Take 10 – parent advice from International Sex Education Day founder Kim Cook
Not only has Kim Cook been a birth-control educator and children’s health teacher – the “RN CHES” after her name signifies that she’s a registered nurse and a certified health education specialist – but she’s also the mother of 3 grown daughters and founder of Teen World Confidential for parents, the Sex Education Alliance for educators and International Sex Education Day for everyone. Social justice is high on her agenda.
Here she talks to Outspoken about consent, cookies and not staying in her lane…
WHY A SEA CHANGE AROUND SEX ED IS NEEDED
There are so many sex educators who have a focus on family, so my idea was that the Sex Education Alliance (SEA) would bring these professionals together to make a sea change in sex ed, to make waves!
With sexuality everyone comes from a different place. To me the word “sexuality” embraces not just having sex but also identity, relationships etc – the whole kit and caboodle. Sex educators come with their own morals and personal lens about sexuality, but we have to teach sex ed from a scientifically based, medically accurate perspective while respecting students’ and their families’ values.
In my work I saw a real need for families here in America, and across the globe, to have access to comprehensive sex education. I’d like to see sex and relationships topics become part of everyday conversation within the family, within communities and legally. If we educate adults about why sex ed is important – educate parents, because they’re voting and determining who sets out laws – then we can make change happen from the ground up and get broader, better sex ed in schools.
Two things came out of my being in the classroom: 1) all that the kids wanted to talk about was sex – so if you can link learning about the respiratory system to sex, they will listen and 2) there’s pushback from parents, especially on LGBT+ issues. One parent emailed: “Ms Cook is trying to tell them it’s OK to be gay.” Well, of course it is!
Back in 2010 I had that “Aha!” moment: “Wait, we’re not allowed to teach kids about sex? Are you kidding me? It’s biology! Holy cow – nothing has changed since I was a kid. The adults in the room are still putting the kibosh on sex ed.”
It pretty much hit me like a ton of bricks that parents need to talk openly with their kids. My audience has got to be the parents – they are their kids’ first health and sex educators.
We’ve got to coach parents about how to navigate sex and relationships talks. Young people need to know that their parents are on their team. If parents don’t do the talking, kids will find out about sex some way, somehow. They might still use the media and peers when they have questions, but they’ll know they can go to their parents as a reliable resource.
As parents you’re not expected to know all the answers. That’s why we teach media-literacy skills, so parents and kids can go on the computer together.
With parents teaching their children tools for how to have healthy relationships, their kids grow into mentally, physically and socially healthier adults who are more accepting of themselves and of others’ identities.
HOW TO CELEBRATE INTERNATIONAL SEX EDUCATION DAY
I just thought: if only we had a day where everybody could talk about sex ed! So in 2019 I started one.
It’s easy to remember the date, 2 February, because it’s a precursor to Valentine’s Day, when you can talk about love and relationships. 2 February 1919 was National Social Hygiene Day, and the message was: “Don’t have sex because of syphilis.” I thought: let’s do it again, 100 years later – and because all parents are in this awkward situation of needing to talk with their kids about sex, they can use the excuse of International Sex Education Day as a jumping-off point.
We’ve got suggestions about how to mark the day if you’re a parent, teacher or healthcare professional – and you can sign the Talk To Your Child pledge to get yourself started.
Talk for 10 minutes on 2 February – just 10 minutes – and open up the subject a tiny crack. It can be about anything around sex and relationships, so long as your kids know you’re willing to have these conversations. It’s a very low bar!
What can you talk about? Consent is always the biggest thing – it’s the foundation of healthy sex and relationships. So tell your child aged 2 to 5: “Don’t just take a cookie off someone’s plate – ask if you can have one!” You could talk about where babies come from. Also be aware of how you label body parts – make sure they know the words “penis”, “vulva” and “vagina” just as they know the words “toe”, “knee” and “ear”.
Have your child aged 6 to 10 think about consent in terms of respect. Get them to ask: “Do you want to watch this show together?” instead of saying: “I want to watch this show.” Always say: “I like the way you asked for consent” – bring it to their attention! You could talk about puberty – with kids who identify as boys, talk about menstruation so they have an understanding of what people who identify as girls are going through. Or ask about friendships: “Does that person make you feel good? Do they view the world the same way?” Before kids get into romantic relationships, they have to get the friendship thing down.
