Most of the time, my parenting posts are light on the expertise, heavy on the bumbling through. For those who wonder, I don’t work with kids professionally, for clinical reasons, but also because my own kids keep me questioning my parenting skills on a weekly basis. So, what I’m about to write comes with a disclaimer. I am NOT a parenting expert. That said, I do feel strongly about the issue of educating kids about sex, because I’ve spent years in my office working with teens, adults and couples, trying to undo harm from their “sex education” (or lack thereof).
Most of us learned about sex from an awkward sex talk, limited and late formal education, horribly unrealistic portrayal of simultaneous orgasms in movies, or from our equally clueless peers. The result (surprise, surprise): misinformed, shame-filled adults, who still can’t talk about sex, and are paying the price in their relationships and even their self-esteem.
So, it was through that lens that I began reeling when my 8-year-old son recently asked, “How old were you when you first had sex?” For a split second I thought about lying, “when I got married.” Or at least fudging the truth.
Fortunately, my therapist self is skilled in processing questions (a.k.a buying time). “Hmmm. Interesting question – why do you want to know?”
I disguised my elevated blood pressure as we laid in his bunk having a surprisingly open dialogue about why he wanted to know, when he thinks he’ll be ready (sometime between college and now – WHAT?!?!), my concern that if he knows my start age he’ll think that’s the “right” age, and, most importantly, that our bodies usually feel ready before we’re emotionally ready. Whew - that's a lot for one sentence, but a good illustration of the pressure in my head at the time.
Anyway, my blood pressure stabilized when he asked, “What is ‘emotionally ready’?” I babbled about emotional readiness, oxytocin and how sex changes things (and not always in a good way), all while considering, what should I tell him?
Finally, my doesn’t-miss-a-beat kiddo observed, “But you still haven’t answered my question, Mama.” After another soliloquy about our relationship, trust, and keeping this to himself (not sharing with his friends or sister), I told the truth. “I had sex in high school with someone I had been dating for a while, when I knew I was ready to handle it.”
Some of you are probably reeling, aghast that I would tell my child I had sex in high school. Some of you are hoping your kids wait until college, marriage, or maybe when you’re dead and buried. In my case, he’d already revealed that high school or even younger was a consideration, which is why my priority was to convey when it’s physically and emotionally healthy to have sex, and why it’s different for everyone. Whatever your priority is, this is the time to share it, when your kids are impressionable and value YOUR opinion. (We know that will change very soon, right?)
My goal behind my answer, and our conversation in general, was to be as honest, direct and shameless as I could. I let go of the desire to see him as my baby boy forever, and opted to start teaching him how to be a grown up (when the time comes) with regard to sex. I wanted him to know:
- My mom trusts me enough to answer my questions and tell the truth.
- Sex and sexual feelings are part of life and important to talk about.
- Everyone is ready on his or her own timeline, and we each make a choice the first time, and every time.
- Healthy sex is mutual, respectful, and enjoyable.
While I don’t know if we’ve conveyed messages two through four yet, when, a week later, he asked follow up questions about something he heard from a friend at school, I realized we’d conveyed the most important message. He was coming to us for more information!
So, borrow these messages, or create your own, but be sure to prepare yourself for the conversation(s). Answer questions when asked, and keep the dialogue going. You are a powerful person in your young child’s life; right now you are a resource. Don’t unknowingly encourage your kiddo to look elsewhere by dodging the tough questions.
In preparation, consider your own early sexual experiences. Were there things you wish a trusted adult had shared? If your early sexual experiences occurred before you were ready, or were non-consensual, how will you address that when related questions come your way? How can you be honest, even if you don’t want to share your specific history? Beyond your own discomfort about your child having sex, how do you want him or her to experience sex (when it's time)? Below are some responses to try:
“My first experience wasn’t positive, which is why I want to keep talking with you about all this, so you can experience something healthy for you.”
“Sex is a private thing, so I won't tell you when, but I will tell you I felt ready. What do you think makes someone ready?”
“I did it before I was ready because I didn’t have anyone guiding me about this stuff. That’s why I want talk with you about it, so you can make sure when you have sex, it’s right for you.”
"I want you to experience how special and fun sex can be when you share it with someone you really care about, who also really cares about you."
"Sex can sometimes feel awkward to talk about, but I want you to know that just because I'm fumbling doesn't mean I don't want you to keep asking questions. I'll answer as well as I can, and if I don't have an immediate answer, I promise to think about it and get back to you."
Whatever you do, use your answers as a springboard for conversation. Ask yourself, “How do I answer the tough questions now to pave the way for my child’s healthy adolescent/adult sexuality?” As uncomfortable as the questions and conversation may be for you, if you don’t act as your child’s guide, someone else will. And that would be a loss for both of you.
By the way, my son didn’t let up on my non-specific “when I was in high school” response. He persisted about the specific age. I suggested maybe I’d tell him when he arrived at that age. He then asked, “Will you tell me when I’m in middle school?” To which I responded, “We’ll see. Let’s keep talking about it.” And so we will…
I'd love to hear about your responses to tough questions from your kids. Or thoughts about what you wish someone had told you as a child. It can be about sex or other topics.
If you’re looking for an actual parenting expert, check out my friend Tracey Johnson’s Practical Parenting website. Lots of great resources!
Recommended Reading (and there are many more out there)
Asking About Sex and Growing Up. Joanna Cole.
The Boy's Body Book. Kelli Dunham.
The Girl's Body Book. Kelli Dunham.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex. Linda and Richard Eyre.
It's Not the Stork. Robbie Harris.
It's So Amazing. Robbie Harris.
It's Perfectly Normal. Robbie Harris.
Where Did I Come From. Peter Mayle.
Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children About Sex and Character. Pepper Schwartz.