Home truths: teaching your child sex ed
For her Sexual Wellness Sessions series on Instagram Live, psychosexual & relationship therapist Kate Moyle talked on 30 June 2020 to Outspoken director Yoan Reed about why it’s important for both parents and children to talk about sex & relationships issues.
Here are some of Yoan’s personal and professional insights from their enlightening talk How To Have Open & Honest Sex Education Conversations At Home…
Talking shop: Yoan Reed (above, in blue shirt) in conversation with Kate Moyle
ON HOW TO TEACH YOUR CHILD SEX ED
Having open conversations at home, even before children start school, helps them to develop. It’s about being courageous and thinking about your own sex-ed experiences and how you can change your own understanding to help your child.
For us as parents it’s twofold: 1) we didn’t have good sex ed ourselves and 2) the world has moved on – the gap between children’s and adults’ understanding is growing day by day.
As parents we communicate to our children how we feel about our body and how we view others. I grew up in Denmark, and at that time it was normal to see naked bodies – in swimming pools, saunas, changing rooms. There was no shame, fear or hiding. It was nothing to do with sex; it was just a body.
When my now-adult sons were little I read them this book from my childhood: How A Baby Is Made by Per Holm Knudsen. It was published in the UK in 1975 but is now expensive to find. It shows a mother and father having a healthy, loving relationship with very simple, up-front pictures of how a baby is conceived – including the penis, vagina, the baby growing inside, the baby being born. One of my sons said: “I can’t remember when I learned how a baby was made – it was just part of what I knew.”
You don’t sexualise or take away anything from your child by telling them how it is – if you frame the subject of sex in talking about love and good, healthy, exciting relationships, you give them a great foundation.
But how do we define sex education? Think about a vortex. It starts from when your child is young – naming body parts, knowing gender differences, talking about emotions, showing love – and that knowledge gets built on, so you add more information as they grow up. People may think: “There’s a particular time I need to do it” but it’s a gradual drip-drip of communication. Is 10 too young to talk about sex? Well, how are you framing it? What will you talk about: how a baby is made or kissing, falling in love and attraction? Depends on how we define sex…
ON LAUNCHING INTO THE CONVERSATION
One thing parents fail in is thinking they need to provide one big talk when they feel their child is ready. It’s almost traumatic for your child if you’ve never talked about sexuality using correct terminology then suddenly you want them to understand everything about sex.
Don’t wait for your child to come to you! Many parents tell me: “We’re open in our family; our children can ask anything” and they wait and the children aren’t coming forward. Your role as a parent is to be responsible enough to be proactive with this conversation, just as you teach your child how to use a fork and cross a road.
If you feel insecure or don’t know something, be honest and say: “No one talked to me about this, so it’s important for us to talk” or “Wow, this is interesting. I need to learn more. Shall we learn together?” or “Let’s come back and talk about it.” Kids appreciate this – they see that you’re human and you don’t know everything.
Use everyday opportune moments. Pick up on something you hear on the radio or a storyline on TV – anything about love, sexuality, sexual orientation, how bodies work, body image.
Seeing two people holding hands is a good time to pick up the conversation about what is love and who can love each other, what is “normal” sex – it’s normal when people love and are attracted to each other and are safe and happy in each other’s company. You have to gauge that moment with your child and use the situation around you.
I keep using the word “love” because, with my experiences teaching younger children, if you frame sex as something healthy and loving, you put a context of sexuality around the information you give them. It doesn’t matter who you want to share your love with – it’s about if you feel safe and have consent and can give consent. That broadens the conversation massively.
ON USING CORRECT NAMES FOR BODY PARTS
Children are curious about their body, how it functions, about other genders’ bodies and their private body parts. They’ll seek information regardless of what we give them at home.
Don’t sweeten it – use correct terminology and be factual. If you tell your child little lies or wrap things up in something sugar-sweet, they’ll find out – and it will give them the feeling that you aren’t prepared to share with them and they’ll shy away from you.
