wonderful when kids can see and hear information about sexuality and their bodies from both parents in addition to witnessing the parents speaking about it together in front of them. They learn ‘this is an open topic’ my parents talk about this among themselves. It normalizes and destigmatizes the topic and helps them gain more comfort for themselves and trust in you every time they see it modeled and hear it spoken.
8. Plan ahead & Practice! One of the best things you can do is get a book on developmental sexual tasks at each age and prepare yourself ahead of time. This helps reduce the S.H.O.C.K. factor when they do something perfectly normal but perfectly unexpected. You know. The first time they walk in on you and your partner making love! The first time your 5 year old is found naked with her 5 year old cousin each with marking pens creating picassos on each other’s bodies. Knowing what is coming, talking about it and planning for how you want to respond, will help you to be more the parent you want to be in those key moments. (And when you are not … remember you can always go back, and apologize and explain!)
9. Be brief and age appropriate. One of the things we can tend to do as parents is ‘get technical’ when we are uncomfortable. We do just what doctors sometimes do. We talk way to long and way too technically about something that actually just needs a simple straight forward answer. With kids and sex, think about what they are asking and give them a brief, simple answer that fits their age and stage. Ask them after, “Do you want to know more, or is that good for now?” When your kids do ask you questions, ask them first what they already know or what prompted them to ask the question. These questions actually help us as parent to really hear the question they are asking before we launch into what we think they are asking. Also, try to remember that if it is something that is important to your child, no matter how trivial it may seem to you, it is important and needs to be heard with care.
10. What you do is more important that what you say. Remember the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words”? Nowhere is that more true than in teaching your kids about the value of their bodies, sexuality and intimacy. If your child never sees her parents flirting, going on dates, or kissing, it will be hard for her to truly envision the security of a loving partnership for herself. If a child hears about the importance of equality but watches as one parent dominates and silences another, it will be hard for him to securely adopt this belief for himself. Our relationship with our partner sets the stage for our child’s future relationship. It becomes their DNA relationship default. If things are less than ideal, it will be important to help your child understand the discrepancy between what they are experiencing and what you would like for them to be experiencing. This will at least make the circumstances clear and not confusing for them.
11. Remember there is a big difference between childhood sexual curiosity and adult sexuality. It is sometimes hard to remember that children do not think like adults. It has been a long time since we were kids – we forget what it was like or how we thought. But it is unfair, and often shaming, for us to attribute to children or young teens adult motives to sexual curiosities. For example, it is common for 8 – 11 year old girls to touch each other while play acting during sleepovers. It is also common for 11 – 14 year old boys to masturbate at the same time while together. If these kids were to be found by an adult, it would be wrong to attribute sexual orientation assumptions to these behaviors, when we know them to be normal developmental curiosities.
12. Remember to talk often as kids grow up and to include the positive. The two things parents forget most often when it comes to conversations about sexuality and gender is to talk about it OFTEN as it comes up in small ‘sound-bites’ and to include the positive aspects of sexuality and bodies … the joy, pleasure, and beauty. These two small things are huge … they help kids see sexuality, bodies and gender as a normal part of life and they help them not become filled with fear, shame and guilt. They gain a balanced view of sex – the stuff you need to be aware and careful of, as well as the joys and beauty as well. Like so many other parts of life, they gain a complex technicolor picture. The best kind of view.
My favorite piece of research about sexuality education says that parents who manage to talk openly, honestly and often with their kids about bodies, sexuality and gender have kids who describe themselves as closer to their parents overall.
Hopefully these 12 guidelines will help you as you launch on your way as your child’s sexuality educator, and facilitate you having an even closer relationship over all the years to come!!
Next week’s post will be on sex ed with Preschoolers … 3 to 5 year olds …
The following week’s post will be on sex ed with 4 to 8 year olds …
The following week’s post will be on sex ed with 9 to 12 year olds …