We live in a pretty open household. There aren’t any topics that are off limits. My oldest son first asked me about where babies come from when he was 8 and we were expecting our 4th son. We went over the science of sperm and eggs and mommies and daddies loving each other. The basics that everyone learns. There were a few questions in between and many interjections by me about sex, pornography and healthy relationships. At age 10, he gets the process.
This year however was 5th grade and time for the maturation class. When I got the permission form from school that outlined the mandatory topics that would be covered I was a little shocked. My maturation class after all was 22 years ago and all we learned about was showering, deodorant and pads vs tampons. Now days they teach about reproductive anatomy, human reproduction, self exams, and sexually transmitted diseases. Date rape and contraception were optional. I actually posted about it on Facebook and had all sorts of comments about how 5th grade was too young for such adult topics. Unfortunately, I disagree. I would love to live in a world where my boys could stay innocent forever. But the reality is 5th grade is too LATE to be talking to children about such adult topics.
Did you know that the average age of exposure to pornography is age 11? By age 11 most children will have already seen highly sexualized images that objectify women. This is the first generation with EASY access to hard core pornography. It is literally at the tip of their fingers.
We talk about pornography often at my house. With 5 boys, this is a battle I know we will fight. It’s not a matter of if they see pornography; it is a matter of when. The media is so casual about pornography now. Think about the TV shows and how casually they refer to porn. It is portrayed as a fun, exciting and perfectly normal form of entertainment. With the amount of research showing how dangerous pornography is, it makes me sick that it is still so accepted in mainstream media.
Now with cell phones and social media, we aren’t just talking about industry made porn. An estimated 22% of teenage girls are sexting and sending illicit pictures of themselves to boys. We ABSOLUTELY need to be talking to our young children about very adult topics!
Here are my tips for how to have healthy conversations about sex with your children.
- Start young- And I mean young! As soon as they are old enough to understand the difference between boys and girls, they should probably start learning some basics.
- Teach them reality- The portrayal of sex in the media is a complete lie. There is almost nothing real. In real life, people don’t go through a near death experience, get blown up and beaten up and decide the next thing they need to do is have sex. In real life, people don’t go from screaming fights into rolling around on the floor. We need to teach them what sex really is. Sex is complicated. It can be beautiful and bonding. It can be fun and exciting. It can also be empty and lonely.
- Sex is not dirty and wrong- I am religious. I believe in waiting until after marriage, I know I’m old school! But when we use religion or values to teach children about sex, sometimes it comes across that we don’t do it because it is dirty and we want to be clean. That works, until they are actually in love. Yes teenagers do fall in love. And love does not feel dirty. I teach my boys that being attracted sexually to girls is normal and healthy. We choose to wait because sex is so amazing, you want it to be with the one you will spend the rest of your life with.
- Talk about pornography- For the past few years, I have been asking my kids ever couple of months if they have seen any pornography yet. We don’t do it in an intense setting, I’ll just ask every once in a while. I have had multiple parents tell me that won’t work. That they will see it and just hide it. Well, two weeks ago one of my sons came to me, with tears in his eyes and asked me if pornography was illegal. I asked a few follow up questions and he told me that he had seen pornography and that he turned away as fast as he could, but that he still saw it first. I considered that moment a huge success. We could talk about how it made him feel. That he didn’t need to feel dirty or uncomfortable and how what he saw wasn’t real. It was designed to catch people’s attention. If you don’t talk about pornography regularly, your children may start basing their expectations and beliefs about sex based on the easily accessible, objectifying and disgusting images they see.
- Don’t wait for someone else to teach them values- Sex and values do go together, the trouble is we all have different values. Just because your values are different than mine, doesn’t mean we don’t both have values. Right now our country is very divided on the definition of marriage. If you think your children will automatically understand what you believe and why, think again! You are responsible to teach your children the values you believe! Don’t have “The Talk”- A one time, big deal, all kinds of awkward talk is NOT going to ensure that your children have healthy sexual relationships. This is an ongoing dialogue and not a one-time occurrence. The more you talk, the less awkward it is. And the less awkward it is the more they ask.
- Don’t tease… Don’t judge- When you tease your children about their boyfriends and girlfriends it sends a very loud message! “Don’t tell me anything because I will use it to ridicule you!” Not exactly the message I want to say to my children. And regardless of what a great parent you are, and how well you teach your kids, they will make mistakes. When they do, instead of anger and judgment, try to meet them with love, support and a reasonable amount of disappointment. It is a fine line between telling them inappropriate behaviors are fine and shaming them into submission. Find the line and do your best to walk it.
- Value is the key- The most important part to teach your children, is to respect and value themselves and to respect and value the opposite gender. After my oldest had his maturation class we were talking about how it went. He told me everything they had taught him. And then we started to talk about girls and how he felt about them. He shared with me that some of the boys in his class are already talking about girls, sex and their body parts. We had a great conversation about how girls do have beautiful bodies and that boys are meant to be interested in them. But that if you are only interested in a girl’s body, you will miss out on the best parts of her. I told him that I hope the girls he dates are fun, smart, kind, driven and talented and all of those things make up who she is. Not just her body.
I stood up to leave his room that night knowing that I’d just had a great parenting moment. I mentally patted myself on the back for teaching my son to value women. And then as I left the room I realized that is only half of the battle. Now he needs to find girls that value themselves. I hope my sons will find girls that view themselves as so much more than their appearance. As the President of A Celebration of Real Beauty, I meet a lot of people that are surprised that I don’t have daughters. It would make sense that I would have this mission because I want to teach my daughters, but I don’t have any! I am passionate about raising boys who respect women and I want them to be surrounded by women who respect themselves.
Talk to your children about sex. Teach them the science, and then teach them the heart. I promise, they won’t be hearing it at school and they won’t be seeing it in the media. That is your beautiful responsibility and privilege as a parent.
2017 update: This post was originally written in 2013 for a blog I no longer run. It’s interesting reading this post and realizing how much more I need to be discussing with my children than I even realized. In the 3 years since I wrote this post, our conversations around sex and sexuality have had to expand to include gender definitions. The statistics for teenage sexuality have gotten significantly worse. My 6 year old was taught in his safety program at school this year that private parts include mouths because children are being asked to perform oral sex. I feel like as a mother, it’s never been a bigger challenge to develop children who have a healthy balanced perspective on sex, sexuality, gender, and personal worth. Here are the wins: First everyone still talks to me. When I ask questions, I get honest answers. When they have questions, they do bring them to me. Second we have really learned how important it is to protect everything in your home. We now have parental controls on every device. All cell phones are checked in each evening. And we monitor them much more closely. Third, despite living in a crazy confusing world, my boys are developing healthy and respectful relationships with girls. Whew, I’ll take it! I know it is not always easy and sometimes those conversations are downright awkward. But keep having them. If your children are not getting sex education from you, they are getting it from google and youtube. And those searches come with long term damage for too many kids. Good luck parents! You can do it. Go have that sex talk (or at least the first of many).