Six Obstacles to Talking to Your Children About Sex
Rochelle walked into the room to find the contents of her purse dumped on the floor. Her three-year-old son held up a tampon and asked, “Mommy, what’s this?”
Veronica and Tim are uninhibited about nudity. They dress and undress in front of their young children regularly. Recently, Veronica looked up and noticed her five-year-old son staring intently at her naked body. “I’d better do something about this,” she thought, “but what?”
Claudia was sliding the last batch of muffins into the oven when her nine-year-old daughter interrupted with a question. “Mom, what’s an orgasm?”
Ready or not, like it or not, Rochelle, Veronica, and Claudia found themselves thrust into the role of sex educator. If it hasn’t already, the same will happen to you soon. Are you ready?
Some parents attempt to avoid talking with their children about sexuality as long as possible. Others freeze up when it comes to answering sex-related questions. The bottom line is this: Sex and sexuality is a topic that your children want and need to know about. Children are going to obtain sexual information somewhere. Do you want to leave your child’s sexual education to television or to their peer group? Do you want them getting their information in your home from loving parents or on the street from acquaintances?
Below are the six most frequent obstacles parents face when talking to their children about sex, along with strategies for overcoming them. Use these suggestions to help you handle whatever obstacles you may be facing, to help you ease any fear you might be feeling, and to help you find the words to talk to your children about sex. Now is the time to reclaim the important role of sex educator for your children.
Obstacle 1: Fear of harming your children
Many parents fear that talking about sex will increase sexual activity in their children. The fact is that knowledge about sex does not make children want to run right out and have sex. Sexual knowledge is empowering. It helps children feel secure and gives them the tools they need to make rational, reasonable decisions.
No one worries that the information children get in driver education classes will lead to more accidents. And no one worries that if children are taught about nutrition they’ll immediately go out and hurt themselves by eating too much of the wrong foods.
Don’t worry that you might be telling your child too much. Children will not absorb any more than what they can developmentally handle. The information that is out of their range of understanding will essentially evaporate into thin air. Children cannot hold onto information that is too sophisticated for their brains. This is true about all things, not just sex.
Do be concerned with how you present the material. Keep it as age appropriate as possible. Obviously, it wouldn’t be appropriate to show a ten- or eleven-year-old child explicit videos. If your four-year-old child asks you, “Where do babies come from?” it is not helpful to respond with information about fallopian tubes, follicle stimulating hormone, amniotic fluid, and the uterine environment. If you are not sensitive to the developmental stage of your child, you are going to lose a teaching moment. Know where your children are developmentally and answer the questions they ask accurately within their field of understanding.
Obstacle 2: Waiting for children to ask questions
If you wait for your child to ask, it might be too late. Did he or she walk up to you one day and ask, “Will you teach me how to use a fork and spoon?” or “What’s that big bowl in the bathroom with water in it that swirls all around sometimes?” Probably not. What you did in those cases was take the initiative. You looked for opportunities to teach about the fork and the spoon. You watched for chances to help your child learn about the toilet.
Do the same with sex. Look for opportunities to talk about sexuality. Don’t wait to have “the talk.” That’s not how it’s going to happen. Your child is not going to walk up to you and say, “I want to have the sex talk now.” Remember, by the time you’re ready to have “the talk,” your child has already been talking and listening to lots of sex talk somewhere else.
The goal is for you to support your children in becoming fabulous, wonderful, sexually rich people. This involves teaching them about taking care of and being responsible for their bodies with appropriate choices about nutrition, hygiene, teeth, hair, and skin. It also includes learning about gender, feelings, bodies, maleness and femaleness, relationships, love, intimacy, values, and communication. And it means giving them the facts.
Facts are important when it comes to teaching your children about sex. But talking about the “facts of life” is not enough. Healthy sex education includes teaching values, communication skills, and decision-making skills. It involves learning to respect yourself and others. Learning to respect your body as well as the bodies of others is another important dimension.
Sexuality is one of many facets of the human personality and a fundamental building block in determining who we are, how we treat other people, and how we treat ourselves. Talking about sexuality is an important step in preparing your children for a healthy relationship both with others and with themselves. It is about shaping an entire way of experiencing life. It is about helping your children learn how to experience themselves and experience other people. The idea is to take the best of your parenting skills and experiences and apply them to sex rather than making a separate, special category and time for sexual discussions.
Obstacle 3: Believing that a child doesn’t want or need sex education
We are sexual beings. Sexuality is all around us. It affects every aspect of our lives. Look at the world we live in. The radio has songs with sexual overtones. Magazines have pictures of women and men with little or no clothing. Television shows are full of sexual references and moments of casual sex. If you don’t educate your child about sexuality, the world will do it for you. Which do you prefer play the role of sex educator in the lives of your children?
Obstacle 4: Not knowing what to say
You don’t have to be a sex expert. You are not a dentist, yet you teach your child to brush and care for his teeth. You are not a doctor, still you teach your child how to take care of herself when she has a cold or is feeling sick. You are not a grammar teacher, yet you teach your child how to use words and structure sentences.
You don’t need to know everything. Stick to the basics of what you do understand. Keep yourself informed as best you can.
Obstacle 5: Embarrassment – Believing that polite people don’t discuss sex
It’s said that it’s easier to DO sex than to TALK about sex.
Remember that if you’re embarrassed talking about sex, embarrassment is your issue and your problem, not your child’s. Apprehensiveness is something that your child will feel and learn from your demeanor and attitude. Your embarrassment will create an environment in which he or she will be less likely to come to you with a sexual question. Knowing that talking about sex will make you uncomfortable, your children will not likely approach you concerning sexual issues. If you have had a traumatic sexual experience, an unfulfilled sexual relationship, or sexual identity confusion, you may be uncomfortable talking about sexual issues. Let your child know that their sexual questions are important to you and that you will help them by getting someone who can talk to them about their concerns. Get someone you can trust. A family member, close friend, or trusted clergy member is appropriate.
Obstacle 6: Not wanting your children to ask you about your own sex life
Sooner or later, your children will ask an embarrassing question in their search for more information and understanding. Get ready. The questions will come.
“Do you have sex?” “Do you like sex?” “How often do you do it?” “Did you do it before you met Dad?” “Did you do it before you had me?” “If you don’t want to have any more kids, why do you still do it?”
You don’t have to answer questions that you’re not comfortable answering. An important lesson for your children to learn is that social norms exist around asking questions of a personal nature. Personal privacy needs to be respected.
Suggested responses to questions that are too personal for your comfort level include:
“I’m uncomfortable answering that question completely for you right now, but I will tell you . . .” “I don’t want to influence your decisions about sex by telling you what I did or didn’t do.” “How would knowing that help you with the choices and decisions you’re making about sex?” “That question is a little more personal and private than most couples are comfortable talking about with others.”
Don’t leave the sexual education of your children in the hands of the school, television, or their peer group. Seize the teaching moments your children lay before you. Overcome the obstacles listed above. Reclaim your role as primary sex educator for your children. Begin today.
Thomas Haller is an AASECT Certified Diplomate of Sex Therapy.