I am both a parent and professional sex educator. I have been a parent for more than nineteen years and I have been a sex educator for more than thirty, and I can tell you one very simple fact that I am sure of. Parents can have more influence on their children's sexual behavior than any sex education program could ever hope to have. Moreover, parents can also be more influential than all of the media or their children's peers and friends can be when it comes to their kid's sexual expression. Did you all get that? When we do our job well, when we become approachable on all matters that are sexual for our children, we will have more of a positive effect on our children's sexual behavior than any other possible source of information and guidance, and we beat out as well all the negative sources of influence. It is truly that simple. When we become approachable parents we win the battle...our kids will be more likely to delay sexual intercourse, avoid teen pregnancy, avoid sexually transmitted infections, and avoid sexual violence.
Obviously, I am a big supporter of sex education in the schools...I was Director of Health for the NYC Public Schools and I have a doctoral degree in human sexuality studies. But nothing can top parents when it comes to influencing the sexual behavior of young people. Nothing! Yet, many parents think otherwise...they think they can't possibly compete with their kid's peers and friends or the various sources of the sexualized media. I hear this all the time, particularly from parents that have kids of high school age. Too many believe that their voice gets lost and they can't get the recognition that these other competing sources of sexual influence can have.
But research tells us a different story...it tells us that parents can have far more influence than any other source can have, and it also tells us that an overwhelming majority of teenagers wish that their parents would communicate more with them about sex and sexuality. How about that? Our kids actually want to hear more from us about sex. Without any doubt, the power to shape our children's sexual behavior rests more in our hands than any other. All we need to do is to follow a handful of simple steps and we will win this battle. If we just do the following we will become an approachable parent:
• Have on-going conversations about different aspects of sex and sexuality where you share information and knowledge. Have formal talks with your child and informal ones by using teachable moments. Be proactive.
• Share your values and tell your child what you think is acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior.
• Stress and reinforce the importance of love, respect, and trust as the three most important sex words your child can learn.
• Be an authoritative parent; not a permissive or authoritarian parent.
• Teach your child how to make sexual decisions by using authentic teaching strategies.
(See my book for more detail: http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/fred-kaeser-edd)
So let's see where you stand as an approachable parent on sexual matters right now. Take this very simple quiz and you'll see how you do. Just answer "yes, no, sometimes" to the following questions:
1. I make it a point to initiate a conversation about some aspect of sex and sexuality with my child at least once a month. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
2. When my child asks a question about sex or sexuality I answer it and make sure never to ignore or avoid it. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
3. I take advantage of teachable moments. That is, when something involving sex or sexuality occurs when I am with my child, I will highlight my thoughts about it or will engage my child in discussion about it. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
4. I have shared my values about a range of sexual issues with my child and make it a point to periodically remind her/him about those values. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
5. I have discussed with my child what I believe to be right and wrong sexual behavior, and make it a point to periodically remind her/him about what I believe to be right and wrong. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
6. I have stressed with my child the importance of love, respect, and trust in a relationship that involves sex. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
7. I model for my child on a regular basis love, respect, and trust. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
8. I have discussed with my child on many occasions how to make healthy decisions about sexual issues by using hypothetical situations that could actually occur in real-life. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
9. I read-up on what children of different ages need to know about sexual issues and initiate discussions with my child about those issues. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
10. I set boundaries of behavior for my child and reinforce positive behaviors rather that punish her/his negative behaviors. Yes__ No__ Sometimes__
So how did you do? Are you approachable? Doing well or do you need more work? You obviously want to say "yes" to as many of these questions as you can in your quest to being a very approachable parent on all sexual matters. And it really doesn't matter either how old your child is. Whether your child is three or seventeen years of age each of these questions apply; remember, you want to be approachable throughout your child's growth and development. Answering "sometimes" is still pretty good and keeps you in the running as an approachable parent but you really want to pile up the "yes" answers. You want to avoid answering "no" to any of these questions if possible. Although a "no" is not the end of the world you can see that the more questions you answer "no" to brings you further and further away from being the approachable parent you want to be.
Just think...if we all become approachable parents our children's sexual risk behaviors will all be reduced and they will have a much better chance of growing into healthy and happy sexual adults. So let's all become approachable right now.