If you ask most parents, they will tell you that having THE talk is one of their most dreaded parenting responsibilities.
It’s understandable of course, since talking to kids about sex isn’t necessarily what one would joyfully sign up for. There was a time when I worked for an organization that taught sex education as a part of making healthy choices. And while my role specifically addresses other healthy behaviors and not directly the sexual ones, having conversations with kids about their body and sexuality is something that all adults in caregiving roles have to become comfortable with.
Over the weekend I was made aware of a YouTube show that bills itself as talking about life, love, faith and family. The title of the episode is “Special Wrestling”. From my sister’s description, I didn’t think I would be in agreement with how this episode played out, but I decided to watch it for myself.
I was correct.
In the episode, the husband and wife talk about being overcome with passion and engaging in sex in an open area of their home with their five and one-year-old daughters nearby. The mom is completely embarrassed and overcome by shame when one of the children happens to see her “with” daddy. In a very long drawn out way they describe how they fumbled a conversation afterwards during which the older girl asked mommy what was going on. She noted that her “God-given” description of special wrestling was the best way she could describe what she and daddy had been doing.
As a mom, I wouldn’t necessarily say that any of this was over-the-top or inappropriate. I know many parents who have been “caught” by the kids at some point. But as a family coach I have also worked with many clients who have experienced sexual abuse and from that perspective, I couldn’t have been more frustrated.
I have talked numerous times to women still bearing the shame, decades later of being coerced or tricked into sexual activity by predators who used fun language to describe sexual contact. Things like tickling or wrestling or fun time or play time can easily be used by someone who wishes to abuse your child. If we have linked that language to sexual activity were leaving our kids open in a way that I just can’t stand.
So I decided to share a few simple tips for how you can talk to your child about sex.
My first note is that the sex talk needs to begin early and should happen often as children naturally develop. By the time your child is able to wipe or wash themselves, they can understand their private areas. When I screen kids for abuse, I love when they tell me no one can touch them under their bathing suit areas. I know that these parents are having conversations that kids need to hear. It doesn’t need to be a separate talk, in fact it’s best that it’s a normal part of conversation.
When my children left my home, to be cared for by others, I wanted them to know what parts of their body were private and why they were private. After talking to a dear friend, whose child had been victimized by an older cousin, I did enlist the help of several books which talked about private areas, what to do in uncomfortable situations, and why no one has the right touch their body without permission. The cartoon nature made them no different than our other read-a-louds and made the process no pressure for me.
Our house has always had a no sleepover rule, because more times than not abuse doesn’t happen at the hands of the boogie man, it’s typically an acquaintance, older sibling or even a more mature peer. While I teach my kids to respect authority, I also want them to know know that they can say no on some things. Your kids needs to know that as soon as possible, and they get that permission from you.
For older kids, talking about both sex and sexual feelings periodically is often avoided out of fear that information will make them more curious. The contrary has been found to be true. Children who are knowledgeable about sex and sexual feelings are actually more likely to make healthy decisions. It’s fine to talk about your personal beliefs within the context of this conversation, but shame has no place at this table. By describing sex with shame, you teach your children that there’s something for them to be embarrassed about. That can actually make it more likely that if they are victimized they will hide the behavior, rather than speaking out. Talk about harder to understand concepts too like continuous consent to avoid your child being the victim or in the role of an aggressor.
Lastly, be honest with your kids, in an age-appropriate way, about your own experiences. It’s okay to use television or books for this too. Sitcoms are a great source of material, which I’ve used from time to time to spark a dialogue about a tricky subject. You know the situations that your kids will likely face, so role play to help them make good choices. And don’t be afraid to tell them where you might have made mistakes. If you felt pressure at your first boy girl party to play spin the bottle, let your kids know how you handled it and what you would or wouldn’t do differently now. Believe it or not they actually want to hear what you have to say and they are listening.
Ultimately, your kids can handle the truth if you can. And I promise you that you can. they will