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Perspective | 7 easy ways to make ‘the talks’ rock

Families need to talk about sex often, starting when kids are young.  

1. The missing link. Understand why kids need to know about sex. 

As human beings we are inherently intellectual, spiritual, physical, social, emotional and … wait for it … sexual! As parents we work hard to make sure our kids are developing appropriately on all these fronts with the glaring exception of their sexuality. When we ignore, punish or minimize this integral part of being human, it puts our kids at risk for significant problems that can be bigger than the dreaded teen pregnancy. 

Talking about sex and sexuality is the missing link to prevent a whole bunch of problems later in life. Low self-esteem, depression, guilt, body-image problems, increased risk of sexual abuse, following the pack and looking for love in all the wrong places are just a few of the long-term problems. 

Your sexual identity defines you. We need to raise whole children into whole adults who embrace their full selves, including who they are as sexual beings. 

When children are comfortable with their sexual identity and understand sex and sexuality they are more likely to feel better about who they are as a person and make better decisions. 

Sexuality is core to nearly every aspect of healthy development. Not to sound like Freud here, but sex is a consistent part of daily life for everyone, from babies to octogenarians. 

Sex drives everything we do. Think about it. We are wired up to reproduce, be intimate, create families, and connect physically with our partners. 

Sex is everywhere and the message kids receive is crazy-making: “It’s VERY important and DON’T talk about it!” This is very confusing and not helpful at all. 

When the topic of sex is normal and not weird or secret, kids do better. 

Imagine who you would be if your parents or caregiver paid as much attention to how you took care of your sexual self, your sexual health and your sexual nature as they did to your academic achievement, spiritual growth, nutrition and overall health. 

Conversations over the years. Gone are the days of one awkward and traumatic “sex talk.” 

2. Embrace “the talk.” This is your responsibility, whether you want the job or not. 

School, church and the Internet should be the last resort for your kid’s sexual health education. You are the most consistent and influential force in their lives. Use it to your (and their) advantage. 

Parents have the most influence over their kids’ sexual decision-making. (National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2003. With One Voice 2003: America’s adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy.) 

Schools can’t (and shouldn’t) talk about values related to sex and sexuality, which is key to waiting. Sex ed class should be supplemental to what kids are learning from you. Churches tend to focus only on values. This lopsided approach does NOT serve kids. 

Just because your child doesn’t seem interested doesn’t mean they don’t need to know. 

This is your responsibility — no one else’s. Kids who “learn on the streets” have increased risk of early sexual behavior, pregnancy and STI transmission. 

They have a right to this information and they deserve to hear it from you. And kids who know about sex are safer from sexual abuse. If that’s not motivating, I don’t know what is. 

It’s time to stop allowing your fears and discomfort to take the lead. This is unfair to your children. Get over yourself so your kids can do better than you did when it comes to dating, relationships and sex. 

3. Relax and reflect. Disregard any discomfort and step up to support your children. 

Calm down (I mean this lovingly!) and reflect on your own upbringing to help you make better choices for your children. Discover your hopes, dreams and goals for your kids as they become sexually aware and (eventually) sexually active. 

Breathe and admit this makes you squirm. This is the very first step to great conversations. When you are able to acknowledge your discomfort and then move forward, the conversations are easier. 

How you learned about sex when you were growing up influences your conversations with your kids today. If you were sexually abused, please consider seeking therapy. It will help with the sex talks. 

What didn’t work for you definitely won’t work for them either. There is a better way. 

4. Clarify your values. What you believe about anything and everything related to sex and sexuality. 

What do you believe about nakedness, dating when it’s OK to become sexually active, teen sexual activity, gay marriage, abortion, birth control, sex outside of marriage, healthy relationships and the importance of waiting until … ? 

Values are half of the effective sex-talk equation. 

Your values are the one and only thing you can teach your kids that no one else can. You want your kids to share your beliefs, right? 

When you are clear about your sexual values, the conversations are considerably easier. Taking the time to explore your values significantly increases your confidence in having these conversations. Values can change as your kids get older. Be prepared to be flexible. 

