Tough questions, quick answers and true-to-life paper dolls
Maybe it comes from her years as a sex therapist or her time as a nurse in the rough-and-ready Australian bush (among other qualifications), but sex educator Cath Hakanson of Sex Ed Rescue tells it like it is. We’ve long been fans of how she shoots from the hip on both her YouTube channel for parents and on Puberty Talk for kids. Now she has updated her set of anatomically correct Play & Learn – Paperdoll Friends and her Sex Education Answer Book – By The Age Responses To Tough Questions Kids Ask Parents About Sex, which gives parents short scripts to demystify bodies and sex with “less cringe and more confidence”.
Here she talks to us about delaying tactics, not being 100% comfortable and parents’ get-out-of-jail-free card…
This is what I want you to do:
1) Stand in front of your bathroom mirror alone
2) Say the following words aloud: clitoris vagina cervix urethra uterus ovary [the list continues]
3) Pay attention to your reaction. Did you flinch or squirm?
4) Repeat this list of words daily until you feel more comfortable
– From The Sex Education Answer Book
ON GETTING COMFORTABLE TALKING OPENLY
Parents want to know how to have honest conversations about love, sex and relationships that will guide their child and strengthen their relationship without feeling embarrassed, awkward or nervous
Parents think they can put off talking about sex. Our parents put it off until we were on the cusp of puberty. But in this day and age you shouldn’t wait. Kids are learning about sex much sooner – you only have to turn on the car radio and there’s a song about having sex on the beach, or they’re watching TV shows with sexual innuendoes, or other kids are talking about it. It’s better that they hear about it from us and we can get in first with the facts rather than having them think it’s horrific, scary and negative.
Because we all remember what it was like to be a teenager, and very few of us were connected with our parents, we can be terrified that our child will hit their teens and not want to talk to us. Parents don’t want their kid to feel alone or that they don’t have someone to talk to if someone rapes them or something happens at a party.
But warn your child that they can get in trouble for saying vulva, vagina or penis, because some grown-ups might think they’re being rude since some kids use those words in a rude or silly way. It’s about letting your child know that everyone is different. Let your child know the reality of the real world.
At first I thought sex education was all about giving kids information about sex. Then I realised as my kids were getting older: I don’t need to talk about absolutely everything with them, because they know they can talk to me about anything. I’ll grab teachable moments, or I’ll realise: “I haven’t talked about contraception for a while” then bring it up.
If your child isn’t asking you questions, just start conversations yourself and let them know you’re open to talking. A kid might not be a talker anyway. I’ve got one child who rarely asks and another who never shuts up with questions. They’ll ask me something and I’ll go: “Hang on, we talked about this” and it’s like: “Oh yeah, OK.” That just goes to show: it doesn’t matter how many conversations you have – kids will forget. Parents put so much pressure on that first talk. Six months later your kid won’t even remember it, let alone a week later. We think it’s really important, but to them it’s just another conversation.
Having ongoing conversations randomly makes you more connected with your kid. Some people want to plan it and others are just happy to say it – we’re all different. I have a relationship with my kids that’s a lot stronger than if I hadn’t had those conversations.
At first you can feel uncomfortable talking openly about a whole range of stuff, then you get more comfortable. But your kid might ask a question – like “Have you ever been sexually assaulted?”, “Have you ever had sex with a woman?”, “How many people have you had sex with?” – and sometimes it can push a button.
For some people getting comfortable can take years. As parents get more information it changes their way of thinking. This is what I call the slow-cooker approach, not just “stick it in the microwave and have it done in a minute”.
If you don’t know that feeling uncomfortable happens to everyone, you might think: “I can’t do this.” Let’s normalise it. The only people I know who are 100% comfortable talking openly about sex and bodies are on the autism spectrum and their emotions are out of it. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable!
ON THE FEAR FACTOR
Your child is already learning about sex whether you like it or not!
