Sex education is one of my favourite topics to discuss and teach, for both adults and children. Why you ask? Well the more I get to talk to people and educate them, the more I realise that there is a real problem with how individuals are/have been educated, and this has major impacts on how they understand and play out their sexuality as adults. Everything we do sexually has been influenced by our upbringing and experiences, so it’s no doubt that having a negative education can often result in a negative sexual identity. Here is my advice on educating your kids about sex. A post on educating yourself will follow soon…
During the first consultation I have with an individual or a couple, one of the areas that I need to explore is sex education and upbringing. Most people think that this has little impact on them, but often on questioning they realise that what they were told as children and adolescents has greatly contributed to how they understand their own sexuality as an adult. Think back to when you were young – did you learn about sex at school in biology, with simple “this is a vagina and this is a penis”, with little to no emphasis on pleasure and explanation; did you learn about sex from older siblings, cousins or peers, who you might have looked up to as more sexually aware; or was it at church or at home, where you were told under no circumstances to have sex let alone hold someone’s hand because you could fall pregnant? All of these messages influence how we understand our own sexuality, and how we behave sexually as adults. The idea of talking to our kids about sex makes most parents cringe, but what many don’t realise is that a child needs someone they can trust who will educate them properly about the birds and the bees – and as a parent you can easily be that person.
Sadly, it’s most often the case that a child’s curiosity is crushed by a parent’s overreaction and horror to the topic of sex, which in turn will have a negative impact on how the child grows up perceiving sex. One book I have suggests that “well-meaning parents can sometimes overreact to their children’s natural curiosity, causing confusion and sexual shame” (Renshaw, 1995). Generally, parents leave sex education up to schools and word of mouth, which can actually lead a negative sexual upbringing for the child. Research actually shows that if parents allow their children to ask about sex, use correct anatomical terms like vagina and penis, and give their children permission to explore their sexuality (with boundaries), it actually leads to a healthier and sex-positive attitude to sex and sexuality as an adult. Now most people might be questioning the idea of giving their children “permission to explore their sexuality”, but in actual fact, children are naturally curious. Some research suggests that even in the womb, a baby is aware of pleasurable sensations. If you think back to your own childhood, you may have an early memory of feeling some form of pleasure when you accidentally touched yourself. The problem here arises when a child is repeatedly scolded for this behaviour, even though it is completely innocent and natural. Children don’t know what such behaviour means, and that it is not appropriate in certain contexts. The importance of boundaries comes in with talking to your child about where such behaviour is acceptable and appropriate.
The advice I give to parents when it comes to talking about The birds and the bees are as follows:
- The earlier the better – your kids are curious, and so the moment they can speak and understand consequence (anywhere from around 2/3 years onwards) you should be talking to them. They may not fully understand, but constant reinforcement and openness can assist them in approaching you more for help when they need you.
- You’re embarrassed, not them – Children are sweet and innocent. They don’t realise that talking about sex is embarrassing for a lot of people. And so if you feel like it’s an awkward topic you need to remember that it is you that feels awkward, not your child (unless you’re talking to a teenager for the first time), and you need to question why you feel awkward. Sex is a natural part of adult life, and realising that you will be educating your kids positively and appropriately should mean that you can push past that awkwardness.
- Be honest – telling your kids that a stork drops babies on the door step, or mommy and daddy hug and a baby gets inside mommy’s tummy is not going to educate your kids about what sex actually is. Furthermore, they are inquisitive and may not understand that touching someone else is inappropriate, as is trying to stick their penis somewhere it shouldn’t be at that age. Tell them exactly what happens (trust me on this!), because making sure they know what goes where from an early age means that they will be more prepared as adults as well as understand what’s appropriate and what’s not. It means that they will understand that they might have different private parts to some of their friends (girls versus boys) and that your private parts are your own, not someone else’s to touch and explore until you are an adult.
- That being said, Boundaries are crucial – I once had a mom tell me that she found her 3 year old touching himself while watching TV. She was horrified but knew that it was naturally curious and innocent behaviour. She sat him down and spoke to him about it. She told him that it was not appropriate to do what he was doing in public spaces where other people could see him, and that he was only allowed to do it in his bedroom alone with the door closed. She also used this opportunity to tell him that no one should ever touch his body without his permission, not even mommy and daddy, and that if anyone did he must come and tell her immediately and that she will only be happy that he did, never angry. She also told him to always ask her any questions he didn’t understand and she would answer them as best she could. He then said “Ok mommy” and ran off to play with his toys. Also, it is important to tell your child that other mommy’s and daddy’s need to tell their children about this and it is a special conversation between you, so they must not talk to their friends at school because it is important that parents tell their children, and trust me, you probably don’t want their teacher or principal phoning you to say what your child was telling everyone at break time.
- In doing this, she gave him permission – giving your child permission to enjoy pleasurable feelings that they do to themselves, but also permission to talk to you as a parents any time they need means that your relationship with your child will not only be more open and honest, but you have allowed your child to understand what sex means. You can hopefully be assured that your child will talk to you when they have a concern, and you can be the one to educate them appropriately and positively.
- Be clear about what you want to say – it is perfectly ok to tell your child that sex is for two people who love each other or perhaps for two people who are married. Make sure you know what message you want to send to your child about love, relationships and sex. They should always feel like there is an open-door policy in conversations about sex, but that these conversations are only appropriate alone with you rather than at the dinner table. Remember to educate about safe sex (perhaps when they are a bit older, closer to their teens), and even let them know that if they need condoms you will get for them – a “rather safe than sorry, prevention not cure” type of attitude is far more conducive to healthy sexual behaviour than an attitude of “sex is dirty, forbidden and dangerous”.
Abstinence programs have actually been proven to be the least effective in sexual education – “don’t tell a child not to stick a bean up its nose” is the same notion as telling your child that sex is forbidden when their curiosity of the forbidden will probably get the better of them.
Ultimately, you can be the influence in your child’s sexual understanding and identity. You can make sure that they understand the birds and the bees, and that sex is not something to be seen as deadly and negative, but rather special and positive. If you want your child to grow up knowing the correct information, how to be sexually responsible and what sex means, then they need to be given the appropriate platform to talk about it – whether it is through you or a professional.
** On a side note, mothers (or another close female relative) need to educate their daughters about what it means to get their period and what will happen. It’s important to discuss the changes in their body, what they will feel and what this means. Talk to her when she is 10 years old… yes, 10! Most girls start their periods anywhere between 11-13, but many start before or after. This conversation is so important for women in order to have a positive self-esteem and body image. Not talking about it with her can lead her to feeling ashamed, confused and guilty, as many girls think something is wrong with them if they have not had any education! Make sure she does not feel these emotions, and make sure she feels she can come to you when she needs.
If you are struggling with the topic of sex with your kids, perhaps consider having a “safe person” facilitate sexual education for you and your kids. Please contact me for enquiries regarding Birds, Bees and Bodies workshops, or visit my page here to learn more about it.