There comes a point in every parent’s life when they have to confront one of the most difficult (but important) aspects of child rearing: the sex talk! I’m sure we all have cringe-worthy memories of our own parents attempting to explain the birds and bees to us. Sex and sexuality can be hard to discuss as adults with adults, so trying to open that line of communication with kids, tweens, and teens can be excruciating. But the way we think and talk about sexuality has shifted in a major way over the last decade or so. Rather than avoiding the topic or giving the bare minimum explanation, we’re moving into more sex-positive parenting. This doesn’t mean parents are adopting a casual view of sex and pushing that onto their kids. But it does mean that we’re trying to undo the shameful stigma around sex and sexuality.
What exactly is sex-positive parenting?
According to Amy Lang’s website Birds+Bees+Kids, it means that we’re teaching our kids that “sexuality is a natural, normal and healthy part of childhood, adolescence and adulthood.” It’s teaching our kids that sex is healthy, it’s normal, and yes, it’s natural! Babies are not born thinking that masturbation or same-sex attraction is “wrong.” These are ideas that are passed onto them by parents, caretakers, and poor sex education. Being a sex-positive parent means that you’re allowing your children the freedom to explore these new feelings and urges, without shaming them or trying to break their spirit.
It’s new territory for a lot of us! But one of the first and most important ways we can embrace sex-positive parenting is by really promoting body positivity. With our kids, yes. But also, with ourselves.
It’s almost mindless sometimes, isn’t it? You’ve just gotten out of the shower, and you make a negative comment about the body you see in the mirror. It can be about your weight, that mom-pooch that has hung around despite your best efforts, or something about the state of your post-nursing boobs. We ALL have issues with our bodies in some ways. But while we may make these comments without really thinking about, little ears are listening and absorbing every word.
Our kids hear everything (except when we’re speaking directly to them, of course!). And these little minds internalize what they hear. If they see mom pinching her waist with a grimace on her face, guess what? They’re going to start looking at their own bodies in a less than ideal way. Model a body-positive attitude for your kids, and for yourself! Jessica O’Reilly, Ph.D., host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast says, “We have evidence that body-image attitudes are contagious, so you can model positive body image by being kind to your own body.” If they love and respect their own bodies, they will demand love and respect from others.
There’s no specified time for “The Talk.” Make it an ongoing discussion, and keep that line of communication open.
It’s not like kids suddenly turn a certain age and all of their curiosity about sex happens at once. Toddlers exhibit signs of sexual curiosity, too! Make sure you’re addressing your child’s questions at every stage and every age, with age-appropriate information. “Where do babies come from?” doesn’t have to be a hard question to answer when it’s asked by a young child. There are lots of resources available that make talking to young kids about sex easy and comfortable, like this book geared to 5-7 year olds.
Try to remain even-keeled on the outside (even if you’re dying on the inside).
We all know by now: kids pick up on EVERY cue, even when it’s not meant for them. Overreacting to a child’s question about sex or sexuality sends an unspoken message to them that this topic is off-limits. And we don’t want them to think that! We also don’t want them to think their curiosity is amusing or shouldn’t be taken seriously, so save the laughs for when they’re in bed. According to The Body is Not An Apology, “Many children learn to be ashamed about their sexuality by the way we answer their questions, not only the content.” Answer questions with enthusiasm and encourage their curiosity (“That’s a really great question, kiddo!”).
Sex-positive parenting is really centered on honesty, this cannot be stressed enough.
I know we “lie” to our kids about a lot of stuff. Santa and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real, but they’re some of those magical parts of childhood that we fudge for their sake. But when you’re talking to your kids about sex, honesty is really the best policy. This is one area you REALLY want to avoid confusion.
If your child asks you why is feels good to rub his genitals on his teddy bear, tell him why! Tell him that it’s totally normal, that masturbation does feel good. Set boundaries for when and where he can do this, but don’t discourage his exploration of his own body.
Use correct terms for genitalia, sexuality, and biology. I know it’s cute to call it a “gynie”, but teaching your little ones the correct term for a vagina at a young age teaches them about their own bodies. The conversation about how many holes girls have was a lengthy one in my house, and it spanned SEVERAL topics. But I want my daughters growing up knowing all about their own bodies. When they know their bodies, they take ownership of their bodies.
On the topic of honesty, be honest with your kids about your own experiences with sex and sexuality.
Oooooh boy, this one is tough. Listen, a good chunk of our parenting comes from our own experiences as children, adolescents, and young adults. We all made mistakes, choices, and decisions that shaped who we are, and these are the people our kids know and love. It’s only natural that they’d be curious about who we were before we were mom and dad. And being honest with them is key in making sure they understand that their path is theirs alone.
