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Clear Communications about Sex for Effective Parenting

Avoiding telegraphic remarks on sex

You probably communicate telegraphically when you’re unexpectedly placed in an awkward situation with your young child. For instance, there you are at a baseball game with your seven-year old daughter or son, and staring you in the face from behind left field is a huge billboard with the letters V-I-A-G-R-A next to a picture of a man smiling. Your child asks, “What’s Va-gra? Vi-a-gra? What does that mean?” to which your immediate response is, “Let’s watch the game now!”—ignoring the fact that you’re between innings. Though it may seem minor at the time, you’re sending a telegram to your child that reads something like this:






What beneficial information might your child possibly take away from such exchange? He or she gets the sense that whatever Viagra is, it’s very uncomfortable or very problematic, neither of which is the message you ultimately want to communicate. Think about how hard it must be for our kids to understand what to think, say, and do in our culture where they are inundated with different messages about sexuality. When we are telegraphic and they’re looking for clear, simple answers, we’re telling them, “Don’t ask me!” and that’s just what kids learns to do!

You may wonder what you could possibly say when thrown such a curve ball from your kid in response to a Viagra sign at the baseball stadium. It depends primarily on his or her age. You might say to a seven year-old, “It’s for a medical problem that some men have when they get older.” If it appears that your child wants to pursue this discussion and is near puberty, than it’s a great question to make time later to discuss further. You can use this opportunity to kick off discussion about sexuality and discuss how some men have physical problems with responding sexually that this medication helps.

Talking indirectly about sex or avoiding it altogether during our kids’ childhood often evolves into more fully developed and unhealthy telegraphic exchanges with our children, as they get older. In addition to conveying that we don’t want to discuss it, such advanced telegraphic exchanges create further avoidance, doubts, anxiety, and confusion about sex. Here’s an example of “advanced” telegraphic conversation:

(Sixteen year-old Connie comes down the stairs, looking beautiful in summer dress, hair and makeup in place, to go out on a date.)

Mom: Just be careful.

Dad (chiming in from the living room): You know how we raised you. Don’t make any mistakes!

Connie (running toward the door): Yup, Dad, of course.

Mom (teary-eyed, whispering to her daughter in the corridor as she exits): You know that we love you, honey.

Connie: Okay. I love you, too.

Sexual anxiety awkwardly conveyed amongst everyone. While Connie’s parents are worried that she will do something that’s sexually inappropriate (whatever that is), Connie (has learned) to get away from this topic as quickly as possible!

Beneath the surface of this half-hearted exchange, Connie’s parents have genuine concerns for Connie’s welfare; they just don’t know how to talk about what’s on their mind clearly and openly. As a result, Connie gets “loaded” telegrams with vague messages: “You know what you’re supposed to do,” “Don’t make any mistakes,” “You’ll possibly do something other than what we’re suggesting,” and “We love you.” How can the concerns of Connie and her parents get shared?

Connie’s date is an important, exciting occasion. If her parents have advice regarding sex, Connie can benefit from a loving conversation rather than feeling an anxiety attack ten seconds before she walks out the door. Supportive encouragement is replaced by inducing guilt. Inevitably the exchange echoes previous ”conversations.” This family has developed in advanced telegrams—and open, frank exchanges feel out of reach.

Although many parents say that their “kids can talk” with them “about anything,” the degree to which this occurs depends on the extent to which parents engage honest communications. In general, parents approach conversations with their kids about sex in three categories:

1. Limited exchange. Questions on the topic get raised and quickly dismissed. In this scenario, telegraphic messages get sent and communications remain unclear, as in the case of Connie. (Parents who advocate limited exchange may say it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie when it comes to sex. They trust that their kids will be proactive and persistent, somehow obtaining answers to their questions from somewhere.)

2. Basic talk. Discussion occurs but gets limited by “special” parameters; such communication feels unnatural and strained for everyone involved. While facts get out there, it’s clear to the children that from then on they should fend for themselves. (This category includes parents who fret and pursue the One Big (often dreaded) Talk on the Birds and the Bees.)

3. Ongoing conversation. Rather than approaching sexuality as if it can be covered in a single conversation, given that it’s a dynamic part of life, the ongoing conversation invites a living and loving dynamic where the child feels free to raise issues spontaneously. In this setting, parents accept that they don’t necessarily have all of the answers on the spot, but they recognize it as their duty to help their children find the answers they’re seeking and openly initiate conversations.

By now you realize that you’re aiming for category three!

The Ongoing Conversation

Though openness about addressing details about sexuality may seem daunting at first, the “ongoing conversation” is ultimately easier and substantially more beneficial than the “limited exchange” and “basic talk.” In an ongoing conversation, you don’t find yourself tied up with questions and feelings that make you twitchy and uncertain (“Did I say enough?” “Is it over?”), as you may feel about a performance and speech. You don’t get overwhelmed trying to remember to cover all the points for that overrated, often dreaded (by parents and kids alike), big talk. The ongoing conversation removes the temptation to put yourself, as the adult, in the position of Great “Sexpert,” and instead keeps you in your real place as a loving parent who is a reliable resource committed to help your child. You maintain an honest role as one who has experienced some of life’s challenges, has even made mistakes, and cares a great deal to impart an invaluable perspective and compass.

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John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information visit, and

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