“Well, if you and Dad have a lot of sex, then it must be okay.”
This was my daughter’s conclusion at the end of a long conversation about the birds and the bees.
What you tell your kid about sex matters.
As a parent, you have an incredible amount of influence over how your kid feels about sex. I work with men and women who are dealing with the fall-out of the sex-negative messages they got from their parents – couples whose marriages are on the brink because their sex life has been so full of conflict and resentment.
But so many of us are uncomfortable with our own sexuality that it’s next to impossible to present sex in a positive and comfortable way to our kids. This is a hurdle we all need to overcome if the next generation is going to do this marriage thing better than we have.
At 11, my introduction to how sex worked was this succinct explanation from my cousin, Tom.
“The boy puts his in hers.”
“You know, his thing.”
At which point, I was absolutely disgusted and totally convinced that he was lying. Over the years, I managed to get over my distaste with the whole idea ;-), but I really wanted my kids to have a better introduction to the facts of life.
My husband and I started teaching our kids basic facts about sex as soon as they started asking questions. With five kids, I was constantly either pregnant or nursing, so questions came up quite naturally. “Why is a baby growing in your tummy? How did it get there? Why does the baby’s food come out of your breasts?” We gave matter-of-fact answers that were accurate without being all that detailed.
This gave us a platform to work from. As they got older and heard things at school or read things they didn’t understand, they were quite comfortable asking us about it. And because we had developed that foundation of trust, we were able to respond naturally and without embarrassment both to our sons and our daughter.
- How often do people have sex?
- Does sex feel good?
- My penis keeps getting hard. I think it’s broken.
- Do girls like sex, or just boys?
- Why do girls have to cover up their breasts, but boys don’t?
- Why does someone want to kiss someone’s penis? That sounds yucky.
- Does pee get in your vagina when your husband puts his penis in there?
- Is anal sex okay? Does it feel good?
- I woke up the other night and my sheets were all sticky. I think I wet the bed.
- A boy at school said that he raped a girl, but I think he was just trying to show off. What is rape?
My guess is that some of you are uncomfortable even reading these questions, and the thought of answering them has you in a cold sweat.
If you were raised in a less than open environment about sex, how do you get past it and break the chain with your own kids?
Start Small and Start Early
People refer to having The Talk with their kids, but a better way to look at it is having a series of small talks over a period of years, starting when they’re very young, and becoming gradually more detailed as they get older.
You want their understanding of sex to develop naturally and organically, not as some huge startling revelation when they’re 13.
One thing that has surprised me is how much my kids forget in between discussions. Things I’ve shared with them even six months earlier are only a distant memory, and need to be refreshed.
Again, it’s not one Talk-With-a-Capital-T, it’s lots of little talks over the years.
When your kid asks you a question about sex, don’t act like a bomb just exploded. Continue doing whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re folding laundry, keep on folding and answer the question while your hands are busy.
Having something to do with your hands makes you more comfortable and your kid responds by feeling free to ask more questions.
Munch on Something
I know this one sounds weird, but people become more relaxed when they share food together. If a longer discussion is in order, make yourself a cup of coffee and share some cookies with your kid as you talk.
Sharing a snack gives you a built-in reason to pause during the conversation and gives you time to think about a particularly difficult question; it also gives your kid something to look at if they feel uncomfortable. Drinking something makes a good cover for when you have to swallow.
Use Accurate Words
From the beginning, teach your kids correct terms for body parts and sex acts. There’s no way they can get comfortable with sexuality if they don’t even have the language they need. It may feel awkward at first, but it gradually becomes more natural.
Also give them alternate slang terms they may hear at school. That way, they can connect your explanation with questions they have.
For example, my pre-teen son and I were discussing porn. He wasn’t sure what masturbation was at first, but immediately understood once I mentioned that it’s also called ‘jerking off’ or ‘whacking off’. That’s a term he’s heard from other boys.
One mistake parents make is to throw everything they know out there at one time, trying to ‘get it over with’. It’s overwhelming for a kid and they don’t retain all that much. Give them small bytes of information at a time and pause frequently to give them time to digest what you’re saying.
As much as you can, try to let them lead the conversation, but be aware that a particularly shy kid is probably not going to ask many questions. Solicit their feedback and check their understanding as you go.
Instead of asking, “Do you have any questions?” ask “What questions do you have?” If your child is morbidly shy, try a jumping off point like, “When I was your age, one thing that really confused me was <fill in the blank>. Is that something you’ve wondered, as well?
Look Through Their Eyes
Conversations about sex can be a great opportunity to see your child’s world through their eyes. Ask questions like, “What do kids at school think about sex? What do you hear at school that confuses you?”
Your kids are probably going to know more than you think they do. It’s important to get a clear understanding about their knowledge base. It gives you a chance to see what the culture is teaching them and to figure out any gaps of understanding.
This is where I got the rape question from our pre-teen son. It was an incredibly good opportunity to clear up something that really bothered him. Which leads me to the next point.
Keep a Poker Face
This has been one of the most important factors in whether my kids are comfortable talking with me about sex. No matter how shocked you are at what they ask, you simply cannot let on. There is nothing that will dry them up quicker than the feeling that you are judging them or their friends.
When my son brought up the rape question, I was glad I had practiced my poker face because quite honestly, that one shocked me. I was flabbergasted that a middle schooler would even know what rape was. Turns out that the kid in question had seen it in a porn flick.
Accept Their Sexuality
It can be uncomfortable for us to see our kids as sexual beings. We still want to see them as our babies. However, they need to be able to accept their sexuality as a good and a right thing. Sheila Gregoire has written a great post about what can happen when kids are taught a sex-negative message. Paul Byerly has a good post on sexual perceptions, as well.
Let them know how their bodies are changing/will change.
If they’re going through puberty, tell them clearly what to expect. Let them know that it’s normal to have wet dreams, that it’s normal to want to touch themselves, that it’s okay. Tell them what an orgasm is so that if it happens, they don’t feel like they broke something. Especially important for boys.
And please, please, please, tell your daughter that she has a clitoris and that it’s normal for it to feel good when she touches it. So many kids, especially girls, are appalled to have sexual feelings when they touch themselves and think something must be wrong with them.
At the same time, it’s a good opportunity to reiterate to them that while they can touch themselves anywhere they want while they’re in private, no one else can touch them without their permission. Not a doctor, not a mommy, not a relative, not a neighbor, not a teacher.
At the end of our 45 minute conversation about sex, I asked my daughter how she felt about the whole thing. I shared with her how weirded-out I was when my cousin first told me about sex, and opened the door for her to share her impressions.
She paused for a bit, and then responded, “Well Mom, it does sound kind of weird, but if you and Dad like to do it, and you have a lot of sex, then it must be okay.”
Yep, sweetheart. Sex with your husband is awesome and you are going to love it. That’s the take-away and I was so grateful she got that message loud and clear.
‘We are the windows through which our children first see the world. Let us be conscious of the view.’
Someone is going to tell your kid about sex … whether it’s a cousin, a kid at school, or something they read or watch. You can’t stop that from happening.
Your only decision is when it happens, what message they hear, and whether or not it’s going to be you.
Resources: Parenting has a helpful article with common sense answers to questions kids commonly ask about sex.