The Birds and the Bees: Talking to Your Kids About Sex
The May 2005 issue of Cosmo Girl, a popular magazine among teen and pre-teen girls, published the results of a 70,000 person study on the sexual behaviour of youth. Consider some of the findings:
- 69% of young people think that sex before marriage is okay
- The average age at which teens lose their virginity is 15
- 39% of teens have engaged in oral sex
We cannot stick our heads in the sand and hope our kids will develop healthy sexual attitudes and behaviours on their own. They live in a sex-saturated society that screams its messages at them: Everybody’s doing it! Whatever feels good for you is right! There are no consequences! Sex before marriage is not only okay, but expected!
If everybody else is talking to our kids about sex and pushing their views on our kids, shouldn’t we talk to them too? But many parents let their fears overcome them and fail to build into their kids in this most critical area. Others want to talk to their kids, but don’t know how. Here are some thoughts to get you started.
You want to be the first one to tell your children about sexuality. It’s much better to start with a clean slate, rather than having to undo the faulty information they’ve picked up from friends or television. Unfortunately, in most families, this does not happen. And the number one reason for that is fear.
None of us is fully comfortable with having these discussions with our kids; it’s not an easy thing to do. Ultimately, though, it’s our responsibility and it’s what our kids need from us. So we need to be brave enough to do it. The good news is, as you courageously talk through the tough issues with your children, not only will you be equipping them with the information they need to make wise choices, but you may also be pleasantly surprised at how your relationship with them deepens in the process. They will open up and share more of what’s going on inside them as they see that they can trust you in even the most sensitive areas of life.
Sex talks should be natural and gradual
If you’re hoping you can get this all out of the way with one good heart-to-heart talk when your child is ten, I’m afraid you’re in for an awakening. Yes, you will need to have the definitive sex talk with your child at some point (if you want to be sure they hear it from you first, it needs to happen by the time they are eight or nine.) But there are going to be many other opportunities to teach your kids both before and after The Talk.
It could happen when your five-year-old daughter asks her pregnant mom, “How did the baby get in your tummy?” It could come when your young son and daughter are taking a bath, and your boy suddenly notices there’s something different about his sister. Perhaps it will be when you’re watching TV as a family and something you weren’t expecting comes on, or when your child notices a teenage couple making out in the mall. Regardless of how and when it happens, the questions will come.
These are natural questions that are all part of the process of your child growing up and learning. Sex education is not just a one-time, sit down talk. It’s a process that begins when the child is young and continues through the teen years. Throughout those years, parents should be continually gauging their kids’ maturity and determining how much information they can appropriately handle at a given stage. Don’t give them more than they can take, but don’t give them too little, either. Remember, if they don’t get it from you, they will get it somewhere else.
Create a rite of passage experience
When it comes time for the first major sex talk – the one where you give them all the basics – turn it into a big event. Rather than the parent and child sitting uncomfortably at the kitchen table, scared to look each other in the eye, make it a celebration.
This is an important step in the process of your son becoming a man, or your daughter becoming a woman. Commemorate it with a special event. Take them out for dinner and a movie – make it a real date. Beyond just the talk, turn it into a special time that allows for genuine trust and relationship to develop. This will remove the stigma and set the stage for your child to come to you with their questions and concerns in the future.
Assume they know more than you think
I know parents who think that at age 11 or 12, their kids still don’t know anything about sex. Let me tell you: unless you have them living in a glass bubble, they know a lot more than you think they do. Kids talk. Kids see things on TV. In our culture, we are surrounded by sex, and our children pick up on it.
That doesn’t mean they have perfect knowledge; far from it. They have likely misunderstood a lot of what they’ve seen and heard, and even if they’ve heard the culture’s message clearly, it likely isn’t the message you want them to hear. That’s why your role is so critical. Most kids have a lot of pieces of the puzzle, but they are fragments. Your job is to help them put it all together in a way that reflects your family’s values. Talk openly so they can see how it all fits together.
Don’t be afraid to be frank. Be appropriate, of course. But keep in mind that the messages your kids are getting from the media, their friends and even their teachers are very graphic. Kids today are just not as innocent or naïve as we wish they would be. So we need to tackle the issues courageously, transparently and honestly.
Model healthy sexuality
Your kids will pick up on how you feel about sex. They notice how Mom and Dad treat each other. They may even notice the sparkle in your eyes when you’re having fun together. If you have healthy sexuality in your marriage, as your kids get older they will begin to understand the gift that sex is to a married couple.
On the flip side, I’ve spoken to far too many boys whose first exposure to sexuality came when they discovered their dad’s Playboy collection under the bed. You cannot expect your kids to develop healthy sexual attitudes and practices if they see you doing otherwise. The apple usually doesn’t fall too far from the tree. So make sure you are living the way you want your kids to live as they mature.
Value transfer is critical
There are two sides to sex education. On the one hand you’ve got the technical side: explaining what sex is, what different parts of the body do, and how babies are made. Then there’s the values side: the role of sexuality within life and marriage, appropriate behaviour, and how to treat a person of the opposite sex. While schools may do a good job of teaching the technical side, in many cases the value side is lacking. The sexual values and norms taught at school may not reflect the beliefs of your family. Only you can impart the values that you want your kids to have.
I recommend that same-sex parent (moms with daughters and dads with sons) explain the technical details to the child. The child will usually feel more comfortable asking sensitive questions of the parent of their gender. The opposite-sex parent has a critical role in teaching the child how to relate to the opposite sex. Moms, take your sons on dates and teach them to hold the door for you and pull out your chair. Help them to learn what it means to treasure a girl. Dads, take your girls out and treat them like princesses. Set the bar high so that they will one day look for a guy who will treat them as well as you did, rather than having low expectations and settling for someone who mistreats them.
I can’t stress this enough. I’ve worked with young people for over 18 years now. I’ve seen so many kids getting into the teen years with skewed values and concerning the opposite sex. Instead of respect, their attitude is one of taking: what can I get out of this person that will make me feel good? This is the perspective that media promotes, so kids grow up thinking that this is how it is.
There is another way of approaching sexuality. It’s a way that sees sex as a precious gift from God, to be enjoyed within the commitment of marriage. It’s an attitude of respect towards another person that seeks what’s in their best interest, rather than what I can get out of them right now. Transfer the value of respect to your children, and talk up the value of waiting for marriage. You can always have sex later, but you can never undo regretful mistakes. Parents, many of you know this from personal experience. Don’t let your past mistakes keep you from teaching your kids. Rather, let your experiences motivate you to not let your kids go down the same road.