BY JANET F. ROSENWZEIG PH.D.
There is sex in your house. You can’t pretend there isn’t. Actually, you can, but your [grand]kids will know that’s what you’re doing, and that will leave a great big hole in the trust, honesty, and intimacy that characterizes a healthy home. Your [grand]child is sexual. Some adults may cringe at that thought, but we must realize being a sexual being is part of the human condition. As [grand]parents you have an important role to help give your [grand]child the tools to prepare him for a safe and healthy adult sex life. And you can make the entire process easier and more effective by discussing all aspects of his body when opportunities arise throughout his childhood. Silence can speak louder than words, even if you are one of the millions who come into adulthood with your own sexual scars. If you have your own healing to do still, take the opportunity not to transmit the same unhealthy attitudes to your child. Even if you are one of the millions who never had any decent sex education—who learned your own information from the playground, magazines, or the Internet—the fact that you are reading this book shows that you want the opportunity to offer your children something more that what you experienced. Families develop their own norms about sexual issues, and most of it happens without much thought. You must find the courage to be uncomfortable and make conscious decisions about what you want your child to know and when. We live in a sexualized culture and our kids are bombarded with sexual messages. Even the American Psychological Association recommends that [grand]parents prepare kids for puberty by age nine or ten so “they will not be caught off guard when the changes occur.”[i] If we really want our kids to be sexually safe and healthy, we must not continue to let our children face the developmental task of reaching sexual maturity without our support. You, as a [grand]parent, can prepare for these talks by discussing sex with your partner, other parents, or trusted friends; you can make conscious decisions about the actual information to be shared with your kids and the values you hold regarding sexuality that you wish to be transmitted. When you speak of love and joy while your face communicates fear and embarrassment, you confuse your kids and make the discussion all the more complicated and difficult. You can rise to this challenge and overcome your fears of speaking with your children about sex and abuse. Here are ten good reasons why you must.
1. When [grand]kids have questions, parents are the best source for answers. Until they leave your home (and perhaps after), your children will have questions about their body, your body, their siblings’ bodies, about sexual things they’ve seen or heard, and all matter of related issues. Being in a position to provide answers is a gift—each question is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your child, to show mutual trust and respect, and most important of all, to ensure that the answer your child gets is the one you want him to have. A member of one of my focus groups recalled her son asking her about the meaning of a word he’d heard at school that day. “Mom, what’s a blow job?” he asked. It could just as easily have been, “What’s ‘cunny-lingus’?”; “Why is sixty-nine a bad number?”; or “Why is pointing the middle finger bad?”. These questions, though unsettling at first, are all opportunities to make sure your kids get the information and values you want them to have—imagine the answers a kid might get from other kids! At almost any age, the oral sex questions could be answered as a matter of fact: “It’s a slang term for someone kissing a man’s penis./woman’s vagina” After the child gets done saying “eeewwww—who would want to do that?” and you reply, “Only grown-ups who really love each other,” you may also add, “So where did you see (or hear) that word?” Stay calm and sound matter-of-fact when asking the question; your embarrassment or shock can shut your child down instantly if they sense you are uncomfortable. You really want to know how your child formulated the question. Hopefully, she overheard some older kids talking, but if she was invited to participate in the act, even in jest, you need to find out more and determine if you need to follow up by contacting the person who started the conversation with your child—or his or her parent if the idea came from a child! Some kids ask questions when they are seeking opinions, as opposed to facts, and these questions are the most important ones for you as a parent. From “When is it OK to have sex?” to “Why is a girl’s chest considered a private part but a boy’s is not?” being open and available to your kids’ questions provides a great opportunity to bring your values to your child and to inform them about sexuality, relationships, and peers. When you follow up your answer with a gentle probe about why your child asked the question, you may find that someone is being inappropriate with your child, that your child has gotten her hands on adult reading material in your house, or that the song you just let them download has lyrics you really didn’t want her to hear. You may be able to confirm your thoughts that your adolescent is sexually active by asking leading questions. A mom was approached by her eighteen-year-old daughter who asked, “How old were you the first time you had sex?” Mom, an experienced social worker, was surprised at how uncomfortable she felt, and chose to probe by responding, “How old were you?” thus opening a long overdue mother–daughter dialogue about sex. The question about why girls’ chests are private but boys aren’t could be answered by telling a young child that girls will grow breasts on their chests, and breasts are very special and private. If your child has experienced seeing a mom breastfeed, you could use that as an example of how bodies are shared in special ways with people we love. Being available to address your children’s questions ensures they get the information you want them to have and that you get information about what else they are learning and from whom.
