I’ve heard hundreds of stories of people recounting their parents giving them “the talk.” Some involved hushed conversations in bedrooms after a child asked a question during family movie night. One that sticks out in my mind is the gentleman who vividly remembers his dad making a dirty martini and swirling it around and awkwardly sipping from it as he attempted to talk about sex. Many don’t recall the talk because it just never happened!
As a Women’s Health Physical Therapist and Puberty educator, I’ll often ask parents:
Notice the use of the plural: talkS. Because it isn’t just one conversation, you will be having. It’s 200, one-minute conversations you will be having over the course of many years (I’m borrowing that phrase from my good friend and fellow puberty educator, Kim Cook). And while that sends some people into a spiral of overwhelm, I find it comforting. There’s so much less pressure when you don’t expect yourself to cram everything your child needs to know into one all-important talk.
Here are five blockers parents have identified when it comes time to have the sex talk:
This is a BIGGIE. You cannot come to the conversation with your kids carrying decades of baggage and an agenda full of shame and misinformation. And that’s tricky because we all have our own sexual history, some of us extremely healthy, and many of us riddled with trauma and triggers. But do the work so you can confidently frame your sex ed tidbits through the lens of your own individual family values by having conversations that sound like this: “In this family, we believe ______________." Your child may choose to adopt your family values. And while they may decide to strike out on their own, they will always know what it means to come back home.
Well, the 'real truth' answer is from birth. At the earliest of ages, it looks like naming body parts in the genitals just like we do for the rest of the body. The elbow isn’t called the “hinge bone,” and the nose isn’t called the “plumper,” and the knee isn’t called the “bendy bend”. Your kids should be as comfortable saying penis as eyeball and vagina as to ribs. As they get older, you can layer on conversations about bodily autonomy and consent as it relates to things like how they want to greet Grandma or if they want to share their crayons. And as they get even older, these topics will evolve, but it’s never too early (or too late) to start!
This is always my pitfall. As a detail-oriented person, I like to be thorough. After 10 minutes of yapping as I watch my kids’ eyes glaze over, I realize I’ve done it again. Start small and ask follow-up questions like “Did that answer your question?” They’ll let you know if they’re satisfied with your response.
When our kids ask us what a BJ is or what 69 means, it can catch us off guard and leave us clamoring for an intelligent response. You will not always get it right, and that’s OK. This isn’t a childhood game with “no takebacks”. You get a mulligan, a re-do, or a second chance. Several times I’ll go up to my child the next day and say, “Remember when you asked me about XYZ? Well, I don’t like how I explained it, and I’m going to say it differently.”
This is a big one, especially on the topic of pornography. But here’s the thing. The average age for first viewing pornographic images is 10-12 for boys and 11-13 for girls. We HAVE to get ahead of that curve by letting them know that these images and videos are not usually a realistic portrayal of real bodies or real sex. And that, if watched enough, they can lead to less than healthy sexual health in the future. We must tell our kids we love them, not to set up boundaries, and monitor their electronics to keep them safe online. And if you’ve already found porn on your child’s device, don’t panic (yet).
Use the BREATHE method:
B= Take a big breath. You may want to jump to conclusions or accusations, and your mind may be racing with worst-case scenarios, but re-center yourself before tackling this talk, and don’t shame or blame.
R= Remind them that it’s completely natural to be curious about sex. You’re not mad at them for wanting to know more.
E= Explain what it is they have seen. “Videos or photos of naked people or people engaging in sexual acts is called pornography or porn. These videos are made to create sexual arousal in the person watching it, but they are not made for children.” Describe how pornography often portrays unrealistic body parts, may be violent or may prioritize the male’s pleasure. Remind them that sex happens between 2 consenting adults who have had conversations about keeping each other safe, and porn does not often show this.
A= Ask them if they have questions and advise them on safer ways to learn more (trusted websites, books, etc. I love the resource list on www.sexpositivefamilies.com).
T= Thank them for participating in a difficult conversation. Acknowledging that talks like this can be awkward and reminding them that you are safe to come to when they are confused is reassuring. Teach them what other trusted adults they can go to if they don’t feel comfortable coming to you.
H= Have ongoing conversations with them. This isn’t a one-and-done little talk. Check-in and see if they have more questions. Pause TV shows or songs on the radio to point out where there are good (or not-so-good) examples of consent and healthy relationships.
E= Establish controls and boundaries together. Tell them, “I love you too much to let images or videos like this shape your sexual health.” Set up parental controls or make a contract about only being on the device in the main living space, etc. Remind them the purpose is to keep them safe online. Problem solve what they will do should they encounter images or videos like this in the future.
If your kids are older, let’s say 16/17 years of age and older, we switch from being “monitors” of their technology use and become “mentors.” That means teaching them media literacy and, yes, porn literacy. When viewing any media messages, they should ask themselves these five questions:
When it comes to porn, it’s important to ask additional questions like:
Hopefully, you feel like you’ve got a little wind in your sails, so now it’s time to get to work. Remember, your goal is 200 one-minute conversations over the course of the next few years. Take advantage of car rides when no one has to make eye contact, and these conversations flow a little more easily. Consider making the car a tech-free zone, especially for short trips to school or practice. Watch TV together…. there are millions of examples of juicy conversation pieces just waiting to be had about consent and peer pressure, and being an assertive communicator. Listen to song lyrics, and don’t be afraid to say things like, “This song has a great beat, but did you hear how inappropriate that sentence was?!” Family dinners are a dying breed, but when you get a chance to sit down as a family, use conversation starters like:
Let me leave you with this one final nugget. According to the Law of First Mention, the first one to teach a child about a new topic will be treated like their information is gospel and the foundation from which they build their understanding. When parents were asked, “Who do you think most influences your child’s decisions about sex,” they guessed that 60% of kids would say peers. But over half of the kids said their parents were the biggest influencers.
Parents, we have a lot of competition between social media and peers, so our voices need to be first. And the loudest. And I’m here to help with that.