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Talking to Our Kids About Sex


Talking to Our Kids About Sex

By Sharon Maxwell, Ph.D.

Setting the Stage for Talking About Sex (Part I)

“Mom, do you know what a stripper and a hooker are?” asks my 7-year-old son as I drive him home from school. My mind freezes. Fortunately I realize that I’m at risk of blowing a very important moment. When the brain freezes we all risk saying something that will shut down our children. They know by our words and tone of voice when we’re tense, and they won’t go there again. The best antidote to brain freeze is a deep, relaxing breath. I take several and say in my most casual voice, “Yes, I know what a stripper and a hooker are. Do you?”

“Yes”, he replies. “A stripper is a girl who takes off her top and a hooker is when she takes everything off.”

I did a lot of breathing that day.

The story begins at recess when my son’s classmate a video game that he had played the day before at his 12-year-old neighbor’s house. If you kill a lot of people and make it to a certain level you go to a room where a “stripper” takes off her top. If you kill more people and get to a higher level you go to room where a “hooker” takes off all her clothes. The name of this game is Duke Nukem, available for rental in video stores. It gets worse. A parent recently told me that if you get to the highest level of this game by killing everyone, you enter a room where naked women are hanging off of meat hooks.

I listen to my son’s thoughts about this game. I tell him that I don’t think that this was a good game and that putting naked ladies together with killing people, like a reward, is wrong. As I talk, I’m trying to put myself in his head. I’m aware that the camaraderie of a group of boys all sharing a secret has been stimulating. He has no context for understanding why naked ladies would be a reward for anything and he’s trying to make sense out of it. If I don’t step in and help, someone else will.

Someone else already has. My son, at 7 years old has a category in his brain where sex and violence are connected, where women’s bodies are viewed as a commodity that violent men are entitled to. Someone has sneaked into my child’s playground and taken away my right to introduce my son to the beautiful intimacies that happen between men and women.

I call the little boy’s mother. She is horrified. She had given explicit instructions to the 12-year-old’s parents that her son is not allowed to play video games at their house. She calls the parents. They are mortified. They have no idea what Duke Nukum is. They are both professional educators.

How We Think and Talk about Sexuality

As parents, we need to take a long, hard look at how we are talking to our kids about sex because the entire world is talking to our kids about sex and if we don’t find a language to begin this conversation at an early age someone else will rob us of this right. Where do we start?

First we stop thinking about sex as a biology lesson. Sex cannot be found in a curriculum or a book and it can certainly not be summed up in a “talk.” Sex is a powerful source of human energy and the driving force behind the survival of our species. Sexual desire is one of the most powerful forces the human body ever feels. We see, read and hear about the power of sexual desire everyday in music, books, films and magazines. Advertisers use it to sell us everything from toothpaste to video games. But we seldom talk about it with our children.

As a clinical psychologist and lecturer, one of the most common pitfalls that I find parents fall into as they talk to their kids about sex, is that they see sexual issues as separate from the rest of parenting. Society doesn’t have separate categories for “anger education” or “eating education,” but we discuss “sex education” as if it were a course that we can teach, one lesson at a time, until we get to the final lesson called “intercourse.” Keeping sex in a separate box from the rest of human desires doesn’t work.

Starting Early

“Sex education” starts with validating an infant’s right to listen the needs of his own body, by articulating and responding to those needs. At two years old, children will often assert their newfound autonomy by rejecting our hugs. What better way to teach them that touching must be by mutual consent then by respecting their wishes? (“You don’t want a hug right now. I can wait and hug you when you want a hug.”)

“Sex education” continues when we understand that our 4 year old may rub her clitoris as a way of comforting herself, and at the same time teach her the boundaries that we place around that behavior. By beginning the conversation about sexy feelings at an early age we become the primary source of information and guidance at a time when our opinion is still more important than their peers.

The Power of Sexual Energy

Perhaps we get stuck around issues of sexuality because watching our children express their sexual energy can feel very overwhelming. Recently, my 5-year-old niece asked me to watch as she joyfully performed the most incredible bump and grind dance routine. I was flabbergasted. I knew she had never been exposed to anything like this. Her dance was a pure expression of her little 5-year-old body.

