For many parents, "The Talk" is perhaps their most dreaded parental duty. Others look forward to imparting some of their collected wisdom about sex, but don't know how or when to begin. Some even shirk the responsibility in the false comfort that 'schools handle all those questions these days.' But as parents, we have an obligation to discuss sex with our children, especially as our children are confronting sexual depictions and issues in the media at an increasingly tender age. Children who feel comfortable approaching their parents with sexual questions are less likely to rely on unreliable sources of information or to engage in risky sexual behavior. Here we will address some of the common missteps and misconceptions about The Talk, as well as ways that we parents can help our kids reach a healthy understanding of sex.
- The Talks. Misconception numero uno is that parents could - or should - try to have one single, defining sex talk with their children. "The Talk" ought to be more of a continuing dialogue kept open between parent and child.
- Be approachable. Many parents are very uncomfortable discussing sex with their children. Kids generally aren't comfortable with the idea of parents having sex, either. But the fact is that humans are sexual beings. Whether or not you discuss sex with your child, that fact remains and their sexual development will continue inexorably.
- Honesty. You shouldn't hesitate to admit your slight discomfort to your child. Your honesty might even make your child a little less uncomfortable, which will promote greater openness. And it's okay not to have all of the answers. The important thing is for you to keep the mood light and open, ensuring that your child is comfortable approaching you about sexual issues. Lastly, don't ever be judgmental, regardless of your child's age, and don't laugh at your child's questions.
- Self-examination. Examine your own beliefs about sex, as well as your own sexual experience in life, before talking with your child. Don't be surprised if your child expresses some form of sexual curiosity at a very young age. In fact, you should expect and encourage this curiosity. Part of your ability to be approachable will come from anticipation of these early conversations. Though the circumstances of such talks often surprise us, we can prepare our own thoughts - making them more digestible for the child and easier for us to share as well - by simply taking time to reflect on the topic of sex when our children are infants. Form a bit of a game plan! Try to examine the topics that will be the most uncomfortable for you to discuss.
- Make your sex conversations appropriate to your child's age. When a young child asks where a baby came from, don't say "the stork." But you'll have just as little success using terms like implantation, fertilization, semen, ovaries and fallopian tubes. Maintaining a steady dialogue about what your child is learning in school (and talking about with friends) will help you to make your answers and conversations accessible, digestible and relevant to your child. Once children are entering pre-teen years, you should definitely incorporate topics such as STDs, safe sex practices, sexual consent and unplanned pregnancy into your discussions.
- Trying to be the first. In this age, when young children are bombarded by sexual messages and imagery in all media, your discussions of sex will be different than the ones your parents had (or didn't have) with you. They may come earlier, and with greater substance, than you could imagine. It will be hard to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to the sexual matters your children have already witnessed, but it's valuable to try. Pay attention to what kinds of movies and music your child absorbs, and take an interest in friends and after school activities.
- Take advantage of natural moments to proactively discuss sex. Seeing a pregnant relative at the family reunion might provide just such an opportunity, for example. Developmental stages in the child's own life certainly provide opportunities to discuss sex and gender. As parents, it's helpful for us to think back to our own childhood in order to anticipate some of the questions and concerns children have at various moments in their sexual development.
- Beyond the physical. Help your child to make an un-severable connection between sex and the deeper, heartfelt feelings of love behind it. "The Talk" has to cover more than just a physical description of genitalia. From a young age, always emphasize that sex is between two people who are very deeply in love with each other.
- Either parent can talk to a child, regardless of gender. Boys don't have to have all of their sex talks with their dads, nor girls with their moms. In fact, it's healthy to keep all channels open, so a child can learn that men and women have an equal interest in matters of sex.
- You think that talking about sex will make your child likelier to become sexually active earlier in life? Think again. Studies show that kids with a greater understanding of sex and openness about the topic actually demonstrate greater self-restraint and sexual judgment.
Your child wants to get sex information from you. You have the most powerful opportunity to ensure that your child attains a comprehensive, healthy and happy understanding of sex.