Take the consent conversation for your child aged 11 to 16+ up a level. Talk about romantic relationships and tell them: “Ask first. I think that’s sexy. Say: ‘I’d like to kiss you – is that OK?’” Ask about dating: “How does that person make you feel? Are you able to have conversations? Do they want you to spend all your time with them?” Also they’re exploring their sexuality and trying to suss out their identity, so you could talk about who they are: “How do you identify? Who are you attracted to? I embrace you for whoever that person is” and don’t judge them on who they love, their orientation, gender or gender expression. As they emerge into their young-adult years, they’re going to come into contact with all kinds of people and need to be accepting of themselves and others.
HOW PARENTS CAN TALK OPENLY AT HOME
We’ve got to have a lot of hard conversations with our kids – that’s just our job.
Coming from a health perspective, sexual health is one of our body systems that we have to take care of. We need to talk about puberty, periods and wet dreams and not be afraid – it’s part of the human experience. It’s like when someone’s learning to drive, you teach them emotional stuff too: “Don’t drive angry.” That’s our job as parents, to navigate those mental, physical and social pieces. If you have those, then you’ve got the sexual-health piece.
Be self-aware first. You need to know where you are as a parent and where you’re coming from: your values, history and experiences – all that informs how you have the conversation.
Start from birth – as you’re changing your child’s nappy, say “penis” not “wee-wee”. Once you get used to those words they’ll blend into your conversation. Your child has to know what the biology names are, then you can move onto fun names.
For International Kissing Day, on 6 July, I suggest in my book: “Share a funny memory with your child of one of your very first awkward kisses. This allows them to realise ‘awkward’ is normal and it serves as a conversation starter for more serious topics about relationships.”
You may feel uncomfortable about having these conversations, and that is OK. As parents we are tasked with navigating our kids through uncomfortable situations. Be honest and say: “I feel uncomfortable, but I’m your parent and I want you to grow healthy and strong, so let’s have this conversation together.” Then they’ll see you in a different light. It humanises you and makes you more normal.
The highly publicised #MeToo movement really brought sex home, and now with so many TV shows sex is front and centre. That encourages us to have conversations about how what we see on TV is through a media lens; it’s entertainment value. So ask your child: “Do you ever see that in real life?” and ask open-ended questions like “What did you take away from that?”, then sit back and listen. You learn more from listening than you do from talking.
If you’re too busy in the moment, say: “Let’s talk at 2pm” and make sure you’re there for them. Help your child understand that you’re open to ideas and that you won’t judge them.
Keep it short and have quick little conversations: “I just heard on the news about #MeToo. Do you know about it? What do you think?” then: “Thank you for sharing.”
Done. You don’t have to pontificate to them. But now you know where your child is coming from, so you can think about how to approach the topic another time.
From a nursing and health perspective, you can’t talk about sex without talking about the relationships piece. Everything you see affects your relationships, your mental health, how you feel, the part sex plays in your life. There’s no way you can separate them.
As I said in a recent newsletter, reproductive health, social justice and racism all intersect when talking about sex. Maybe it seems as if I’m not staying in my lane – but as a voice in sex ed, it would be irresponsible of me to ignore social-justice events such as the storming of the US Capitol and what it represents. Amaze.org has a wonderful video about intersectionality. It is important to talk to kids about these things. Sure, it may be uncomfortable, and you may feel you don’t understand these concepts, but by learning together you are building a foundation of trust and love. Conversations around this topic take a similar approach to talking about sex: understand your own biases, answer your child’s questions, makes sure they know they’re safe and tune into them.
What I’m trying to get across to parents is: we’re all in this together, I’ve made mistakes too, if you need help I’m here for you – and you got this. By just showing up, you are already open to conversations and making a difference to society down the road.
Kim Cook – author of Teen World Confidential: Five-Minute Topics To Open Conversation About Sex And Relationships – is also the founder of Teen World Confidential, the Sex Education Alliance and International Sex Education Day (celebrate it on 2 February!)