The subject of human sexuality is one of the most simple and complicated subjects there is, and holds its own special place amongst our challenging conversations. Considering the intense focus on sexuality in this society we remain misinformed and uncomfortable with the subject. An honest conversation about sexuality can be a struggle between any two people, let alone the obligatory “sex talk” that parents know they need to have with their children. This well intentioned and much dreaded talk can quickly become complex, complicated and extremely awkward. Parents often avoid the topic, or approach it as if it is an item on the “to do list” that must be done as quickly as possible and then checked off.
The source of this anxiety for parents may be the memories of their own awkward “sex talk” with their parents. For one friend of mine it was the time in his youth when he found pamphlets on his bed and his mother curtly asked “Did you read the materials I left in your room? Everything you need to know is in there”. This brief conversation was the extent of the parental conversation; it was blessedly brief and never to be discussed again. Then there is the cringe worthy story of another friend whose mother decided to have the “sex talk” with her then teenage daughter on the dock at the cabin one summer. The conversation started with her highly emotional mother gravely approaching her on the dock saying they had something serious to talk about. My friend thought she was in trouble as her mother looked so solemn and sad. Then the next thing she knew her mother was drawing diagrams and disclosing her own early sexual experiences to her horrified daughter who found herself imprisoned on the dock for two hours of excoriating awkwardness. Both of these scenarios can be avoided by approaching the topic in an open and up front manner.
It is often the parent’s discomfort, not the children’s, that turns these conversations into awkward parental stumblings. Here are some tips on how to smooth the path, and have effective honest conversations with your children about sex, sexuality and relationships.
- Introduce the topic of sexuality at an early age. When children are young they easily absorb information and they naturally approach sexual information in a scientific and practical manner. There are great books for young children explaining sexuality, and these resources can provide a helpful platform from which to start future conversations.
- Remember that knowledge is power. If you want your child to grow into an empowered adult they need information. Self-knowledge is highly liberating in this world. To truly protect our children we need to give them information and resources.
- Informed choices are a foundation for an empowered life. Send the consistent message that they deserve to be honoured in relationships, and that their bodies and sexuality are important parts of who they are. A good relationship and healthy sexual expression can help a person know more about who they are and how they experience the world.
- Go at their pace. This is not a one-time conversation in which all the bases are covered in one fell swoop, but rather a series of paced conversations in which age appropriate information is shared and then followed up with discussion.
- If you are uncomfortable, be honest about it. Tell your child that sexuality can bring up a lot of confused feelings for people and that you sometimes feel that way too. Let you child know that you want to be able to have honest conversations with them, and that even if you are uncomfortable you are going to continue to forge forward in the conversation. They will respect you for your courage.
- Treat your children like the intelligent and curious human beings that they are. Do not talk down to them, or minimize their feelings. Let them know that sexuality is natural and healthy, and that there is no need to feel shame about any curiosity they have.
- Listen to them when they do talk. If you jump in too quickly with your values and judgments you will shut down the conversation. These conversation are a great opportunity to develop critical thinking and independent decision making skills.
- Teach them a respect for boundaries. Do not interrogate them. Let them know it is ok to have boundaries, and your respect their right to keep things private, or to stop the conversation if they are uncomfortable. Model boundaries by letting them know that they are welcome to ask you questions but that there are some personal things that you will chose to keep private.
- Sometimes it is ok to talk in generalities. You do not have to get too specific, and sometimes you can best convey information by making things less personal. You can have some amazing conversations talking about what has happened to others.
- Let them know that sexuality operates on a lot of different levels. Sexuality can bring forth big emotions, and sometimes things can get complicated. Let them know they will likely make some mistakes, and that sexuality and relationships evolve through some trial and error. Adolescence is a time of testing and learning, so let them know that a few wounds are to be expected along the way.
- Discuss safety and let your children know that their safety and the safety of others is non-negotiable. Discuss the importance of consent, and do not shy away from the practical discussion of how to protect themselves from disease, unwanted pregnancy and potential violence.
- Keep the focus positive and build healthy expectations. Talking from fear or lecturing on what not to do will create rebellion in the child as they get older. Talk about what to do. Be informed, value yourself, value others, be respectful, be curious, and be kind.