Your partner’s values may differ from yours and this is fine. Your children will eventually develop their own, so it’s OK for you both to talk about your perspective as long as you do it respectfully. 

5. Get the facts. What they (and you) need to know at each age and stage. 

Start with baby making and birth and build on this. They should have a basic understanding of just about everything before middle school. Don’t worry about giving them too much information, unless it’s about your current, personal sex life. Kids begin their sexual development at birth. You need to know what’s considered common, so you don’t freak out (or freak out less!) 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (with some additions from me) by middle school your kids should know …

  • Your expectations and values 
  • The names and functions of male and female sex organs 
  • What sexual intercourse is and how females become pregnant 
  • What happens during puberty and what the physical changes of puberty mean 
  • The nature and purpose of the menstrual cycle 
  • About LGBTQ relationships, genders, masturbation, abortion and oral and anal sex 
  • How to prevent pregnancy 
  • Activities that spread sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), in particular HIV/AIDS 
  • Sexual abuse prevention skills and information 

Facts are the other half of the sex-talk equation. 

They don’t know what they need to know by when, so it’s your job to figure it out (with help, as needed) and teach them. 

Sorry! You don’t get to wing it and make stuff up as you go along. Kids need different specific information at different ages. 

When you include sexuality as part of your parenting work from the beginning (or as early as possible), you can easily build on what they already know as years pass. Start early (preschool) and keep it up, even when they tell you they don’t want to hear it. 

Understanding what is typical sexual behavior at each age and stage will help you feel more confident about your child’s safety. 

With a plan, guide, roadmap — call it what you will — there are fewer surprises along the way. 

6. Initiate the conversations. 

Short and sweet conversations rule the day! Jump in and keep it short. Stop worrying about giving them too much information. You also need to talk about challenging issues like sexual abuse, rape, pornography and anything else that makes you really sweat. No one dies from talking about sex, I promise! 

Once you’ve completed tips 1 through 4, this tip becomes considerably easier. 

Some kids will never, ever ask their parents a direct question about sex, puberty or anything related to sexuality. This doesn’t mean they aren’t interested or don’t need to know. 

Kids don’t know what they need to know by when, so you need to step up and start the conversations. And they are getting the wrong information at the wrong time, all the time, thanks to our lovely media and Internet. You are the antidote. 

The more you talk about this stuff, the easier it becomes. 

If you initiate these conversations, you establish yourself as an expert. Compared to your kids, you are a sex expert!

Figure out what you want to say before you say it. Practice makes progress. 

7. Repeat: “The talk” is dead. These conversations need to happen over and over. 

Sneak “the talk” into conversation by using teachable moments. Have conversations as a family. Acknowledge and then ignore their discomfort. Talk to them when they are in the car, in a quiet moment, when something is on your mind. Make these conversations a natural part of your family life. Keep the talks short and sweet. 

A one-time “talk” has little or no positive impact on kids. Just think about your “sex talk.” How helpful was it to you? Didn’t have one? ’Nuf said. 

Sneaking sex-related topics into your regular conversations isn’t unfair or cheating. It’s smart. It makes this topic a normal part of your family life. 

The parents who have the most impact on their kids have regular conversations about sexuality, love and relationships and are very close to their children. 

What they understand at 5 is different from what they understand at 8 which is different from what they understand at 14. Repeat yourself. Just add more detail. 

“Do overs” are fair game — you can go back and re-explain whatever it is you think you messed up. Apologize and try it again. Short and sweet, short and sweet. This is your mantra and this is what works. 

For more information, go to Amy Lang’s advice podcast, Just Say This!, and her website, BirdsAndBeesAndKids.com.

Reprinted with permission from BirdsAndBeesAndKids.com.

Editor’s note: Publication of an opinion piece does not mean Seattle’s Child or its staff endorses the views of the author.

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About the Author

Amy Lang

Amy Lang, founder of Birds and Bees and Kids, has been a sexual health educator for over 25 years and hosts the Just Say This! advice podcast at BirdsandBeesandKids.com.