After a deep breath I said, “Boy, you have a lot of energy.” She paused for a moment and responded, “I’m really strong! You try it!” So, we both did a little bump and grind together. I’d forgotten how powerful it feels. My job in that moment was not to judge, not to praise, and certainly not to ask her to repeat this performance for an audience, but to simply reflect back what she was feeling. At five, I want her to know that I understand and respect the power of her feelings so that later on we can talk about controlling and directing that power.

When we think about sexual feelings as a source of human energy, they become one of many valuable energy sources, like hunger and anger. We can then discuss ways to effectively direct that energy. As parents, we understand how important it is to talk to our kids about the controlling their anger. We understand that the energy of anger is necessary for survival and we teach our children from an early age the appropriate ways to harness this energy. We don’t tell them that anger is bad. We teach them how to identify, direct and control their anger. We tell them to “use their words.” We send them to karate lessons and competitive sports. We teach them the difference between using the energy of anger to defend themselves and using it to bully. But when it comes to teaching our kids to identify and direct their sexual feelings, we are markedly silent.

Our kids do not need our help understanding how babies are made as much as they need our help understanding the power of sexual desire. They need to know that when you are in control of your sexy feelings and can direct that energy in positive ways, you can create the most wonderful experiences a human being can ever have. But when those feelings are in control of you, just as with anger, you can do and say things that are hurtful and dangerous to yourself and to others. They need to know that people who touch children in bad ways are people who never learned to control their sexy feelings. They need to know that sexy feelings can be aroused by things that they see or hear or smell just like smelling good food can make you want to eat. They need reassurance that because they are learning how to be in control of their strong feelings now, that they are becoming the kind of people who can make smart choices about what they really want or don’t want later on.

Our Values Help Them Figure Our What It All Means

My son intuitively knew that there was something wrong with Duke Nukem and he wanted to hear my opinion. He knew I would listen to his thoughts and honestly tell him mine. Our children want to understand what the different things that they are seeing and hearing mean to us. They want to know what has value and what does not, what is right and what is wrong. They long for our opinion about what is important in this ocean of possibility and stimulation that they are exposed to every day. Helping them understand what has value and giving them guidelines of behavior that support these values is what defines us as parents.

When it comes to issues of sexual feelings and desire, we are not always clear about how we feel or what we should teach. When our opinions are not well defined we tend to ignore the subject or wait too long. Our children are left to define their values amongst themselves using television as their model. Next month we will address how we can discuss sexual ethics with our children, how we can begin a dialogue even when we are not clear about our own values and how we can offer guidelines for behavior that will give our children the strength they need to make intelligent and thoughtful choices.

Sexual Development: What To Expect

Children are sexual beings from birth and are curious about exploring the sexual parts of their bodies. All children will not do all of these behaviors at these exact ages. Most children will do some of them. The child’s job is to explore. The parent’s job is to teach the boundaries that we place around that exploration.

Infancy: Exploring their bodies
  • Infants who can find their genitals, will stroke them
  • Boys can get erections
Toddler: Discovering their bodies, asserting autonomy
  • Likes being naked
  • Children may masturbate
  • Wants to be in control of touching, kissing, hugging
3 to 5: Beginning to define gender identity
  • Interested in differences between boys and girls
  • Begins to ask questions about sex
  • Increased interest in masturbation
  • May engage in sexual play that involves looking at or touching the “private parts” of opposite sex peers (playing “doctor”)
  • Experiments with “bad” words
  • Increased interest in opposite sex parent
6 to 9: Peer relationships are taking on greater importance
  • May compare “private parts” with same sex peers
  • Begins to assert need for privacy
  • Children may masturbate
  • Has probably heard peers talk about sex
  • Has probably heard peers talk about AIDS
  • Children at this stage may be exposed to anti-gay “homophobic” conversations or teasing by peers
10 to 12: Pre-adolescence
  • Beginning of sexual development (the average age for girls menstruation is 12, sexual development starts as much as two years earlier)
  • Increased interest in masturbation
  • Increased need for privacy
  • Can develop intense admiration for same sex adult
  • Can be upset if their physical development is more or less advanced than their peers
  • Children at this stage may be exposed to anti-gay, “homophobic” conversations or teasing by peers
  • May begin having “crushes”
  • Body image becomes increasingly important
13 to 18: Adolescence
  • Sexual development continues
  • Privacy is very important
  • Increased interest in masturbation
  • Acts as if parents don’t know anything in an attempt to assert autonomy
  • Desires parental approval
  • Can be upset if their physical development is more or less advanced than their peers
  • Body image can reach levels of obsession; Eating disorders can develop
  • Peer opinion becomes extremely important
  • Children at this stage may be exposed to anti-gay, “homophobic” conversations or teasing by peers
  • May use sex to acquire peer approval
  • May use sexual relationships as a way of separating from parents

