Sex and kids. Ugh. Two words we dread hearing in the same sentence. We never want to know about it. We rarely think about it. And we sure hate talking about it. Yet, it is one of the most important areas for us to have influence over. Think about it-do you really want your kids learning about this important subject from the movies, or worse, from their friends? I’m sure we would all prefer they had no knowledge or opinions about it. Yeah, right…good luck with that!
Although a tough subject, it doesn’t have to be terrifying to conquer or become an expert on, at least in your kids’ eyes.
First, it’s important to spend some time thinking about your beliefs and knowledge of the subject. Make sure you have your facts straight, think about your opinions, and talk to your partner about the issue. This is one area where you want to avoid confusion and mixed messages.
Start very young and continue discussing this through their entire lives: please don’t ever make them feel ashamed or embarrassed about their bodies. Kids go through all phases of development and exploration. Don’t tell your toddler boys that “it will fall off it they play with it.” Of course they’re going to play with it…it’s there! When your child is 3-4 they can understand the concept of not looking/playing in public. Tell them very simply that they need to do that in private (bathroom/bedroom). If you make it a big deal, they will do it more and/or learn to be ashamed. If you make it okay (yet put appropriate boundaries on it), then it becomes healthy, normal, and no big deal.
When your kids are old enough (the actual age is up to you, but the initial message is targeted for approximately a 10 year old), start talking to them about marriage, love, and even sex (limited). A really easy way to bring it up is to find materials or websites that talk about it, and then “conveniently” have it present when your child is around. I was lucky; I used to go to conferences and come home with “sex can wait” and “virginity rocks” pamphlets. I was amazed at the great conversations that would come up when my kids would just happen to see some of them! When I came across a great book on the subject, I would make sure it was around, or that I was reading it when they were around. Kids are curious, and will often ask great questions that get the conversation going!
From there, make it easy and safe to talk about. Be cautious with your language. Make it appropriate, but not clinical. I know everything always says to use the “correct terminology” with your kids and I absolutely agree. However, I also know when to limit the use of certain words. Kids and teens are distracted and embarrassed by many words. It is up to us to try to decrease that as much as possible. But, it is also up to us to know the boundary. It’s okay to limit some words, and even imply certain things, if it helps get the message across and keeps the conversation going. Make sure the points are clear, but be gentle with your words!
The next important concept is to be ready and available whenever the subject may come up.
I have no idea how it came up but one night I was driving my step son and his best friend back from visiting relatives, and we ended up talked about sex related issues for over half the drive. It was dark and late, which seemed to lessen their embarrassment and made the conversation really easy. They asked tons of great questions and really engaged in the conversation. We chuckled at parts, and had some very serious parts. One of the main themes and great results of it all was that they knew they could ask me anything they wanted. Most importantly, if they ever needed anything, or knew of friends that were having trouble, they could come to me.
Now, again, having the materials I had and working where I worked opened a lot of doors with my kids. One of them basically saw me as the expert and would bring her teenage friends over to ask me questions. I loved it! Regardless of the question, I feel like I was always able to make it safe for them to talk to me, encourage them to talk to their parents, and talk to them about abstinence. With the world we live in, information is always available. If you feel like you need to “open the door,” find information that ties into your beliefs/opinions, and have it around…and be ready for conversations to start. If they don’t, ask your kids easy questions like, “what do you think about this?”
Now, as kids get older, it is important to start trying to get your true message across. While I understand why parents talk to kids about safer sex and birth control, in my opinion (and I completely understand opinions on this vary) this may not be the way to go. It’s better than nothing, but is your goal really for your child to be having sex, even if it’s “safe?” If not, don’t water down your message with the birth control talk…not yet, anyway.
When you get to that point, share science with them. Abstinence is the only form of birth control that is 100%. By the way, they don’t call it “safe sex” anymore. They call it “safer sex.” That alone is scary. Tell them that. Condoms have about a 70% effective rate (especially with kids who don’t know how to use them). I used to always ask people to think of this: if 10 of them were crossing the street, and they knew 3 of them weren’t going to make it, would they still cross? That’s 70%. And, yes, tell them that when they do make those decisions, to be smart and be as safe as possible, but to also be prepared for any consequences. And then talk to them about the consequences and about how they would affect them. Give details where appropriate.
Avoid scare tactics. Be honest and give them facts. Give them concepts they can understand. Don’t exaggerate or lie to make your point. Kids know when you do, and you will lose all credibility on the subject. Also, remember most kids feel a sense of invincibility. You need approaches that infiltrate that.
This next one seems to surprise people. Kids respond to conversations about true love and respect. Talk to them about the meaning of love, about the difference between teen love and love when you’re a little older. Talk about consequences. Consequences of pregnancy and diseases, yes, but also of broken hearts, bad relationships, and even of having sex with the “wrong person.” If they say they’re in love, ask them if they love the person enough to do what’s best for them…not right now, but for their future? When it comes to sex, no one will ever regret what they didn’t do. Explain this to your kids. If they ask you about your history or experiences, be honest. Tell them if you feel you’ve made bad decisions. Tell them what you would have done differently, and how. Tell them the things you wish you had known. I remember telling one of my kids that I wish someone had talked to me more about the love and respect concepts-about loving someone enough to make the right decisions for them, even when they wanted to make the wrong decisions. Again, this is for the teen, not the young child. If they ask you something that you feel is too “adult” for them, tell them you will share the answer or story another time and then make sure you do…trust means everything here.
We want our kids to be sexually healthy and to grow into sexually healthy adults. We also want them to be “relationship healthy.” Things that may seem obvious usually aren’t. If it’s important for them to know, makes sure you take the time to talk to them about it. Talk to them about temptation, fidelity, and waiting…and keep reiterating the important messages.
Mostly, just talk to them. Make sure they know no subject is off limits. Share your feelings, beliefs, and opinions. And, mostly, love them. Always.
*This information is based on my personal experiences as a parent, and on my professional experiences as a counselor and educator on abstinence, STI’s, pregnancy, and more. I am not an expert, but have seen and heard enough from kids and parents to develop some decent guidelines. If you have different ideas, please feel free to share!