There’s more to talking about sex than telling children about their body parts and where babies come from. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, our kids deal with all manner of things including dating, gender, sexting, consent, sexual orientation, puberty, safer sex, pregnancy, Internet porn, social media, abstinence, peer pressure, and more.
Part of our job as grown-ups is helping youth navigate their sexual development. There are lots of important sex-related conversations to be had and if your experience has been like mine, some talks are great, while others leave you feeling awkward, anxious, and unreasonably sweaty.
I don’t have all the secrets for the perfect sex talk, but I do have three simple guidelines that can help ensure the conversations we do have with our children are honest, informative, and reliable.
A value is a principle or standard of behaviour that we feel is important. Sexual values are usually influenced by a combination of social norms, our personal morality, and our individual desires, identities, and interests. As children grow up, they develop their own set of sexual values. They may not be exactly the same, but families usually have a lot of influence on how kid’s values take shape.
Having sexual values is very useful, because the options for expressing and experiencing sexuality are virtually endless, and while sex can be a very good thing, not everything is good for everyone. Sharing our sexual values with our kids encourages them develop their own, which in turn helps them make choices about what type of sexual experiences they do and don’t want.
As caregivers, we also use values to create household rules for our children about what kind of sexual behaviour is or isn’t allowed in our homes.
Where talking about values can get tricky is when we frame them as Things That Are Universally True About Sex instead of Things We Feel Personally About Sex. Let’s say for example, I notice my young child is masturbating while watching cartoons and I say, “Sweetie, that’s not nice. Don’t do that.” Or I say to my your tween, “No one is going to respect you dressed like that,” as they try leave the house in an outfit I don’t like.
As a parent I might have certain values about masturbation or dressing in a certain way. But I can say that in a slightly different way. I can say “Sweetie, if you’re going to touch yourself like that, I would like you to do it privately,” or “I don’t approve of what you’re wearing. I’d like you change, please.” I’m still being clear about the type of behaviour I expect. But I’m not telling my child that they are wrong or bad for feeling differently.
By owning our sexual values, we’re can establish boundaries honestly, while still respecting our children’s right to have their own feelings and eventually develop their own set of values.
A fact is a consistently true piece of information based on evidence. Examples of sexual facts include:
Facts can be a great way to support your sexual values. For example:
PARENT: By the way, I left some practice condoms in your room.
PARENT: Condoms. You can practice putting them on now, so when you’re ready to have sex, you’ll know how to do it. I got you some gloves and a dental dam too.
KID: Ugh! What is WRONG with you?
PARENT: Nothing. I just think if someone’s going to be sexually active that it’s important to take care of their health.
KID: Wow. You’re just...wow.
PARENT: I’m trying to help you reduce your risk of getting an STI.
KID: *Pretends not to hear. Checks phone*
PARENT: *Grabs own phone and text* I <3 U AND WANT U TO BE HEALTHY. SOMEDAY U WILL THANK ME!
You can also state the “fact” of your own experience when you think it’s relevant to the sex-talk you’re having with your kid:
PARENT: I think being able to talk to your partner about what you want is an important part of being ready for sex. When I had sex for the first time, I was too scared to give my boyfriend any direction. It wasn’t at all what I’d hoped and I’ve always regretted not speaking up.
Providing youth with sexual facts not only supports your values, it shows them that you’re a reliable source of information and someone they can trust when they have questions.
A myth is a widely held belief that is NOT true.
There are a few issues related to sex that I feel very strongly about. I know for me, if something related to one of those issues comes up - especially if it’s related to the well-being of my kid - I really need to watch what I say, because it can be tempting to slip into myths and/or generalizations.
Ours is a historically sex-negative culture. We’ve built quite the collection of sexual myths to justify the fear and intolerance that’s been bred around certain sexual behaviour. Once upon a time we told tall tales about masturbation turning people blind and female sexual desire being a mental illness.
Our modern myths may be more subtle but they still exist. Promiscuous girls don’t respect themselves. Women who are raped can’t get pregnant. Trans kids are just confused or following a fad.
Sexual myths are often stated as sexual facts because doing that - at least in the moment - provides seemingly sound support for our values.
But myths don’t support our values. In fact, relying on myths or false generalizations can undermine our credibility. Kids are resourceful. They can find information for themselves. They have experiences beyond the ones we provide for them. And when they find out we’ve told them something that turns out not to be true, they may not open up to us the next time they have a sexual question or problem.
By communicating our beliefs, without relying on myths, we preserve our integrity as reliable sources of both information and role models for our children.