How do we affirm and grow a healthy sexuality in our children when it feels like they are inundated with misinformation and an oversexualized commercial culture?
One of my key jobs as a parent is to raise kids who love themselves and their sexuality. My own childhood was filled with silences and horrible caveats about sex. My mother told me repeatedly that she would ‘snap my spine’ if I had sex outside of monogamous marriage. And that sex ‘was not all that it what was cracked up to be.’ The only other ‘education’ I received was a confusing book that explained pollination in great detail but explained human reproduction in only the vaguest of terms. There was nothing in the book about pleasure, about playfulness, about intimacy or connection — about the incredible gift our sexuality presents to us.
I tried to glean as much information as I could in passing on the playground, and from my BFFs (without appearing to know absolutely nothing), and from the few resources available (no internet, tiny public library with a Catholic librarian). My first nights away from home were my freshman year of college, where my complete lack of information about navigating sex left me a sitting duck for predators. And there were many.
What to do for our children in the internet age, where we are often working hard to shield them from the daily onslaught of images, text, sext, and potential abusers that cross their paths? How do we affirm and grow a healthy sexuality when it feels like they are inundated with misinformation and an oversexualized commercial culture?
For me, this means being constantly in the process of education with my now 18-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. Here are my top ten tips for raising kids who can lift themselves above the fray and stand grounded in their own sexual self-determination.
1. First and foremost, let’s throw out the idea that there is one specified “time” for “the talk.”
In my children’s lives, sex and sexuality is an ongoing, lifelong conversation. My son asked about how he got here when he was 2, and we began talking about seeds and eggs and how he grew in my belly. Fast forward to 6th grade, picking out the Special K in the cereal aisle in the Giant, when he turned to me and said, “So does it hurt?” You can imagine, we had hundreds of conversations about sex, gender, consent, and respect between those two days.
2. Answer their questions honestly as they ask them.
When he was three, my son asked if I would put my finger in his butt, because it feels so good. I told him that playing with his butt was just for him because it was so special and such an important place on his body. It was one of the few places that he could actually go inside himself, and these places deserve extra care and privacy. He was adamant that I should do it, and used lots of the language we had already developed around gaining consent in play — he kept saying, “But I AGREE, Mom. I agree.” And I told him he couldn’t agree about this because it was just not okay for Moms to play with their boy’s butts this way. This was a multiple-lesson conversation that I know has served him his whole life.
3. Don’t react or overreact.
One of the toughest jobs as a parent teaching sexual self-determination to our children is to not over-react when they ask questions. Sometimes I want to laugh, and other times, my own abuse history makes me terrified by certain questions. Many children learn to be ashamed about their sexuality by the way we answer their questions, not only the content. If we can respond to sex questions like they are interesting and important, but not heavy or shameful, we have given our kids a huge gift. When we respond fearfully and in shame-inducing ways, we likely cut off further conversation and leave our kids to fend for themselves. Which, given the state of the culture, is a mighty dangerous place to leave them.
4. Don’t intrude.
Respect their privacy, especially around their bodies, and around their private thoughts as well. I had a self-proclaimed sex-positive acquaintance who was constantly commenting on her adolescent daughter’s body and dating patterns with the child standing right in front of us. ‘Kelly’s body is so amazing! I don’t know why she has to hide it!’ or ‘Kelly could have any guy she wants, but she is still a Virgin!’ She would often follow this with a story about her lovers when she was Kelly’s age. This is not sex-positive parenting. Kelly would literally shrink while her mother rattled on. I consider this kind of intrusion a verbal form of sexual abuse. It’s shaming; it’s objectifying of Kelly. It’s a whole basket of terrible decisions and parenting behavior disguised as ‘sex-positivity.’ A sex-positive parent demonstrates serious respect for their child. There is no respect whatsoever in this scenario.
5. Tell them about your own path, your struggles and your mistakes, at age appropriate points, when it’s relevant to the conversation.
I have often offered tidbits of my sex story to my kids when their questions have created an opening for a lesson. Our kids need our stories. They look up to us. They want to know that people they love have created the lives they want — especially their parents. I have relayed many of the challenges I had as a young person when they tell me they are struggling with something. But unlike Kelly’s mom, I never initiate this storytelling. I wait until they ask me for some kind of information or support, and then I consider whether my story offers a relevant exploration or consideration. If so, I edit it into age-appropriate language and content, and then we go from there. And this changes over time — my 18-year-old now wants to know absolutely nothing about my sexual development, and I honor this place on his path, while still doling out relevant information when I can.
6. Give them lots of resources that they can pick up when they want them.
Unlike my childhood, there are lots of great resources now for my kids. Stories of all kinds of families. Terrific illustrated books about the body, puberty, and boundaries. Beyond the stranger-danger books, there are helpful resources on signs of abusiveness in adults close to us (see #4) and how to seek help. Websites like Scarleteen offer great, age-appropriate resources for teens by young sex educators and artists. Scatter resources around the house; make it easy for your children to come across them and talk with you about them, or scoot off to their rooms to take a private look.
7. Don’t force conversation.
But observe and comment where you can create open-ended opportunities. My daughter doesn’t ask a lot of questions, but she has certain passions — like fashion and a lot of the tween YouTube videos — that provide an opening for conversation. I spend a lot of time interrupting gender apartheid in the various ways boys and girls present themselves on the internet and on teen TV shows. I show outrage at a storyline where two girls ‘wait’ for a boy to ‘decide’ which one he likes. I talk about how over-sexualized a lot of the clothing is, and that there are overarching messages about girls being secondary to boys even when the episodic content is proclaiming otherwise. My daughter sometimes rolls her eyes at this; sometimes, she counters and makes an argument based on a character’s behavior or values. In both cases, we are engaging. I am doing my job, helping her develop critical thinking about her own agency. But when she says: ‘Mom! I just want to watch this!’ I drop it. I offer her lots of alternatives to what I think of as really poisonous tween offerings, but I also let her choose her passions. She has picked up on and explored many of the alternatives I’ve presented as well.
8. Deal with the child in front of you, and respond to who they are.
While my son asks lots of questions about his body and sex, my daughter does not. She is a much more internal being. She likes to gather info, experience her feelings, and then come to me when she is ‘stuck.’ And unlike her brother, she most often doesn’t want a free-range chat. She wants a direct answer to a simple question, and then she wants to go off privately and take it in. So, my process of education is really different with each child. Deal with the child in front of you.
9. Bring other models of romance, partnership, and family into view.
I am fortunate to live in a community where there are lots of different kinds of family arrangements. We have beloveds who are monogamous and married, who are polyamorous with long-term partners, who are solo poly, with many lovers whom we’ve met over time. We have committed single people who emphasize friendship over romantic partners. We have single folks in our life who enthusiastically date. We have straight, gay, lesbian, bi, genderqueer, and transgender people in our inner circle; our community is very multiracial; some folks have kids and some do not. This is a community I consciously created for my own well-being. But its contribution to my children’s well-being and vision of what is possible is truly immeasurable. Priceless.
10. Don’t lie.
Name body parts, relay what you know, and promise to research things you don’t know. Resist fear-based tall tales that skirt the issues but give you a (likely false) sense of safety. Help your kids find the information they need to make good choices for themselves. Being afraid of what you think or being afraid of sex actually adds to their vulnerability around sexual predators and risky choices. Having all the information they need — and your faith that they can create a healthy sexuality — are two key elements in a strong path to sexual self-determination.