Breaking Our Silence About Sex (Part II)

I watch my 11-year-old daughter peruse the magazines at the checkout line. Her eyes fix on the cover of Mademoiselle, which reads “10 DATES BEFORE SEX?! & Other Secrets of Love That Lasts and Lasts.” How is she making sense of that, I wonder. How is she processing this information in her 11-year-old brain?

A Time/CNN poll conducted in 1998 showed teenagers getting 45% of their information about sex from their friends and 29% from television. As our children’s bodies mature at an earlier and earlier age, we are facing a situation where twelve year olds are having to make decisions about sexual behavior. Magazines, television shows, pop lyrics are constantly delivering sexual information and guidelines for sexual behavior and our children are listening.

In a survey of adolescent dating attitudes, when ninth-graders were asked if they believed that a person has “the right to sexual intercourse against their dates consent, if they have dated a long time,” 62% of the boys and 58% of the girls said yes.

The question, is no longer when to have the “big talk” but how to start talking with our children about the power of sexual feelings and the standards of behavior that we use to control and direct those feelings.

Learning To Be In Control of Their Desires

Parents who follow clearly defined religious rules of conduct must continuously interpret and explain those rules in the context of a culture often operating with opposing values. Parents who do not accept the sexual ethics of a conventional religion need to develop their own. But whether we follow religious guidelines or not, one of our primary parenting tasks is teaching our children to have control over the immediate demands of their senses. Learning how to wait. Learning how to choose the best time, place and manner of satisfying their desires is crucial to our children’s development.

Unfortunately, our children are constantly receiving the message that instant gratification is best. Success is defined by how fast they can get what they want. But being dragged around by the demands of their most recent desire does not build our children’s self esteem. It’s when we choose not to gratify the immediate desire to hit someone or to scarf down another donut that we develop respect for ourselves. Teaching our children how to control their desires—and helping them understand and feel the power that comes from this discipline—is a major responsibility of parenting.

But this work cannot start at fourteen. We cannot indulge their every desire throughout childhood and then in adolescence tell them to “just say no.” The ability to self-discipline develops through constant interaction with a parent who understands the individual strengths and limitations of their child. Learning to control our sexual feelings takes the same sort of discipline as controlling our anger or our appetite.

Discussing the Power of Sex

At age 12, our daughters want to know why they cannot wear belly shirts to school. They accuse us of stifling their creativity and denying their freedom of expression. Preteens are beginning to feel the power of their bodies. Looking sexy can feel very powerful. Our daughters and sons are experimenting with this power. How does it work? What can they do with it? What should they do with it? It’s scary and exciting all at the same time. When we talk with our children about sexual desire as a normal and powerful source of energy, we give them the language to express their feelings and concerns. We can then help them understand how sexual feelings can be manipulated by what they see and hear and smell. We can help them see how they have the power to manipulate other people’s sexual feelings by how they dress and act, and we can start an on-going dialogue about how having sexual power comes with the responsibility of directing that power in a positive way.

Discussing Our Sexual Choices

There will come a time in each of our children’s lives when they will have to make a choice about sexual behavior. The only thing we know for sure is that we will not be there. Discussing these choices before the fact is our best shot at having them use their heads and not their hormones. The more concrete the discussion the better.

They have the choice of releasing their sexual energy in the context of a relationship. That choice brings with it serious responsibility to both themselves and the person they are in relationship with. They can choose to release sexual energy by themselves, through masturbation. They can choose to abstain from releasing their sexual energy and learn to transform it into an energy that can be directed toward any goal they wish to achieve. The self-respect and power that comes from abstinence is discussed by every major religion and understood by most athletic coaches. Why is abstinence so often presented to children as a form of deprivation or punishment? When we teach our children to hold the power of their desires and transform that power into directed activity, as we do with anger, sexual abstinence can be discussed as an intelligent choice among many.

