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.
There are 3 versions of each paper doll – one with a vulva, one with a penis and one with nothing, which represents an intersex body. The idea is that the kid picks the doll they want to go with, or the parent can choose one and say: “Is this a girl or a boy? Why is it a girl – because there’s a vulva? Do all girls have to have vulvas?” With the no-genitals doll, kids can draw their own versions, or parents can use that one first if they’re more comfortable with it.
It’s about getting the parent comfortable, not the kid – the kid’s totally cool about everything. But if a parent isn’t comfortable, they’ll never start the conversation.
The joy of the colour-and-cut-out thing is that it’s an activity that makes conversation more natural. For many parents, while their hands are busy they relax, and if their kid is busy it’s easier to start talking.
A lot of parents ask: “How do I talk about consent?” The paper dolls are a great way to role-play consent and nudity. Dress up a doll and pretend: “Let’s go play in the backyard. Oh, you’ve taken all your clothes off, but so-and-so’s here…” and have role-play conversations.
The dolls have gender-neutral names and they’re diverse. I got my hairdresser involved to make sure the hairstyles – girly, boy-y, gender neutral – were right ethnically. Because of feedback from Muslim mums, I threw in hijabs with the outfits.
Some parents said: what about kids with a disability? So there’s a wheelchair and crutches. The outfits are a mixture of gender neutral and very stereotypical. They’re also inclusive: all the outfits fit all the dolls, and kids could use the wedding dress and suit with another formal set to have 2 girls or 2 boys getting married. It’s all stuff to start conversations.
Surprisingly enough, not many kids even notice that the dolls have genitals – they just grab them and colour them in.
ON HOW THE ANSWER BOOK WORKS
Every kid is different and is developing on their own schedule
How does the sperm get to the egg?
How will I know if I have an STI?
What is a prostitute?
Why is my penis so small?
What is that white stuff in my underwear?
How do 2 females have sex?
Can I stop myself from having an erection? Why is one of my breasts bigger than the other?
Does it hurt to have sex?
– Some of the many questions in The Sex Education Answer Book
Parents want resources to be age specific – they want the exact language and actual examples of how to answer their children’s questions. This book gives them tangible ideas of how to phrase things for kids aged 3 to 14. It’s also available as an app.
The language for talking about sex has changed even from 3 years ago. It doesn’t matter what words you use – you’ll always upset someone! With this edition of the book I removed all the gendered assumptions, so it’s not about a woman having sex with a man, it’s about a person with a vulva having sex with a person with a penis.
There can be overwhelm with parents. If I want to know “How do you explain sexual intercourse?” to my 7-year-old, I’m way past reading about 3-year-olds and not even thinking about 12-year-olds – and if I see an in-depth explanation for a 13-year-old, I’ll freak out.
You don’t just tell kids about sexual intercourse once, because what a 5-year-old and what a 9-year-old need to know is very different. So it’s that constant scaffolding, adding more and more information.
How much detail a child needs depends on their age. Parents can choose to go forward a year, or if they aren’t comfortable or those scripts feel too much, they can go back a year. Many of the scripts are similar because what you say might only change every 2 or 3 years.
A lot of the questions in the book are based on child sexual development, feedback from parents and kids’ natural curiosity – but also on exposures that kids get in the real world. At school a 6-year-old might hear someone who has an older brother talking about blowjobs.
Because of porn and the sexualised messages that kids get on TV and radio, I threw in sexualised stuff like: “What’s a pole dancer?” The feedback I get from parents about porn is that it isn’t just the everyday stuff that kids are getting exposed to but also the tricky stuff. That’s why there’s a question about bestiality, because the top 3 sites that kids go to are Pornhub, RedTube and Zootube, and kids are seeing it.
A 5-year-old doesn’t need to know what porn is, but if someone’s showed it to them or someone’s talking about it, you need to satisfy their curiosity otherwise they’ll go: “What’s porn?” and Google it. But if you give them a straightforward answer, they can go: “OK. What’s for dinner?” and move on. When we don’t address it, that increases their curiosity.
It’s all about parents using very direct language so that kids can’t misinterpret things. I don’t use terms like “special cuddles”. But I do use standard words that kids use – for example, it’s common for kids to say: “My vulva (or vagina or penis) tickles (or feels nice).” I also use language that parents use: I say sex, not sexual intercourse. It’s about talking their lingo.
ON WHY PARENTS STRUGGLE WITH SEX EDUCATION
Teenagers consistently say that their parents are the most important influence when it comes to making decisions about sex
What makes sex education hard for a lot of people is that they have no baseline to refer back to – they don’t know what it should look like because they’ve never seen it.
With sex ed, like with all parenting, we need to reflect on how we were parented. When I was growing up, sex ed was in a silo. I didn’t learn anything about it from my friends but I did work out that being open and honest about everything was a good way to chat.
I’ve spent 11 years trying to unravel why parents – myself included – struggle with sex education. I reckon that no one will ever unravel it. Sexuality is so complex we’ll never fully understand how to get parents comfortable talking about it.
Working in sex therapy I noticed that the people who started having a more connected relationship with their partner were people who’d had good sex ed themselves. The ones who were really screwed up had got messages of shame, negative messages from religion or no information, so they had to learn the hard way by making lots of mistakes.
I fell into sex education because I was a parent. Then I got “big picture” about it and thought: how about we get in earlier with sex ed and try to bring about change?
Now I get love letters from people saying: “I had my first conversation! I would never have done this without you.”
That’s what I love about sex education: it’s about change and prevention. These simple conversations can change future generations. It’s quite profound. All it takes is one parent to be more open, honest and positive with their child, then their child will be open and honest with their child – and this ripple of positivity will just get bigger and bigger.
Follow Cath Hakanson on Facebook here. For a limited time only: The Sex Education Answer Book will be on sale for 99 cents as an ebook – plus through March 2021 you can sign up to Cath’s free 5-day mini course on child-friendly ways to answer tough questions about sex