There’s no denying that talking to the kiddos about sex can be a daunting task. I know I’ve floundered plenty when talking about it with my own son—and I’m a sex educator.
Child psychologist, Dr. Jillian Roberts, understands both the challenge and the importance of starting conversations about sexuality early. That’s why she’s developed The Facts Of Life, an interactive app that helps parents and young kids start talking about the basics of conception—one question at a time.
The app is a series of screens, each with a simple child-like question about the basics of how babies are conceived, accompanied by preschool-appropriate pictures. After one clicks to get the answer to the question, users have the ability to select from two options: “Tell me more” or “That’s enough.” The interface is simple enough for children to navigate; however, it’s Dr. Roberts' hope that parents will explore the app with their kids and use it as a jumping off point for further discussion.
Dr. Roberts was kind enough to chat with me about how she developed the app, where it’s going next, and why she feels it’s more important than ever for parents to start talking to their kids about sex as soon as possible.
What inspired you to develop The Facts Of Life?
I am a child psychologist and I’ve got three children. Over the past five years, I’ve noticed kids have so much more access to anything online. Children are easily exposed to inappropriate content earlier. Families do the best they can with parental controls but given how much is out there you can’t really control what children will be told on a playground or a soccer team or whatever. I am encouraging parents to talk with their children about sexuality from the beginning. My hope is that by making those conversations normal...if the child should stumble upon something inappropriate their natural response would be to go talk to a parent.
As I’ve been telling parents—talk to your children! I’ve been having parents tell me, “I don’t know how to talk to my child. How do you talk to a five-year-old about sexuality? How do you begin that conversation?” So the app is very simple and I want it to model four things: a need to [talk about sex] early; how to tell a young child about sexuality; how can we tell them truthfully and accurately but not graphically; how important it is for a child to ask questions; and for children to be empowered and in control of how much information they are getting.
I want every child to believe that they were brought into the world through the most glorious, loving, joyful inception. I’ve met children who were exposed to things that were scary and dark and not beautiful and I don’t want a child to think, “That’s where I came from.” There is a place for children to learn about different forms of sexual expression and I’m not placing any value judgements on that.
How does the app help parents and kids talk about sex?
I hope that children who use this app ask lots and lots of questions, so that the parents can then navigate those questions and keep the conversation going. I also want for parents of any cultural background to be able to use this app and not feel embarrassed by it or feel it’s too much. When I recommend certain books or resources, some parents say, “Well you pick it up and it has masturbation in it. I’m not ready to go there with my child.” I wanted to create something that would allow parents to have these conversations early and not feel uncomfortable. There’s really nothing in this app that I would imagine people would find offensive. And this app is really a baby step to jump into this conversation.
How did your background as a child psychologist help you in developing the app?
Many people who have jumped into this very important area have been nurses or doctors or they’ve come from a bio-medical background. I come into this with a very strong psychological lens and a developmental, emotional perspective. That’s the piece I was trying to get to, making it an easier conversation to get to earlier and an ongoing conversation. There’s no voice-over in the app, because I want parents to have to read it. I want parents and children to do it together. If children and parents are talking more often, if children are asking questions more often, it’s just another tool amongst other good tools to give our children more information. For me it’s not just about physical health—pregnancy and STDs—it’s also about emotional identity and health. The more information our children have the safer they’re going to be.
The app uses an analogy of puzzle pieces to describe intercourse. How did you come up with that?
Puzzle pieces is how I described intercourse to my own children. When I designed the app I went through my years of clinical notes where I had documented the type of questions children ask about babies and where they come from. And I’ve tried over the years to figure out what is the best way to respond. In my own particular case, I described to my daughters that half of them were me and half were their dad and the two pieces were glued together with love. And when they asked how did that happen, I spoke to them about a “love hug.” But when I wrote the app, I had focus groups and they didn’t like the concept of a love hug, because children hug people all the time. But then I was struggling with the language. For 4-year-olds or 5-year-olds, do we begin by graphically illustrating intercourse? So what I decided to do was to give an analogy—a special embrace that’s kind of like two puzzle pieces coming together. It was an analogy I thought was accurate and not that awkward [for parents] to say.
How might a non-conventional family (adoptive families, queer parents, step parents, etc.) modify the app to suit their particular situation?
I have two biological children and one that was adopted at birth. I’ve had to, in my own family, think about how to tell my adoptive child that they came from a different place from my other two kids and I don’t want any of my children to feel they came from a better or worse place than the others. If I were to expand that to a greater population, I want every child to feel that how they came to be was beautiful. That may be traditionally biological or it may be alternative in some particular way. All creation and all babies coming into a family’s life is beautiful.
What’s next for The Facts Of Life?
The first follow-up that was launched was the Chinese language app. In the original app, the mother is Asian and the father is Caucasian. When we went to China they didn’t like the graphics, so we redid the characters to be more appealing to an Asian audience and we translated the app. We also changed some of the [pictures of food] to be more Asian. In the app world that’s known as being localized. Now it’s available in Android in China and iTunes.
My hope is that the app will sell and then I will have additional funds to develop it further. I’ve got storyboards planned for the next age group, which is 8-12. I plan to have one [app] for girls and one for boys and it would bring you through concepts to puberty. Then there would be young adults, which is really more emotional rather than needing help understanding biology.
The Facts of Life is available to download for iPad and Android.
To find out more about Dr. Jillian Roberts, visit her website at www.drjillianroberts.com.