It’s hard to teach what we don’t know

The truth is most of us are very confused about sex. We’ve grown up never discussing our sexual feelings, thoughts and desires with anyone who is any more knowledgeable than we are. No one ever taught us to honor our sexual power and make thoughtful decisions about how to use it. Like our children, we were, and still are constantly being teased by a sexually stimulating environment. Many of us don’t know how we feel about desire and sex or what’s appropriate to do when. It scares us to see our children becoming sexual beings because we are not at all sure what to tell them.

We can start by appreciating that we are breaking new ground. Acknowledging our children’s sexuality and talking to them about sexual desire is new territory for all of us. It’s very easy to get so overwhelmed by our children’s pseudo-sophistication and know-it-all attitude that we just busy ourselves with other things. It’s true that they know a lot of facts that we never knew at their age, but they are clueless as to what it all means. Our children want to know what’s right and wrong; they long for our opinion in the ocean of possibility and stimulation that they are exposed to daily.

Some days I take heart in the thought that even in my very worst moments, I am a better parent than the television set. Our mistakes alone make us eminently more qualified to be our child’s teacher than their peers. We may be confused, but we are motivated by love.

The stakes are very high. Ask the parents in Rockdale County, Georgia where in 1996 a syphilis outbreak affected over 200 teenagers, involving some as young as twelve years old. These affluent, well-educated children were having group sex between 3 and 5 p.m. when many of their houses were empty and they could watch and copy the activities seen on the Playboy channel. In these days of two-parent incomes and hectic schedules, it’s tempting to act as if the end of childhood is the end of parenting, but talking about sex, self-discipline and desire is not something you put on your schedule. You have to be available in your child’s time.

If you don’t know where to start, turn on the TV, open a magazine or listen to a popular song and ask questions. For example, start a dialogue by saying, “That girl doesn’t seem like she really wants to have sex but she’s doing it anyway. How come?” Or, “The boys on this show seem like they expect a girl to have sex just because they’ve been dating for awhile. That doesn’t seem fair to me.” Be prepared to hear some pretty crazy stuff, but take a deep breath and listen respectfully. Remember that as long as they’re talking to you, you are succeeding.

We can tell our stories. Children learn from and remember stories much better than abstract facts. They love to hear about our mistakes and the lessons we learned. But there’s a catch: we need to talk through our stories first with a friend or partner so we’re clear about the lesson we’re teaching and its relevance to our child’s age. Intimate details are not appropriate. (Parents who have been sexually abused may need professional help discussing sex with their children.) We all have stories about our first kiss. Were we pressured? Were we nervous? How did we know we wanted to kiss this person? Think about what the story can teach your child. Don’t be afraid to look stupid—that’s the part they’ll remember and actually learn from. Also, try not to preach.

At a recent workshop I asked a group of parents when they had realized that having sexy feelings for someone was not the same as being in love with them. Sadly, one mother answered, “After I got married.” We can help our children sort out the feelings that come with sexual maturity. They need to understand that desire is not the same as love, that being needed is not the same as love, that possessing or being possessed is not the same as love. So, what is love? What is healthy intimacy? We can address these questions, even if we don’t have all the answers. Starting to talk with our children now is their best chance at not repeating our mistakes.

It’s a great challenge

There’s a popular assumption that teenagers are out of control, disrespectful and violent, and that parenting them is an impossible job. Parents blame the media, the media blames the parents, and everybody blames the schools. Our children, meanwhile, turn to each other for guidelines and advice.

Teenagers are smart, provocative and intense young people who challenge us by expecting answers to questions we’ve learned to avoid. It’s hard to parent someone who is smart enough to realize that we don’t have all the answers.

I cannot change the cover of Mademoiselle and I cannot pretend that my daughter hasn’t read it. But I can ask her about it. I can respectfully listen. I can help her find the language to discuss her thoughts and feelings. I can share my values and experience. I can remind myself that she doesn’t know half as much as she pretends to and that she’s working very hard at growing up. Perhaps most importantly, I can remember that she is my best work and my greatest blessing and that becoming an adult is a lot easier when we share the experience and laugh together—at ourselves and at the whole amazing process.