2. It can be very traumatic for a child to hit puberty unprepared. Kids’ bodies can start to show signs of puberty as young as elementary school. Girls will start to develop breasts; both genders will start to grow hair under their arms and in their pubic areas. Girls may experience anything from a little twinge to real pain in the side of their abdomen when ovulation, or releasing of eggs from the ovaries, begins before menstruation. Thoughts such as, “Why is this happening to me?” or “Is it just me?” or worse yet, “What’s wrong with me?” can be uncomfortable at best and frightening at worst for children. This fear is one of the few pains of adolescence that parents can actually prevent. Women who started to menstruate without understanding what it was relate that they thought they had cancer, that they were dying, that they hurt themselves while masturbating or riding a bicycle, and other equally frightening thoughts. Even boys who have been aware of erections their whole lives become anxious over the sudden increase in frequency and intensity of them, and many don’t understand ejaculation. We know that boys must deal with social pressures to keep emotions hidden, including their feelings and experiences around their burgeoning sexuality. In countless subtle ways, society tells boys not to cry, to stay in control, and be “strong.” All of a sudden, the part of their anatomy that defines them as male—their penis—becomes uncontrollable! Without the knowledge that this is normal, a boy can be left feeling as if something is terribly wrong with him. Remember in Rosenzweig’s Rule #2 we discussed the dangers of sexual arousal becoming associated with fear, guilt, or shame. Ignorance about the normal changes of puberty can lead down this ugly path. And if teasing or misinformation from peers is the only message your son (or daughter) hears about sex, he can stay right on that ugly course for years. There are also social issues associated with adolescence that are better navigated with loving parental support. One participant in a focus group recalled kissing a girl for the first time around age twelve. Shortly thereafter, he heard a playground rumor that the object of his affection was making fun of him behind his back. He was devastated—and decades later still recalls the shame he felt at believing he did not know how to kiss! What a gift it would have been to hear from a loving parent that adolescent girls can be very fickle and only make fun of the boys they really like. Parental support can help your child navigate these socially, physically, and emotionally turbulent changes. This man’s story illustrates another sad fact—silence can leave unnecessary scars in terms of blossoming sexuality.
3. Kids need to learn about sex, will learn about sex, and are likely to get bad information if left to their own devices. Baby-boomers may recall seeing their first nude adults in magazine pictures or as teens in poor-quality X-rated movies. What was considered “mature content” a generation ago can now be viewed on network television. And, of course, the Internet brings remarkably detailed sexual images to anyone who wants them and a lot of people who do not. Among the many dangers from all of this exposure to sexual imagery is that your child will think what he sees and hears is normal, meaning that he or she—who looks nothing like the images they see—may feel like he or she is abnormal. One focus group member expressed this as she shared her dismay in learning that her eleven-year–old son was visiting online porn sites. “I don’t want those images of women to be planted in his head. Those kinds of images are beyond my control,” she said. The information her son was getting about sex contained images and messages that came nowhere near conforming to the messages this mom wanted him to have. Her first response was to admonish her son to leave that website immediately, and she still feels regret from not using the opportunity to explain why. While this passive intrusion into your child’s life is bad enough, there are people who will actively seek to plant misinformation about sex into your child’s head. From a teen who thinks it’s funny to tell a child a lie about sex, to the pedophile who tells your child that all kids do whatever it is he wants your kid to do, to the peer who earnestly passes on incorrect information about sex on the baseball field, your child will be bombarded with incorrect “facts” about a very serious subject. Here are a few “timeless” tales about puberty and sex (do any of these sound familiar from your own childhood?):
- You’ll grow hair on your palms from masturbating.
- People look different after they’ve had sex.
- The other kids can “just tell” that you got your period.
- All the other guys have a foot-long penis, or hair on their testicles.
I thought so. How comforting it can be for a kid to get the truth about puberty and the facts of becoming a sexual being, with love, from a parent and not from a misinformed peer. It is rare that a parent would not want his or her child to grow up to be happy, but even in the happiest families most adults recall adolescent years as a time of confusion about sex and sexuality. Adolescent angst is developmentally normal, but sex-wise parenting can improve the chance of a successful resolution of these normal developmental conflicts by the time your child reaches young adulthood. Providing accurate anatomical and physiological facts—even if it’s by leaving a booklet on your son or daughter’s bed—is one of the easiest ways for you to promote sexual health and safety.