It’s important to relay age-appropriate information here. Younger children might be curious about when mom and dad fell in love, or how mom and dad had them! But older kids and teens will likely want to know about your lives before they came along, and the decisions you made (and how those decisions shaped who you are!). You certainly don’t have to tell them EVERY story (I will likely leave out a few of my own until my girls are grandparents, LOL). But there’s no reason your older kids shouldn’t hear about your sexual experiences as they pertain to their own development.
It’s NEVER too early to teach your kids about consent.
This is a conversation you should be having with your kids every day, starting very young. There is no gray area: there is YES, and there is NO. The #MeToo movement really opened a lot of people’s eyes on the topic of consent, and it started a lot of uncomfortable conversations. It also forced a lot of parents to take a look at the ways they undermine consent when it comes to their kids.
Personally, I’ve taught my kids that they, and they alone, have autonomy over their own bodies. And I started teaching them this as soon as they could understand that they were independent beings. I do not force my kids to hug or kiss people, even relatives. I don’t tell my kids they have to say hello when someone speaks to them, or that they have to reciprocate an affectionate act. When I was searching for a pediatrician, I specifically looked for one who would ask my kids for their permission when she was prepping to do an exam, and who would explain what she was doing as she went and gave them the power to stop her if they weren’t comfortable.
It’s just as important for parents of sons to teach consent as it is for parents of daughters. Maybe even more so! Yes, we can teach our girls that “no means no” and “yes means yes.” But we need to teach our boys the same. Rape culture is incredibly gendered; think of how young girls are told that their clothing makes them responsible for the actions of others. In addition to teaching our girls about how to give consent, we need to be teaching our boys how to respect consent.
Sex-positive parenting isn’t easy, so make use of resources to help you on your journey!
If you choose to go down the sex-positive parenting path, don’t look for too much help from your children’s school or sex-ed programs. Truth be told, sex-ed in this country is atrocious, and with abstinence-only education on the horizon, it’s just going to get worse. Which means the onus is on you! But don’t worry: you aren’t alone.
There are plenty of resources at your disposal, to make talking about sex to kids of all ages easier. For younger kids, this book about sex and sexuality is a great starting point. It uses age-appropriate language and illustrations to help your children learn about their bodies and sexuality. There’s also an app geared towards teens that’s a great way to open the lines of communication. Real Talk gives tweens and teens a way to ask questions they might be embarrassed to ask otherwise; use it WITH your kids, it’s a great way to find out what’s going on with their peers.
AMAZE is an organization that creates age-appropriate sex education videos for kids of all ages. They cover topics from masturbation to consent, puberty to unprotected sex, and everything in-between. The videos are entertaining, honest, and full of valuable information.
Definitely teach your kids about the dangers of sex, but don’t lump them into a conversation about sex positivity.
It is imperative that kids know and understand all the dangers of sex (sexually transmitted diseases, sexual assault or abuse, etc.). That should be a conversation in and of itself, and it shouldn’t be your starting point. In other words, don’t sit your kids down and scare them shitless about sex, and then follow that up with a nice dose of sex-positive parenting.
Clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D. says, “If you pair up your conversation about sexuality and love with the health dangers, the victimization dangers, and the power-relationship dangers, then kids may associate sexuality and physical love with negatives. And this could create a block or phobia about sex.”
Understand that your kids will eventually have sex, and know that there is literally nothing you can do to stop that. What you CAN do is make sure they’re prepared for whenever it happens.
Here’s the thing: you, even as their mom or dad or whoever, can’t decide when your kids become sexually active. We can teach them about sex (the good and the bad), and we can instill in them the necessary tools to know when/if they’re ready and teach them how to be safe. But beyond that, they are the captains of their ships.
In an essay for HuffPo about sex-positive parenting, Lea Grover says, “I don’t get to tell my daughters they have to have sex, but I also don’t get to tell them they can’t. They’re in charge. Your body, your decision. I never want to be responsible for setting the precedent that another person gets to tell them what to do with their bodies, and especially with their sexuality. I don’t want to be the gateway for a manipulative, potentially abusive boyfriend.”
Sex-positive parenting isn’t about giving your kids permission to have sex. Far from it, actually. In fact, according to one Australian survey, teens who talk openly with their parents about sex become sexually active at a later age than teens who don’t. Talking to your kids about sex helps them be more responsible, and feel more confident in their own bodies and about their own decisions.
Sex-positive parenting doesn’t have to be weird, or uncomfortable.
If you start off teaching your kids that sex and sexuality and their feelings are normal, healthy, and good, you can build on that foundation as they get older and the conversations get more intense. Kids who learn about sex in a positive way have better experiences with sex when the time comes.
(Image: iStock / grinvalds)