Part of my model for having an open, honest conversation with kids is that one of the first things you do is think: “What might stop me? What are my fears?”
With our kids we always revisit fears. Fears and discomfort pop up all the time. For example, I know that sex education is helpful, but recently when I was researching porn I thought: “Maybe by my talking to my 11-year-old about porn, they’ll go off and Google it.” If I hadn’t been cognisant of having that barrier, I might have stopped talking to them about porn – and if I’ve got that thought, other parents must as well.
One of parents’ biggest fears about talking with their kid about sex is that their kid will tell other kids. It’s a little like the Santa Claus conversation: “In our family we know that Santa isn’t real, but a lot of kids don’t, so let’s let their parents tell them.”
It’s a fine line: by telling your child not to talk with other kids about sex, are you giving them a message that sex is shameful? I don’t think you are, because shame doesn’t always come just from one thing. If you talk about sex and bodies in a nice, comfortable, everyday way, they’ll know you don’t feel shameful.
To help parents talk about masturbation if they feel it’s sinful, I say: “That’s fine, but how can you have the conversation in a way that doesn’t make your child feel shameful?” By the time kids are 13 the masturbation conversations might be about, if they ejaculate, what you want them to use to clean up – dirty socks? tissues? – the logistics of it. Some families are OCD about talking about the hygiene; others don’t mention it at all.
Some parents think: “How can I do this thing? I even can’t say penis! Maybe I just won’t do it at all, then I won’t feel like a bad parent or that I’m inadequate.”
I’m all about reassuring parents that these conversations are important and they’re safe. That’s one of the mantras I have with parents: “It’s about the fact that you’re talking. You don’t have to do it perfectly, because you just don’t.”
ON USING A NORMAL EVERYDAY VOICE
Start looking for opportunities to use words like vulva, penis, vulva, breasts or puberty
With kids we’re always drilling in the message of private vs public. About private parts we teach: “No one should touch or look at them without your permission; they’re just for you.” Private parts also include the mouth, because it can be part of sexual abuse.
This is the thing with sex ed for younger kids: it overlaps with protective behaviours and helps prevent sexual abuse.
“How do you talk about something as horrific as sexual abuse?” is an issue that comes up with parents a lot. Well, it’s horrific to us but not to our kids because they don’t know what it is. Your kid is likely to be cool about it – and the conversation won’t be traumatic – if you use a nice, comfortable, everyday voice. If you’re tense or angry they’ll pick up on your fear and hang-ups. Kids listen not to what you say, not to the actual words, but to how you say it.
ON NOT ANSWERING STRAIGHTAWAY
It is more harmful to ignore your child’s questions about sex than it is to answer them
We teach consent to kids, so we need to practise it ourselves. Kids will ask questions but you don’t always have to answer. You can say: “That’s private. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Sometimes you can’t answer a question then and there. At the supermarket checkout you don’t want an in-depth conversation about abortion or something like that. You can say: “I’ll get back to you” and later say: “You know how you asked me…” You could wait until your partner is there and talk about it as a family.
You can also delay answering if you don’t know something, then look it up and say, for example: “Hey, you know how you asked me: ‘What’s a blowjob?’ Well, this is what it is…”
Delaying is about having a get-out-of-jail-free card so you can think about how to answer. That takes the pressure off. But you have to get back to them, because if you forget, they’ll think it’s a topic you don’t want to talk about – and then you’re no longer askable.
ON TRUE-TO-LIFE PAPER DOLLS
All children need to know that sexual orientation is not a choice, all people deserve respect regardless of their sexual orientation, and who we are attracted to, whether it be females or males, is only a small part of who we are. Try to discuss this topic with care and sensitivity regardless of your beliefs. Sexual attraction is not a choice. If your child ends up being attracted to the same sex, how will they feel about it and will they feel safe talking to you?
Some parents use the Play & Learn anatomically correct paper dolls to start the conversation and others to continue it. There’s a guide at the back with discussion ideas.