4. Lacking information, kids fill in the blanks with what they know or can imagine and it usually is wrong. We can chuckle hearing the story about the junior-high-school-aged girls who thought that “screwing” was another word for deep tongue kissing. If you think about it, you can see their logic—the tongue moves in a “screwing” motion in the partner’s mouth—but things become less funny when a teacher intercepted notes the girls were passing in class describing who they planned to screw that weekend. Several frightened parents contacted by the school counselor now had no choice but to discuss sex with their kids. Then there is the story of the boys who thought that because erections were also called “boners” they must have a bone in their penis—and wondered where it went when the penis was not erect. Ignorance can appear cute when we hear the story of the two-year-old girl who points to her new brother’s penis during the first diaper change, and asks, “Tail?” But ignorance is far from cute and can be downright dangerous. These kids filled in gaps in their knowledge with assumptions that made sense to them, but ultimately were wrong. Often leaving an adolescent to their her assumptions results in unnecessary pain. Many of us can recall spending what felt like hours in front of the mirror as an adolescent looking at our body wondering if it was normal and desirable by others. Kids subjected to teasing and slang nicknames like “limp dick,” “tiny tits,” and worse can have reactions more serious than embarrassment and flushed cheeks. Children will take this type of sexual teasing to heart, planting the seeds of a poor body or self-image. One focus group member, a mom is her thirties, shared a memory she has of a French exchange high-school student who had been having sex for several years who joined her family for a few weeks back when she was a teen. Being that close to a sexually active peer made this mom feel “as if everyone who was sexually active was in a secret club and looked down on [her] because [she] wasn’t—at fourteen!” Providing information and support places you in a position to alleviate much of the pain that results from incorrect adolescent assumptions. Kids absolutely need the support of you as a loving parent, as an adult who can assure them that their sexual life and their body are both developing in a perfectly normal way. Self-confidence is an important component of sexual health and safety, and knowing that they are growing in a perfectly acceptable, normal, and healthy way helps build that confidence. Then there’s the issue of a child accidentally seeing or hearing grown-ups having sex. Kids can experience the sight or sounds of adults making love as anything from a simple hug to an act of violence. Boundaries and privacy are critical in a sexually safe and healthy family, but accidents do happen. Be prepared to explain to your child what sex means to you—perhaps saying that it’s a special way grown-ups get as close to each other as possible to show love to each other. Having gaps in knowledge is absolutely normal for children (and adults as well)—no one is born knowing everything! When your child demonstrates one of these gaps, wouldn’t you prefer to be the adult in the position of helping him determine how that gap is filled?
5. Kids with no language about sex lack words to tell if they are being abused. This one is self-explanatory. A pediatrician who treats sex abuse victims in a specialized hospital setting shared the story of the little girl who told her teacher that Daddy “hurt my cookie.” This child was referring to her genitalia, but the teacher gave the child a snack instead of reporting abuse. Or the example of a little girl who used the phrase “my purse is broke” to tell a teacher that her genitals were bleeding. Both kids were subject to abuse longer than necessary because the adults in their lives had no idea what the children were talking about. A pedophile may teach a child that his sexual fondling is “hugging” or “man-touching” or that they play their “special game.” A child who lacks any other terms to comprehend what’s happening is now trapped! She really may believe this type of touch is part of a special relationship with a grownup who cares about her. So you must tune in to your children and if something does not sound right, probe a little further to see if you can figure out the meaning of their seemingly meaningless banter, and ensure that they have the right words to use when they need to communicate with you about anything, including sex.
