We all have a story about how our parents spoke (or didn't speak!) to us about the birds and the bees, reproduction, the difference between boys and girls, "married love", um, sex. I am talking about sex here people. Hopefully we can all agree that sex is an important subject and one we can talk to our kids about openly, honestly and without a lot of embarrassment or shame. Or at least faking that we aren't embarrassed. I have a hilarious story about "the sex talk" that involves my mother. I was reading a Judy Blume book (GOD BLESS JUDY BLUME!) and I came across the word, "masturbation" and I asked my Mom what it meant. She turned beet red and stammered that it was just some thing that boys did.
I eventually just looked it up in the dictionary. Suddenly, some of the stuff I had been hearing at school was making more sense.
Today though, it seems a lot more complicated, we have to deal not just with playground talk but the vastness of the internet. We want to be open and honest, but protect their innocence, not over answer, protect them from predators, but not scare them to death. So today we are going to turn to my friend and sex educator Elizabeth Dilley.
Elizabeth is a UCC minister who served in a local congregation for nine years before accepting a call serving in the denominational setting. She has also served as a regional health educator for a Midwestern affiliate of one of the nation's largest reproductive health care providers. Elizabeth has led trainings for parents on how to communicate their values to their children, integrating sexuality and spirituality, as well as about a "zillion" classes on STIs, birth control and healthy sexual choices for children and youth of all ages. She is trained on a variety of human sexuality curricula. Today she is speaking for herself and not as a representative of the UCC or any other organization. She agreed to speak to me today as a friend and her answers are obviously informed by her faith, professional background, and her own experience as a parent of a (GORGEOUS, adorable!) toddler.
Thank you Elizabeth for speaking with me about this incredibly important topic, let's jump right in! When do you start talking about sex with your children?
Elizabeth Dilley: My goodness - this is such a complicated question. In some ways, we've been talking about sex literally since our child was born. In other ways, we never talk about sex. What I mean to say is, "talking about sex" is really a limiting frame to think about this. It's really a lot more about sexuality than sex, per se. Sex is all tied up with other values, experiences, and beliefs, and just as we can't separate the two in real life, it's best not to separate them when it comes to talking about them with your children.
The most important thing to remember is that as a parent, you are your child's primary sexual educator. They will learn from you from what you say, what you don't say, how you act around the topic, how you talk about your spouse/partner/co-parent (or all of the above), and what kind of shows you watch on TV or listen to on the radio. I always recommend that parents get clear about the values they want to communicate to their child, preferably before the child is born. Your children will take their cues from you! If you are religious, your religious beliefs probably tie into your beliefs about sexuality, and there's no need to try to separate the two.
For us, the values of mutuality, respect, sacrificial love, commitment, pleasure/delight, honesty, love, and monogamy are integral to our understanding of sexuality and the values we want to communicate to our child. We are progressive Christians, so we believe these values are central to couples, whether it is one man and one woman, two women, or two men. We are trying to raise a queer-affirming and trans*-competent child, too, so that comes out in our educating. (And while polyamory is not for us personally, we believe these values we endorse can be and certainly are present in poly relationships and we will do our best to speak honestly and fairly about them.)
Maybe you want to affirm that sex should only happen in the context of marriage between one man and one woman. Maybe you want to affirm that sex is something fun and you want your child to really enjoy himself/herself, whether it's in the context of a relationship or a one-night stand. Maybe you want to affirm polyamory, or have your child grow up believing that same-sex couples are normal, or that the act of sex is only for procreation, or ..... Whatever your values are, take some time to think about what it is you want your child to learn, know, value and believe - keeping in mind that they may not grow up to share your values or beliefs. Once you as a parent (or as co-parents) are clear on the values you want to communicate to your child, it becomes a bit easier to figure out the age-appropriate ways to share those over time.
I also want to be clear that parents should agree on a strategy, even if it's unlikely that both parents (if both parents are active in rearing your child) have the same comfort levels in the actual talking about sex and sexuality. In our household, I'm both more knowledgeable, more comfortable, and more educated on the topic, so I'm the primary sexuality educator - but we both know that our child is learning from BOTH of us, and my spouse is very intentional about modeling healthy, open, compassionate and female-affirming sexuality.
This link provides a really helpful primer for talking about sexuality with your child: Planned Parenthood
But let's talk in more detail:
1. It's not just one talk - it's a regular, ongoing conversation that begins at birth. When we gave our child her first bath, we talked about each body part as we cleaned it - her head, her shoulders, her elbows, her chest, her back, her bottom, her vulva, her legs, her feet, her hands. We are vigilant about using correct medical terms, so babies don't grow in a woman's "tummy" but her "uterus." Of course, this also means that our toddler asked us this year, "Does Santa have a penis?" and she's been known to ask this about our friends and family members.
2. Know what your kid is really asking. "Where did I come from?" might be a question about childbirth. It might also be about adoption, or Toledo, or any number of things. "What do you mean?" can both buy you a little time to organize your thoughts and find out what they really want to know.
3. Remember - they will take their cues from you. If you are comfortable talking about it, or at least honest in expressing your discomfort, they will continue to ask from you. If you blow up or shut down the conversation, they will learn that sex and sexuality are shameful and maybe bad.
4. It's okay to say, "I don't know," or "I need a little more time to think about this before I answer." You can follow that up with, "Let's find the answer together," or "Can we talk about this at X time?" or even, "Let me find out more information."
5. I cannot stress enough that these conversations about "sex" are really conversations about "sexuality" and they often intersect with conversations about faith/belief, if you are religious. They also intersect with conversations about patriarchy, oppression, liberation, culture, history, hope, dreams, sensuality, etc. This PDF on the "circles of sexuality" may provide some context.
In one of the parent trainings I led, a parent who has very different values than I do expressed the ways she had talked with her children about sex. She described it as "sharing your body," which was a clear and concise way to communicate her family's values about what happens during sex, and she did it in a very positive and affirming way. There wasn't a lot of shame attached to this description and actually a lot of love and delight came through when she spoke in these terms. I was very impressed, and have been trying myself to think of a pithy way to express our own values to our growing child.
LLL: Thank you for sharing this with us Elizabeth! You have given me a lot to think about with how I talk with my kids and I feel a little better prepared! I look forward to this "ongoing conversation".
This is the first part of our interview with sex educator and mom Elizabeth Dilley! We will have parts two and possibly three coming to this blog soon. If you have questions or comments about having "the talk" or as we know now, a series of talks with your kids, please let me know in the comments below.