Bow chicka wow wow – the topic I know you’ve all been waiting for, and an important one at that. How do we talk to our kids about s-e-x? As Salt-N-Pepa said, “Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.”
I’m going to preface this with an overarching statement – you are the parent, and you know your child best. You know where their cognitive, social, and physical development are. You know certain values that your family holds. You hear about what Becky said in the lunch room, and their health class whispers.
I’m going to give some very overarching recommendations for conversations around sex with kids of all ages that encourage what we always want – connection and wellness.
Talk About and Honor Bodies
Let’s start here – I believe the first step to talking to kids about sex starts with talking about and honoring bodies from infancy to adulthood. Talking about bodies is not something I expected to love when I started my social work career, but I have grown a passion for it in my therapy room and with my own family.
The way that we talk about bodies matters. Bodies are strong, bodies are capable, bodies carry us throughout our days, bodies are beautiful, bodies are different, and all parts of bodies are worthy of love and respect. Tell your kid about their body parts and how they all majestically work together. As they grow and develop, teach them and provide them with tools to understand their body as it changes.
I heard a story from the author of Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., where she shared about a young dad changing his daughter’s diaper, and the little one began touching her genitals. The dad gasped and said, “Don’t do that!” quickly working to get the next diaper on.
Nagoski reflected that we are so proud of our children when they find their feet, using our high-pitched baby voices, looking them in the eyes (*connection*), saying, “Oh my goodness, you clever girl! You found your feet!” And when they find other parts of their body, we have reactions that give them an icky feeling – often shame (*disconnection*).
On the other hand, some of my close friends do something with their daughter that has stuck with me, and I often share in sessions talking about body image and sex. Since their daughter was old enough to understand, during bath time, they have said to her and had her repeat, “God made my body, and my body is good.”
If you are not a person of faith, you could rephrase this: “I love my body, and my body is good.” Oof. This hits me in the gut every time. This is what we want, right? We want our children to grow up believing that every part of their body – from their head to their genitals to their toes – is good, worthy of love and respect. This means your body, too, parent. Let your kid see and know that you love your body and that your body is good.
Answer Their Questions
I remember the first time I heard about something “sexual.” I was about eight years old at gymnastics practice, and one of my teammates kept singing the Chili’s Baby Back Ribs song and making winky faces like it meant something more. I said, “What are you doing??”
She said, “I’m singing about sexxxx.”
Of course, the song is simply about pork ribs and BBQ sauce, but her preteen brain made an association. Sex? I had never heard of that. I went home and, while brushing my teeth before bed, asked my mom point blank, “What is sex?”
My mom dodged my question, saying, “Oh wow! We’ll talk about that when you’re older.” A totally normal response, right? Your 8-ish-year-old daughter, out of nowhere, asks what sex is. A response of shock and redirect.
But this response, instead of giving me the information I sought, gave me negative feelings – confusion, curiosity, and shame. What is sex?! It must be a big deal if Mom was shocked. And it must be a really serious and mysterious thing because she won’t tell me until I’m older. I know it has something to do with baby back baby back baby back ribs… Thankfully, I didn’t have access to the internet at this age because if I did, I would’ve stolen an iPad and went straight to Google.
Answer their questions. Kids are curious – it’s how they’re wired. Honor that. If a kid or teen is wondering something, don’t let the mystery loom. Answer their question with facts to the best of your ability and in a developmentally appropriate way.
We all have moments from our childhood when we first learned about sex. Maybe it was “the talk” from our parents, 5th-grade health class, a comment someone made that felt confusing. Go back to those moments for a minute and really ask yourself – what do I wish my parent, teacher, or mentor had told me in that moment? And how can we change these moments from disconnection and icky feelings to connection and belonging?
Learn Your Own Triggers
What would you do if your child (no matter what age) asked you out of the blue, “What is sex?” Would your face turn red? Would you stumble over your words? Would you laugh? Would you have a little eye twinge or some butterflies in your stomach? Would some trauma surface? OR what if your 15-year-old told you they are or are considering being sexually active? Would you yell? Would you send them to their room? Would you scoff and roll your eyes?
Sex as a topic often comes with a lot of baggage. A lot of us grew up in households where conversations about sex were off the table. Some of us grew up in spaces where sexuality and bodies were shamed. Some of us have pain around sex in our own lives (infidelity of partner or parents, pornography, sexual addiction, difficulties with sexual intimacy, abuse). Learning and healing our own baggage around sex, sexuality, and bodies is essential to showing up as whole, healthy parents for our kiddos in this way.
Alright, you’ve heard me say *connection* and *disconnection* several times throughout this article. We’re always coming back to connection, dear parents. Connection is the key to our kiddos hearts. No matter what you do in talking with your kids about sex, we want them to feel connected from beginning to end. This means eye contact, acknowledgment, respect, and maybe a little playfulness. I could write a whole series just on this topic because it stretches so wide, and maybe I’ve left you here with more questions than answers. Body image, puberty, consent, sexual safety – the list goes on and on. If you’re having questions about how to handle these conversations with your little kid or big kid, please reach out – we would love to support you on this journey of parenthood.
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