6. Kids need to understand the difference between love and lust in order to be sexually safe and healthy. Children will experience sexual arousal even before puberty. As they become adolescents, it will happen more often and feel more intense. As your kids develop, you can reinforce the important lesson that genital feelings happen for many different reasons, most of which have little to do with emotions in adolescents. Sights, sounds, smells, memories, movies, pictures, and thoughts are among the stimuli that can lead to sexual arousal. If kids know this and the fact is a routine part of their lives, you may lower the risk of your child making the dangerous mistake of believing lust is love. Knowing the difference is an important milestone on the road to raising a sexually safe and healthy child and young adult. A sexually safe and healthy person understands that just because his genitals go all warm at the thought or sight of someone, he is not necessarily in love with that individual. Many of us as adults recall feeling our first twinges of arousal while reading a book or watching a movie. Rhett’s passion for Scarlett, Catwoman teasing Batman, Kelly Bundy flaunting her stuff, a Sidney Sheldon novel read as a teen, or an explicit magazine stolen from parents—each age has produced its own iconic images that wake up adolescent genitals. Focus group member Jay, a man who has no memories of discussing sex with his parents, recalls being around eight or nine years old when he “realized [his] dick had something to do with girls” but he wasn’t quite sure what. Mistaking arousal for affection, as Jay experienced, can lay the foundation for a child’s confusion about where sexual feelings fit into their life and relationships. It is developmentally normal and socially acceptable in the United States for kids to start playing kissing games, like spin the bottle, as early as nine or ten years old. Even in the 1960s kissing games were the highlights of grade-school graduation parties. Scholarly research (and most likely, your memory) will confirm examples of early sexual arousal and activity; one study documented “pre-coital” behavior in over one-third of a sample of 1,279 seventh graders.[ii] A young person can experience sexual arousal from kissing and may mistake this for affection for their kissing partner. Much social drama could ensue—and usually unnecessarily. It is equally important for your child to know that he or she alone is responsible for his or her arousal. Ego-centric young people are at risk of believing that the object of their lust actively sought to arouse them. Actually, one teen may actively try to elicit arousal from the other for reasons ranging from curiosity to cruelty. You can keep your child and the people she interacts with sexually safe and healthy by ensuring that she knows no one is responsible for her arousal except herself. It’s important that you child know that as thinking, conscious human beings we have the opportunity to think about how to deal with our own arousal before we do anything about it. This issue becomes very important in the teenage years. Adolescent female bodies become flooded with hormones that seem to make them crave love and nurturing; while adolescent boys bodies are flooded with hormones that make them want orgasms. Both boys and girls are in danger of hearing only what they want to hear from a love or lust object, and many end up with a range of negative experiences from disappointment to outright exploitation. It is dangerous for both teens if the young boy thinks he heard a “yes” because he really wanted to hear “yes,” but the girl really meant no. A date-rape accusation can haunt both young people for the rest of their lives. You can read more about adolescent sexual development in chapter 5 but the simple fact is this: it is a milestone of maturity for a child to know the difference between sexual arousal and real emotion. You do not want to raise a son to think that a girl owes him sexual relief because she chose to wear a certain outfit or act in a way that he found arousing. You do not want to raise a daughter who thinks she should have intercourse with a boy because her genitals responded with wet warmth during a make-out session. You want to raise a child who can enjoy the experience of arousal, own these feelings as his own, and make smart choices about sexual partners as he matures into a sexually safe and healthy adult. Even in a loving, committed relationship, lust can overrule all lessons on safe sex, distracting not only from the need to think twice before having intercourse, but the need to find out a partner’s sexual health history and to use a condom. These risks—mistaking lust for emotion—are real and you owe it to your children to make them aware of all aspects (and risks) of sexual maturity. Lust is part of the joy of a healthy sexual relationship; out of context, though, it can fuel stupid decisions. This is a great message for you to be able to share with your son or daughter.