When I show year 6 students a cartoon person with body labels – head, legs shoulders – but the private parts covered up, I ask what’s missing. They all go quiet because they know I want them to say: “Private body parts.” I ask them why adults don’t label those parts – and when I ask why we can’t say them, they reply: “Because it’s rude, it’s naughty, we’ll be told off.”
If a child grows up thinking private body parts shouldn’t be mentioned, it’s difficult for them to be open with their parents about their own body.
Parents are fearful of using the correct terminology – they feel it sexualises their child. But by using it you empower your child with knowledge. You ensure that if they have the language they are able to safeguard themselves and say when things are wrong. Your child learns that their body parts are private to them, and the same for others. They learn about boundaries, consent and sexual consent. You don’t have to tell them everything from a young age but you build on their knowledge. It’s a spiral development. Besides, what child is more interested in learning about their forehead than their private body parts?
ON GIVING KIDS SPACE
Give children and young people private space and allow them a sense of self-discovery. They will seek ways to understand things that don’t always involve parents. We’re not supposed to have total engagement with them about their bodies at all times. In our quest to be their primary educator and engage with them and safeguard them, we have to remember that they have a right to privacy.
The older children get the harder it is for them to share knowledge about intimate thoughts with their parents. We need to allow them to develop in their own way, and there comes a point where you can no longer impart a lot of knowledge or experiences to them because they’re not in that frame of mind.
As a parent, I’ve found this works: write a letter expressing how you feel or leave out an educational resource to show your interest, concern and love which also shows respect for their privacy, especially with teenagers.
Don’t quiz your child; don’t make it their responsibility to try and make this right for you. They’ll pick up on your tone, and if you are annoyed or fearful they will not share. It’s OK to show your vulnerability and say as a parent: “Things are different now, so help me because I would like to know what it’s like for you.” Be led a bit by them. If you’re met by silence and “I don’t want to talk about it”, be respectful of that. It’s not something you can force.
ON HOW TO TALK ABOUT PORN
Children don’t know that porn isn’t reality, and unless someone tells them that and puts it in context for them, then a lot of online-porn content will give them the wrong picture about what sex is all about. If they see it with no formal experience or reassurance, it is scary and they won’t come forward and talk about it because they think what they did is naughty.
If they have seen porn, be prepared to say: “You’ve seen something that looks scary but that’s not what sex is really like.”
You don’t have to tell younger children about porn before they see it, but if they already have an understanding that a healthy, loving relationship with another person can involve sex then they won’t be so scared and they will be more likely to share with you.
ON WORRYING ABOUT SEXUALISING YOUR CHILD
People are worried about putting the word “sex” in the same sentence as the word “children”. That’s because we confuse sex with sexuality. But when you talk to children you’re not talking about the act of sex – it’s about all the other things that surround sex.
Adults should understand that there’s lifelong learning about our own sexuality and others’ sexuality. It’s not that when we’re children we’re innocent and know nothing and then as adolescents we know everything – that’s not how our sexuality happens. We’re not static.
It starts early: children are sexual beings – their sexuality develops when they’re young and come in stages. So as parents there are things you can tap into and build on.
ON WHERE TO GET INFORMATION
Inform and educate yourself. Sign up to the Outspoken newsletter – it signposts you to resources and gives you an overview of what’s current in sex education and in the news.
A bit of humour goes a long way, and the short animations at Amaze.org are sweet and straight talking, covering every topic in sex ed (with an American accent and terminology!). First watch one you want to use with your child, then watch with them.
Also I encourage parents to ask their child’s school what they’re doing about PSHE (personal sexual health economic education) and RSE (relationships & sex education) and ask to see their policies so you know how your child is being taught and what is in place and what isn’t. Those rules are changing from the 2021 academic year.
Parents, go ahead and take a step into the world of sex education with your children – because it is a wonderful world!
Outspoken director Yoan Reed is a relationships & sex education (RSE) teacher and consultant and the founder of Teaching Lifeskills
Images taken from How A Baby Is Made by Per Holm Knudsen (Piccolo Books, 1975)