Is there a parent on the planet who doesn’t have at least a tiny bit of trepidation having “the talk” with their offspring about how they came to be and the importance of responsible engagement in sexual activity? Even the most sophisticated and sexually savvy person might question their ability to impart wise guidance on this essential topic, so sadly, many don’t.
In my therapy practice, the subject arises from time to time and I ask my clients what they were taught, by whom and whether it was an awkward or comfortable exchange. On extremely rare occasions, did they relate that they learned about the metaphorical “birds and bees” at an early age, explained in a way that they could comprehend. This is so across the board with both adult and adolescent clients.
What happens when healthy sex education is left lacking? Shame, misunderstanding, high-risk sexual behaviors, early experimentation, teen pregnancy and STD’s. There are some who would advise that education begin by kindergarten.
As a child of the 60’s, sex education in school took the form of boys in one room and girls in another as a gym teacher read from a book and showed a black and white film about biology and body parts, our periods, how to prevent pregnancy and what was then referred to as VD (Venereal Disease). I can’t vouch for what the boys heard, but that was the extent of our training on the topic.
I recall a commercial on television that sang, “I got it from Sandy, who got it from Paul. Paul got it from Ernestine who could’ve got it anywhere at all. And with my love, I gave it to you. Now that we’ve got it, what’re we gonna do? VD is for everybody.”
Nowhere in the mix was talk about feelings, how to recognize desire and what to do about it. Abstinence education simply didn’t work. Most of my peers experimented with sexual interactions in our teens. Even in my home where my mom (my dad was far too embarrassed to broach the subject with my sister and me), left the door open for conversation about sex, that aspect was not covered.
When I was 10, she handed me a book by the sanitary napkin company Modess, asked me to read it and come to her with any questions. I did and still felt like there was more that I could have asked but didn’t. I’m not sure how I learned, except to follow my own instincts about how to set boundaries with boyfriends throughout adolescence. I remember coming home from a date with a high school boyfriend with a lovely glowing bruise on the side of my neck and my mother’s response was, “I think P. is getting a bit too passionate.” Nothing more was said about it. When she walked in on me when I was in an about to be revealing and compromising position, with the young man I was seeing between high school and college, (fortunately the light was out in the room), she said, “It’s time for S. to go home now.” Again, no further conversation ensued. As I look back on those two incidents, I imagine she either felt she was in over her head, or she trusted that I would figure it out on my own. I wish she had the vocabulary, or ability to have that discussion. My desire for emotional intimacy gave way to physical intimacy that I didn’t understand and couldn’t always control. Clearly, I was not alone in my struggle.
When my son was young, and my husband was still alive, he had ‘the talk’ with Adam. He was around eight at the time and had begun inquiring. Although Michael was reluctant, I reminded him that if our child was asking, he wasn’t too young and if he didn’t talk about it, I would. He died when our son was 11, so I revisited the subject and told Adam that he could ask me anything he wanted to, and I would answer honestly, but that I couldn’t tell him what it was like to be a man. I chose a few trusted male friends as his guides since they shared my values about sex, relationships and women. One became his go-to guy for nearly everything and eventually, Phil was more than a mentor, but became a man that Adam considered a surrogate father.
When Adam was 14, we had what I refer to as, “the three-part sex talk”.
- Respect yourself and your partner(s)
- Safer sex practices
- I’m too young to be a grandmother
It became a standard conversation over the years as he began new relationships. By the time he was in a relationship with a young woman who had a then 3-year-old little boy, he acknowledged the first two, but laughingly reminded me, “Mom, you’re not too young to be a grandmother anymore.”
I feel gratified that he has been respectful of the women in his life. I recall that when he was a tween, we had the “no means no” conversation. I reminded him that it applied to him as well. If a partner wanted to touch him and he didn’t want it, he had the right to decline, since boys are not often given that permission to maintain body boundaries.
Ideas for making the conversation easier:
- Educate yourself first. There are numerous books for tweens and a range from childhood through adolescence.
- Practice conversations in the mirror, writing down a script if necessary.
- Remember what you were taught and determine that you will use what was helpful and discard anything that was detrimental.
- Share information at an appropriate comprehension level for your child. Although many young people are more sophisticated than previous generations, there is still confusion. Clarify any misunderstanding. Sometimes, to save face, a teen will claim to know more than they do. Children are sometimes exposed early on to on line pornography which can be damaging to their development.
- Speak to them about the dangers of sexting, or posting anything compromising on social media.
- Get past your embarrassment or at least admit to your child that you are experiencing it. That honesty is part of the intimacy of any relationship and models what you want him or her to have.
- Speak about the idea that sex is about more than “get it on, get it up, get it in, get it off, get it out”. Nor is it about just what goes on below the belly button. It is about people relating from the heart, head and body.
- Encourage open communication between your child and potential partner(s) throughout their lives.
- Speak to them about touch by consent. With the proliferation of #metoo stories from both men and women, it is essential. If they want to touch someone, ask first and receive a verbal yes, then touch is welcome. If, instead, the response is no, or uncertainty, then it is unwelcome. A wonderful video explains it well that relates tea with consent. Remind them that no one has the right to touch another without their explicit permission, regardless of level of desire, expectation or nature of the relationship.
- Don’t make an assumption about your child’s sexual orientation. Even if it is uncomfortable and perhaps not in keeping with your expectations and/or religious orientation, be open to the idea that they have the inherent right to experience love with the partner of their choice, regardless of gender. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is a valuable resource for education and support.