7. Lacking understanding of the autonomous nature of sexual arousal, a child can all too easily be made to feel complicit by their abuser. Oprah Winfrey used her talk show as a platform to bring sexual abuse of children into the public eye on many occasions. In April 2010, she hosted Todd Bridges, the former child actor known as much for his adult dysfunction as his childhood charm. He was promoting his autobiography, Killing Willis, and Oprah asked her guest to turn to page 68 of his book and read. At first Bridges seemed to question her choice of selections, then read this description of being molested as a young teen TV star by his publicist: “Pull your pants down,” he said. I didn’t want to lose everything he had given me. And so I did. He put his mouth on me. I got hard. I didn’t know where to look or how to feel. I squirmed against the back of the seat. He kept on going, getting into it. I hoped it would be over fast. Then it happened. I came. As confused and upset as I was, I liked the feeling. “No one had ever talked to me about sex before,” Bridges writes in his book. “But somehow I knew it was wrong for a man to do that to a boy. I was really confused because having an orgasm had felt good.” None of us wants our child to be molested; the thought of the violation is unspeakable. But if it does happen, we can prevent the lifelong confusion and guilt that can have devastating consequences on our child’s psyche just by making sure our kids know that sexual arousal is an autonomic response to a stimulus—that’s all. No more, no less. Arousal is not an indication of your feelings about yourself or another person. Keith Smith, author of the book The Men in My Town, was among the 200 men, all victims of child sexual abuse, who made up the audience for Oprah Winfrey’s groundbreaking show shedding light on male victims. Over coffee one day, Keith shared with me that when media mogul Tyler Perry, also a victim of childhood sexual abuse, said that his body “betrayed” him with the sexual response, a palpable shock ran through the audience of male victims, and tears of recognition filled the eyes of many. Did anyone teach Tyler, Keith, Todd, and the millions of others that their bodies didn’t betray them at all? Loving, responsible parents, such as yourself, can teach young boys that bodies are wired to behave exactly as these young boys’ did. Adding self-loathing to violation is awful and one of the effects of victimization that can be prevented with knowledge. In some ways, girls may be even more vulnerable to the insidious self-blame from unexpected arousal. Girls may think that “everyone knows” that boys will get aroused. But female arousal is a much better kept secret thanks to the more discrete physiological response; vaginal lubrication is much less obvious than a penile erection. A manipulative abuser can make a girl feel special in a way that is ultimately destructive. Healthy kids need to know that regardless of what a calculating molester may say, arousal of either the victim or abuser does not make the relationship with the abuser special. Molesters of little girls have been known to convince the victims that this overpowered, manipulated child is the only person who can arouse or satisfy the man. Female victims of this ruse perpetrated by a father or stepfather recall feeling as if it was their responsibility to keep the family intact, or that it had become their “job” within the family to keep the molester satiated to prevent the breadwinner from leaving or to keep the other kids safe from his advances. That is a terrible weight for a child to carry. Too many female victims are fooled into thinking they are unique in their ability to arouse their molester. Providing your children with accurate information about sexual arousal can play an important role in helping them find the strength to seek help if ever confronted with this terrible situation. So many victims blame themselves for all kinds of details of an assault, harboring the illusion that they could have controlled where the lightning struck. If I hadn’t been hitchhiking, if I hadn’t been wearing those shorts, if I had screamed louder, run faster, been a better step-daughter, not been so nice to the neighbor, or Mom’s boyfriends, or Dad’s buddy…and the like. The guilt is as useless as it is deadly. To add to that the guilt from autonomic sexual response is cruel and unusual punishment. In 1993, David Kelley’s nighttime soap opera Picket Fences ran an episode entitled “Unlawful Entries”[iii] in which a man filed rape charges after the woman he was on a date with handcuffed him to the bed during a make-out session. She carefully aroused him to erection then had intercourse with him, over his angry protests. The law enforcement characters and judge all needed repeated explanations by the local doctor and medical examiner to actually be convinced of the role of the autonomic nervous system in arousal. Medically accurate information was shared in a pretty responsible way along with some realistic displays of disbelief and embarrassment—and this was decades ago. We don’t see many media messages like this in the early twenty-first century. Parents must rise to the challenge of inoculating your kids against fear, guilt, and shame by sharing this simple fact of autonomic arousal, repeatedly.
