According to Planned Parenthood, teens who had good, honest conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sexual activity, have fewer partners and use condoms or other contraceptives when they do have sex.
So how do we go about talking to the kids about sex and puberty, so that they are informed of the changes ahead, know how they can protect themselves, and how to react to the pressures from others? Without euphemisms or embarrassment.
“Mum, is it rude to call someone a ‘pussy’?” asked my 10 year old son recently. To be honest at first I was at a bit of a loss. How do you reply to this question? I will admit that I’ve never felt comfortable talking to the kids about sex and bodily functions, particularly with my son.
I inwardly told myself to get a grip and answered, ‘Well, it is a slang word for vagina. You know, boys have a penis and girls have a vagina? People use it in a nasty way, it’s like calling someone a girl, or a wimp’. (Yes, yes, I know it should be ‘vulva’, but it was the word that occurred to me at the time!)
The conversation moved on to discussing why using ‘you throw like a girl’ is wrong, and I started to think about how I’ve become more comfortable with uncomfortable topics. These are my tips for anyone who is still putting off ‘having The Talk’ with their kids.
Follow the Lead of Your Children
Many children start asking where babies come from when they are toddlers, often when a baby sibling comes along, or a family friend has a baby. You don’t have to go into great detail, but answer questions honestly and in age appropriate language.
As they get older, you can add more information when they ask. Answering questions as they come up helps avoid building up the angst of waiting for the perfect time to have The Talk.
Books and Websites
Some people feel more comfortable giving their child a book to read first, and then answering questions that they have. If you go down this route, read the book first to ensure that you are happy with the advice and message given. And don’t cop out by not mentioning again afterwards!
Keep it Simple but Factual
When they are younger, you don’t need to go into a lot of detail, but resist the temptation to give body parts weird names, that might confuse them later. Particularly when talking about vaginas and vulvas, there is a reluctance to use the correct terminology. Even doctors have been known to use the euphemistic ‘down there’ rather than say ‘vulva’.
Teaching kids the proper words promotes positive body image, self-confidence and parent-child communication, and is recommended by those who work in sexual abuse prevention. Children need to be able to talk honestly and openly to parents and teachers about their body, without fear of being scolded for using the ‘adult’ words.
This is a time to grit your teeth and be breezily confident. Kids pick up on parental hesitation or embarrassment really fast, and you don’t want to give the impression that sexuality is something to be ashamed of.
Teach Consent from an Early Age
This is one of the most important lessons you can teach your kids. Don’t wait until they are in their teens to talk about consent, and boundaries. Someone once told me that they have a rule in their household:
If everyone is not having fun, everyone stops
This works really well with toddlers, who are just developing a sense of empathy. This doesn’t happen automatically, it needs to be taught. Whether it is the 3 year old who is bothering his older sister, or the 8 year old who won’t stop repeating everything their sibling says and does … it is important that children are taught that when the other person has had enough, you stop!
In our house, it was often my younger child, who just didn’t know when to stop annoying his sister! It was sometimes difficult for us to know if she was really saying ‘stop’ or not, as she’d be laughing while she scolded him. We decided on a “safe word”, which means ‘even if I don’t look or seem like this is really bothering me, I’ve had enough and I want you to stop’. Even now, years after we decided this, when someone says ‘banana bread!’, everyone stops!
We’ve also talked about reading non-verbal messages that his sister is sending. She might not be saying, ‘no’, but her facial expression and body language shows that she is not happy, and getting angry or upset. She’s stopped laughing and responding to his silliness, or has turned away.
This must be followed by everyone in the household, including parents and relations. If a child doesn’t want to give granny a kiss and a hug, then they should not be forced or coerced into doing so. It is important that children learn that they have boundaries, and these boundaries should be respected.
As the children get older, you can expand on this to include talking of boundaries in sexual relationships. As they’ve already learned about reading non-verbal messages, you can already go beyond ‘no means no’, to teach about enthusiastic consent.
It really should be obvious, but it is important to stress that if a person is drunk, high or otherwise impaired, they are not ‘fair game’, and the right thing to do is put the person to bed and let them sleep it off. This includes watching out for anyone who is vulnerable, and ensuring that others don’t take advantage of them.
While most schools teach the basics biology of sexual intercourse, many don’t include relationship and consent education. I’ve written about the importance of teaching about controlling behaviour, and recognising the Red Flags of Controlling Behaviour here for adults and for children on Jump! Mag – Controlling Friendships.
Sex and Love
Children are often told that ‘when you love someone, and the time is right, then it is ok to have sex’. I find this message troubling, as we all know that sometimes adults have sex for fun, not for love. It also puts young people at a higher risk of falling into a controlling relationship and the typical blackmail of ‘I love you, and if you loved me, then you’d sleep with me’.
The hormonal ups and downs of puberty may lead a teen to think that they are madly in love, and that this is The One, who they will live happily ever after with. And who knows – they may be right. I met my husband when I was just 19 years old and we are still happily married [mumble] years later.
A much more honest message would be, ‘Sometimes we have sex because we are in love with the person, sometimes it is just for fun. As long as you protect yourself from pregnancy and STDs, you can decide yourself when you want to have sex. Often people find sex better when they have strong feelings for their partner, and that physical intimacy deepens the emotional closeness.’
Choose a time when you aren’t in a rush, and you have time to answer questions. Some people suggested that a casual discussion in the car is a good idea – it resolves the question of where to look. It goes without saying, that you shouldn’t do this when your child has a friend with them in the car!
Don’t discuss details of your own sex life – if there is any way to send them running for the hills, then the thought of their parents having sex is bound to do it.
The main thing to keep in mind is that, while you may find it embarrassing at first, it does get easier. The more open and confident you are when speaking to your child, the more likely it is that they will come back and ask any questions that they have.