Taking the plunge: how to talk openly with children about sex & relationships
As parents, we get it: everything has gone digital fast. It’s hard to keep pace with our children’s onscreen lives because it’s near impossible to know what they are being exposed to by friends, the media, social media and the internet – and when.
But there is something you can do that will help safeguard your children against negative influences, shore up their mental health and in the process strengthen your connection.
You can involve yourself in your children’s sex education. You can start the conversation.
Though we live in a hypersexualised society, ironically we tend to find it difficult to talk with our children about things like sex and relationships. Generally we didn’t have comprehensive sex education or parents who talked openly with us. No wonder we often don’t have the language, skills or confidence to talk openly with our children; unsurprisingly, it doesn’t always come naturally.
Talking openly is, however, a surefire way to support your children and help them become resilient. That might mean challenging yourself. But if you become comfortable in talking about tricky subjects, you will mirror that confidence to your children.
Sex ed begins at home because you are your children’s first and most influential educator. So start talking openly with them now – and continue, little and often, over time. Listen to your children and ask them questions. Bring up news stories, the ads you see, the songs you hear and other people’s experiences as ways in. Use humour. Be factual. Keep going.
Knowledge is of course power, so if children can talk and think about their changing bodies and brains – if they learn about puberty before puberty hits, or if they realise that the brain is still under construction up to age 25 – it will be easier for them to take the developmental phases they are going through more in their stride.
From the start, use correct names for body parts. It’s a protective measure for children, in case anything happens to them, to be armed with anatomical knowledge. Also, if you don’t say words like vulva or penis out loud, you are automatically imposing a sense of secrecy and shame onto body parts that shouldn’t feel any more awkward to label than eyes or elbows.
Consent is another important cornerstone to safeguarding. Encourage young children to understand that they have a right to personal space – for example in terms of choosing not to be hugged or tickled. That way they’ll be better able to distinguish between safe and unwanted touch, respect other people’s boundaries and be clear about their own limits.
Talking to older kids about consent means getting them to recognise in themselves when something feels or doesn’t feel physically right or emotionally comfortable, and then to act on those feelings. It also comes down to reading and responding to another person’s verbal and non-verbal cues. If they know to look out for someone’s ongoing enthusiastic consent, they will be respecting the other person. If they can express enthusiastic consent themselves, they will have greater self-respect and self-knowledge.
Meanwhile it’s helpful for both girls and boys to acknowledge that boys are conditioned to expect entitlement and girls are socialised to defer to other people. Where boys are often experts in their own sexual pleasure by their early teens, many girls and young women come later to understanding or even acknowledging their own desire. But pleasure and consent are interrelated – because how can you know what you don’t want if you don’t know what gives you pleasure?
To help your children become resilient, encourage them to think critically and to question our culture. Children are conscious of gender roles and norms by age 2. So stop and question with them why it isn’t OK for girls to play with tractors or boys with dolls. Choose books, clothes and toys on the basis of children’s interests instead of along the commercialised pink/blue divide.
Think critically about magazine ads, billboards, music videos, movies, TV programmes and song lyrics. Call into question the imagery and messaging about sex, sexuality, sexiness, gender stereotypes and the objectification of women that we all take for granted – and call it out with your kids.
Talking to children about porn is incredibly hard. But try. Tell younger children to talk to you if they see something online that upsets them. If they’re older, demystify porn by bringing up the bigger picture: you could talk about the exploitativeness and profit motives of the industry, how the dopamine hit of clicking on image after image can condition people’s arousal mechanisms, how scenes are edited and don’t include consent or condoms, how 88% of porn is violent and degrading towards women, how it sets up unrealistic expectations of sex and bodies that can have a damaging effect on people’s attitudes and behaviour.
Children learn in the classroom and the playground, from the surrounding culture, from what they find or are shown online. But their moral compass will be their family’s values and their parents’ perspectives.
So examine your own formative experiences, your current opinions and your hopes for your children’s positive future experiences. Sex, love, pleasure, consent and relationships are all important parts of life, and it’s important to try having everyday conversations about them. Your children will notice and take on board your willingness to reach out. Your openness and communicativeness will help them to feel grounded, develop self-acceptance, express their emotions, ask for help, cope under pressure and learn good decision-making.
Meet your children on the level of talking openly, and you both stand to learn a lot about yourselves and each other.
A shorter version of this article appeared on Parent Zone’s Parent Info site in December 2019