8. Even if you don’t talk, you communicate. When your kids are very young, they see themselves through the eyes of their beloved caretakers, usually you and your partner. They wonder: Am I lovable? Am I smart? Can I become independent? You are constantly giving your children verbal and non-verbal cues about who they are; the younger the child, the more basic the message is to the child’s self image. You are also giving them messages about their body that can form the basis for later body image. Little kids know if they have been labeled “the dirty one,” or “the sloppy one,” or “the pretty one,” and their developing little psyches assume that the label is true. If you ignore your children’s genitals all together, then you have absolutely no influence on whether your child thinks genitals are good or bad. Many women recall their fathers making absolutely no comment about menstruation, or sarcastic remarks about more females in the house “on the rag.” Very few men can recall getting accurate information about their bodies, and even today, I meet parents who hope and believe their school’s health program will take care of all that stuff. The old adage that actions speak louder than words can certainly apply to teaching children about sex. Several women in my focus groups recalled their dads standing in front of the television set blocking their view when anything sexual showed up on the screen. “Not for you to see,” Dad would announce, leaving giggling, confused kids on the family room couch. I certainly recall my mom blushing a vibrant shade of red as she had “the talk” with my sister and me; that blush told me as much as her words! Sex was something to be embarrassed about and to deal with only under duress. My learning to believe otherwise created an unnecessary distance from my mom. One woman in my focus group, who came from a family with several sisters, shared that if their dad saw even an unused sanitary product in the bathroom, he’d moan some loud complaint such as, “Why do I have to see this stuff?” leaving some of the sisters with ambivalent, if not negative, thoughts about menstruation. And on the topic of menstruation, many kids have memories of seeing what appeared to be bloody objects in the family bathroom, leaving them to wonder who had been hurt. One focus group member laughs now at what was a mortifying experience as a teen—the family dog at a home she was visiting retrieved a used tampon she had wrapped and placed in a wastebasket, and brought it into the living room like a hunting souvenir. The mom retrieved the tampon and disposed of it but no one in the family explained anything to anyone, leaving only embarrassed silence and confusion. The little kids had been upset by the sight of a bloody object and no one told them what it was. Some parents really think that if they don’t talk about sex with their kids, their kids will think that sex is not important enough to talk about. Wake up and smell the pheromones—that’s just not going to happen. The feelings children have in their developing bodies and the images and messages all around them tell them that sex is important. By not talking to kids about sex, we have absolutely no impact on what they know or think about sex. Is sex good or bad? Fun or evil? Am I normal or not for thinking about sex? Why aren’t we talking about this? Silence can teach embarrassment and shame to kids regarding the topic of sex. Take for example Rob, who was raised by divorced parents in the 1970s before concepts like joint custody and co-parenting were common. Living with his mom meant limited time with his father. One day when he was about twelve, his older sister overheard him talking with his male friends about their (completely made up) sexual exploits. Bossy big sister called their father and said it was time for him to speak with her brother about the birds and bees. Later that night, her brother hung up from a call with his Dad and was completely confused. His dad called and told him a fabricated story that the mother of the girl he had been bragging about “feeling up” called and complained to him about the boy bothering her daughter. This dad thought that it was his job to intimidate his son into leaving girls alone. Dad hit a double here; he gave his son a useless, negative message about sex and a clear indication that he was willing to lie to his son to make a point.
There is a message in no message; and that is not the best message for your child.
9. The parental fear that talking to kids about sex is essentially giving them permission to become sexually active is unfounded. Here’s a true tale of two extremes: One focus group I held while researching this book put me literally between two women with opposite experiences. On my left was a woman whose sex education was so seamless she doesn’t ever recall having “the talk”; rather she was one of the lucky people for whom information about sex—from her pediatrician mom—was integrated into any information she received about her body. Occasional nudity in the two-parent family home meant that she knew what male genitals looked like and they held absolutely no mystery or caused any fear. She reported that she was comfortable with sex, and is raising her kids with the same values she got from her parents. On my right was a woman raised in a strictly conservative, self-described Irish Catholic family where sex was never discussed. Whatever she learned came from books or other kids. As soon as she left for college, she expressed her independence by having sex with any partner that struck her fancy. She learned to like sex, and herself. She is raising her kids in a way that sounds like the woman on my left; she provides age appropriate information, answers any questions, and encourages open communication. Listening to these two women confirmed that parental conversations with kids about sex do not promote sexual activity and that silence from parents does nothing to promote abstinence. Research also bears this out: “comprehensive education about sexuality does not hasten the onset of sex, increase the frequency of sex, or increase the number of sexual partners teens have.”[iv] Open communication is key, especially when you are a single parent or divorcee. Steve is the divorced father of two. Raising his kids in the 1990s, he discussed anything and everything with his kids, often to the chagrin of his extended family. Granted, cultural sexual messages were prevalent, but Steve was no-holds-barred in what he shared with his kids. Both he and his ex-wife dated and kids knew there were occasional sleepover dates. The good news is that as teens, his thirteen-year-old daughter has absolutely no problem sending dad to the store for tampons and his seventeen-year-old son openly discusses his decision to refrain from intercourse with his longtime girlfriend. Remember, information is a tool to help your child make good decisions, not tacit permission to act in any specific way.
