Upon hearing that I teach sexual education courses, a new father commented, “That conversation is so far off, I can’t even think about it.” He was quite surprised when I suggested that the conversation about sexuality began the moment he and his partner became parents.
The minute parents hear, in the delivery room, “It’s a boy,” “It’s a girl,” or "Your child may be intersex," they begin communicating ideas about sexuality to their children. Consider how many parents bring newborns home in a pink or blue outfit or use the phrases, “He’s all boy” or “She’s such a Daddy’s girl.” These gendered messages are part of your child's sexuality education.
The “birds and bees” story of old—a confusing analogy that uses flower pollination to describe human reproduction—alludes to only a small fragment of human sexuality. In reality, sexuality includes, but isn't limited to, gender identity, sexual orientation, eroticism, the ability to love and feel loveable, self-image, interpersonal relationships, sexual physiology and health, sexual manipulation, and, yes, sexual behavior and reproduction.
You may wonder why you would need to introduce all these concepts to your child. It’s not a matter of introducing the information—that often happens without parental intervention—rather, it’s a matter of helping children put the information into perspective. Without your guidance, your children may have a hard tim understanding their bodies, their feelings, the images they see, or the words they hear.
You can help your children become sexually healthy individuals who value and respect themselves and others by communicating honestly, consistently and intentionally about sexuality. I use the word “intentionally” because you’ve already been communicating about sexuality even if you haven’t meant to. You have done it if you have:
- selected your child’s clothing and toys according to “girl colors” or “boy colors," "girl toys" or "boy toys";
- assumed you know your children's sexual orientation;
- created rules about nudity or privacy in your home;
- discouraged or encouraged your children's exploration of their own bodies:
- displayed, or avoided displaying, physical affection for your partner;
- responded to questions about sex comfortably or by changing the topic.
Who do you want to teach your child about sex?
It's important to talk with your children about sexuality because if they aren't hearing from you, they are absorbing someone else’s messages. And whose messages are those? Siblings and friends, grandparents, babysitters, teachers and doctors as well as video games, toys, television, magazines, movies and newspapers.
Messages about sexuality may be healthy or innocuous, confusing or disturbing. You can't control every message your children receive, but you can help them put the information into the context of your values. Research has shown that children want to learn from their parents early on; as they age, they tend to look to their peers for information. By starting the conversations at an early age, you can encourage your children to keep talking with you as they mature.
Many years ago, my daughter, then age 10, attended a birthday party during which the girls watched an R-rated film. She told me later that the film included a scene in which a boy tries to rape a girl at a teen party. Her father and I had talked to her about sexual boundaries and consent, so she knew the male character's behavior was unnacceptable. I can't say the same for all the other pre-teens at the party, whose parents may never have provided sexuality education at home.
What had we done right? We had talked with our daughter about sexual relationships and the importance of mutual consent, respect, maturity, and protection. What had we done wrong? We hadn't gotten to know the girl's parents or their values; in addition, we hadn't asked what the party entertainment would include.
Monitoring children's media access is harder today, since many children and young teens have near-constant access to cable TV and online content. It's all the more important for you to serve as your children's primary sexuality educator, ready to share your values and wisdom gained through life experience.
Use the topics below to spur discussion between you and your co-parent or teens and other adults who play a significant role in your children's upbringing. Jot down responses and ideas that will improve communication with your child.
- What messages did you receive about sexuality when you were a child?
- Did you have an adult to discuss sexuality with, and if so, what helped create that trusting relationship?
- What were some of the biggest questions you had about sexuality, and by what age did you want answers?
- If you would have preferred to learn about sexuality differently, and if so, how?
- What kinds of messages would you like your child to receive about sexuality, e.g., no-holds-barred access to information, or a more moderate or conservative approach, and why?
Next, make a list of the some of the sexuality information sources in your childrens's lives, including caregivers, friends, relatives, television, magazines, internet, etc. Consider ways you can support or counterbalance those outside sources so your values and sexuality education play a primary role.
For more tips about parent-child communication, see my eManual, "Sexuality Talking Points: A guide to thoughtful conversations between parents and children."