One day, my 10-year-old son asked me if he could buy a vibrator. “My sister has one — and I want to know what’s available for a boy,” he declared with the reasoning only a jealous younger sibling can muster.
Despite all of my studious efforts as a feminist, sex-positive parent — giving ample guidance to my teenage daughter and even writing articles on the topic — I was a bit chagrined by this disconnect between myself and my son. Not being equipped with a penis, I didn’t have an immediate answer, so we agreed to research together. I got up to speed on best sex toys for men, and I ended up buying him a $10 “penis sleeve.”
Two reasons: First, I believe that it’s my job as a parent to make sure my kid is thriving in a variety of areas: academically, socially, physically, and emotionally. Teaching my kid about sexuality is part of my parental mandate, so to speak. If we want our kids to blossom into healthy adults capable of partaking in healthy romantic relationships, the prepubescent stage is the perfect time to deepen the conversation around sex.
And if you miss the window when they are still somewhat-adoring tweens, you’ll be relegated to obsolescence by a teenager who’ll find you about as relevant as Sarah Palin. Even with the great rapport between myself and my 16-year-old daughter, she occasionally talks to me like I am a cognitively-challenged servant.
Second, it was a teachable moment. As kids get older and the hormone faucet turns on full-blast, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to share our wisdom and have them listen. I take pride in keeping the lines of communication open, so while I’m sure it was a bit uncomfortable for him to build up the nerve to talk to me about sex, I wasn’t going to shut him down just because it made me feel uncomfortable. Kids want to know everything. And I’d rather they hear it from a parent than from the plethora of easily available porn sites. Wouldn’t you?
So what is appropriate when discussing sex and educating our preteen children?
According to Planned Parenthood, productive conversations between children and their parents are one of the most influential factors in promoting safe, healthy and successful experiences in teens and young adults.
“Teens often name their parents as the biggest influence in their decisions about sex. And teens who report having good conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sexual activity, have fewer partners, and use condoms and other contraceptives when they do have sex.”
It’s best to start talking to children about sex when they are young — as early as five years old — when they start asking where they came from. But even if you’re starting a bit later, can still influence your children in a powerful, positive way.
Here are some pointers.
1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Many parents feel queasy and awkward broaching the subjects of sex and sexuality, but it gets easier with time and practice. Know your parenting style and use it. What is the culture of your family? Are you avid readers? If so, buy your tween a book and read it too.
Then ask open-ended questions like, “What did you think of the chapter on birth control?” If movies are your thing, go see something a bit provocative together and discuss it driving home in the car. There is no single “right” way to give information; the idea here is to keep the lines of communication open so you can gently help and guide your kid.
2. Listen more than you lecture.
When you’re listening to the radio in the car and your kid starts parroting some astonishingly repugnant lyrics from the latest hit song, start a dialogue. “Wow, this singer seems to think relationships are all about ‘booty.’ I wonder how his girlfriend feels about that.”
It’s true that you’ve lived longer, but don’t come from a know-it-all place. Be curious and respectful, instead of shutting your kid down, and be open to their viewpoint.
Give your thoughts in a neutral open manner and then leave space for their thinking — and don’t assume it will be stupid. Watching TV or listening to music with my kids has led to more spontaneous insights and revelations than nearly anything else.
We once had a 45-minute discussion about Beyoncé’s song “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” that covered everything from raging hormones and internalized sexism to what it means to be in a committed relationship ... Thanks, Beyoncé.
3. Use the actual words.
Accurately describe anatomy — don’t use colloquialisms like “down there.” Learn accurate terms, especially for girls. Brush up on the difference between a vagina, vulva, and labia. Describe the function and specific location of the clitoris. If you need to look up terms and pictures on the Internet, do so — this is also a great opportunity to research together.
4. Be open and nonjudgmental.
Kids say provocative or “inappropriate” things to get our attention, ask for help, and test the waters. If your kid says something shocking, start some inquiry. “Really? Tell me what you mean?” If a child or teen has been molested, they may sometimes make abrupt, seemingly inappropriate statements — it is especially crucial in these circumstances that we as parents keep communication flowing.
Don’t make assumptions as to their motives; attempt to cultivate an even-keeled, relaxed atmosphere in which your kid can unload. Our children are being exposed to much more than we were at their age. We need to be present to help them through the rough stuff.
5. Don’t present an “ownership” model of their bodies.
We don’t “own” our kids, even though this is how our culture encourages us to think. One of the ways I see parents trying to exert control is around the issue of clothing. Rape statistics show that alcohol is a much stronger indicator of vulnerability to sexual abuse that anything a teenager is wearing.
Educate your kid on how to stay safe, and sign them up for a self-defense course, but don’t make their budding sexuality the problem. Too many parents review and set rules about what their kids are wearing — which is a personal choice that, frankly, doesn’t add up to much.
If I saw my kids using their body or sexuality as their primary way to get attention, I would gently inquire about it. Shaming them is the fastest way to lose a connection. Appearance and sexuality are very vulnerable topics for all of us, so choose your words carefully, avoid criticizing, and make safety the point of the conversation.
Guiding and teaching our kids about sexuality can be a delicate and sometimes awkward role. You’re not going to be around when your teenager is deciding whether or not to have sex for the first time — you can’t decide how it plays out for them.The best we can do is educate our children so they can make informed choices. A healthy relationship and foundational understanding of sex is one of the most important and influential lessons a parent can pass on — let’s do our best so our children thrive.
Looking for more information on sex-positive parenting? Check out my new book Wide Open: My Adventures in Polyamory, Open Marriage and Loving on My Own Terms You can e-mail Gracie at GracieX.com.
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