10. My kid shuts me down when I bring up the subject. Many of you probably remember having excellent conversations looking at young kids reflected in their rear-view mirror while buckled into their car seat. Those days may be gone, but the car is still a great place to talk, as I mentioned before. You have a captive audience, and even if a sullen teen refuses to answer you, they have no choice but to listen. Use “I-statements” like “I see the changes your friend is going through and I want to make sure you have all the information you need so you’re neither confused nor surprised when it happens to you.” Recite some facts you want them to know. Remind your son or daughter that you and your partner (or other important adult in your child’s life) are there to answer questions. Encourage your child to seek the information that he and his friends want and need. Even if this never progresses beyond a monologue, leave a book on her bed with a note that you love her and want her to be sexually safe and healthy. Remind your child that you’re there to answer any questions should they arise. If you start a conversation about sex with your child where he or she finds a way to avoid you, borrow this line written by a professional writer to be spoken by a father to his son on the TV show Glee: “I’m uncomfortable too, but sit down. We’ll both be better men for having this conversation.” And, when all else fails, consider a good-natured bribe. “Mom, can you drive me to the mall?” Junior asks. “OK, but only if we finish the conversation we started yesterday…five minutes is all.” And then take it from there.
Make It Easier on Yourself: Collaborate with Formal Sex Education Ann, the divorced mom of two, lives in a community where the woman who taught human sexuality, marriage, and family life for more than a decade had a PhD in Health Education, specializing in Human Sexuality,[v] and served on the board of every major national sexuality professional organization in the United States. One evening Ann found her daughter, then a high school junior, hard at work studying for an exam. Ann asked which subject she was studying and her daughter replied, “The vagina test, which I had better ace because I really did well on the penis test!” Ann’s community is an exception; few communities employ credentialed sexuality educators and many communities lack resources for an interested health teacher to get specialized training. It is not safe to assume that kids will get the sex information they need in a health education class at school; less than half of the states require sex education.[vi] As mentioned before, you can become partners with the school and find the way to have input into the curriculum. None of the parents interviewed for this book reported having input into the health curriculum at his or her child’s school. “I received a letter that the school was going to have a sex-ed class… that’s it. My kid learned about female circumcision in Africa, and I still don’t understand why that was included,” one parent complained to me during an interview. Sex education in schools continues to be a politically charged issue, and school is but one of the places where kids will get a good amount of information about sex. However, good curriculum delivered by qualified teachers can balance out all of the inaccurate information from the media and schoolyard. Rather than argue to keep it out, wouldn’t it make more sense for you to review the curriculum and credentials of the people charged with teaching? A good school wants parents as partners.
Considerations for Unmarried Parents It is entirely possible that a child’s two parents can have different values from each other. If you are married, you and your spouse can explore these issues by reviewing the material in chapter 6. Even if you are no longer a couple with your child’s other parent, you can communicate about your child’s development, questions, and possible fears on a regular basis. Anna, a focus group member, reports that strongly differing perspectives on how to educate her kids about sex became yet another battleground in a highly contentious divorce. Her kids got entirely different messages from her and her ex-husband and she knows they will have to work to integrate the different messages they’ve received as they mature. Phyllis, on the other hand, reports that she and her ex were able to keep even that line of communication open—after all, a daughter new to menstruation needs support even when she’s at her dad’s for the weekend. A boy needs to learn about his penis from someone he loves and trusts—there are pedophiles out there looking for boys with no men to turn to who are all too willing to provide their own form of “education.” And remember to practice what you preach; if you are an unmarried parent, you are in a position to role model your values about sexuality in ways that married parents cannot. Your kids will be watching and wondering what you’re up to, giving you an even more compelling reason to keep the lines of communication open. They may wonder if Mom kisses her boyfriend. Does Dad’s girlfriend sleep over when the kids aren’t there? Why or why not? These types of questions need to be answered rationally and honesty by you and without any hint of embarrassment or fear. Even if you think you are being discrete and conducting your sex life only while your kids are away, they will find clues you’d never have thought of—condoms in a drawer, unfamiliar underwear in the laundry, new shampoo in the shower—and know someone else has been in their house. It’s hard to preach abstinence until marriage when your kids know you’re sexually active, so be prepared for the honest discussions about the meanings of sexual behavior, how you choose partners, and why your knowledge, maturity, and experience have prepared you to do so.
A Special Call to Adults Victimized as Kids Along with the other reasons discussed in this chapter, failure to discuss sex with your child might cause you to unnecessarily blame yourself if your child tragically becomes one of the tens of thousands who experience abuse each year. This is certainly an emotional experience you neither need nor deserve. Yes, it’s acceptable to be motivated by your desire not to feel badly. Do whatever it takes to prepare you and your children and open the discussion. The benefits are lifelong.