September 22, 2003    Education

Words of Love - Talking to Kids about Sex

Developing children into sexually healthy adults should be a natural progression, yet I find the path is rife with difficulty for both parent and child. Because the subject is so utterly personal, the first hurdle is getting past any inhibitions to discuss it. If we manage to get that far, then we must brace ourselves for the new adult image our children will reveal of themselves. Additionally, the image our children have carried around about us will likewise change as we reveal our values. As uncomfortable as it may feel, I believe it is through the course of these conversations that the familiar parent-child relationship evolves into an adult relationship.

Too often though, the evolution takes place later in a child’s life, rather than in the adolescent years when they begin to learn about, and explore their sexuality. Without early guidance from parents, teens are left to decipher the messages they receive from school, peers, and the media on their own. The resultant mix of messages contains a bevy of facts from school, pressure from peers, and images of promiscuity from the media. Toss in message of abstinence from church, coupled with a budding desire, and confusing hardly seems an apt word to describe the situation. With open communication, parents can help children make sense of the messages, and guide them in establishing their values and boundaries.

When having these conversations, I think parents tend to focus mostly on the physical and moral aspects, and far less on the importance of clear communication and respect required of a sexually active person, or for that matter, an adult. We’ll send our kids out in the world armed with their newly acquired values, only to see them come home with their boundaries trampled upon because they were unable to communicate clearly, or were not given proper respect.

During a sexual encounter, a teen may resort to vague language, especially when trying to peacefully end an encounter that has gone too far for comfort. As a result, they will hedge their statements and say things like, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” or say something unrelated to the act, such as, “I need to go home.” Neither statement sends a strong message, and leaves enough room for doubt about the teen’s true feelings.

Afterwards, the teen may begin to feel angry over an apparent loss of control, and feel a sting over a lesson learned the hard way. No parent wants to hear their child relay such a story, but when parents don’t teach the importance of clear communication, and practice it with our children, we leave more than we care to admit up to chance. With proper guidance and assurance, we can help teens speak more decisively by using specific and direct statements such as, “I don’t want to do this,” or “I want to stop,” when their boundaries have been crossed.

On the receiving end of precise communication comes the need for respect. When a teen’s partner displays the maturity to convey an unambiguous statement, they should heed those words. Doing otherwise fails to take the clearly articulated boundaries into consideration, and could put the teen in a position of violation. Given the potential to be accused of a crime, it is essential for a parent to impart the importance of listening, and respecting their partner’s boundaries in the most intimate of situations. As with the loss of control scenario, no parent wants to hear that their child forced their will on an unwilling participant.

When we teach our kids to listen carefully, to speak clearly, and to have respect for each other, we are giving them essential skills to navigate the awkward course to adulthood, as well as skills to maintain healthy adult relationships.

The links below provide additional information on having this important talk:

An Advocates for Youth guide for parents on how to help kids become sexually healthy adults. The site contains plenty of useful information and links, beyond the URL noted above.

Campaign for Our Children, Inc. guidelines for talking and listening to children.

Scarleteen offers information aimed primarily at youth, but equally interesting for parents to see the wide range of topics covered.

Article about sex education in public schools, with a map showing the education requirements for each state.

A Washington Post article about how some teens today prefer to “hook up.” The handful of replies to the article are interesting as well:

Finally, a couple articles that touch on the conflict between America’s Puritan roots, and our sexual expression: