If you’re a parent, you know well that you have many jobs when it comes to your children’s well-being. But did you know that one of these is being your child’s sexuality educator?
Teaching your child about sexuality, in the context of your own family values, is one of the most important jobs you have—yet it is the job parents usually get the least amount of training to do.
The very idea of talking about sexuality tends to raise a myriad of questions for parents: What’s appropriate to say at which ages? Shouldn’t I wait for my child to bring it up? What if I don’t know how to answer my child’s questions?
Relax! There are some basic ways that you can let your children know that you are a safe, “askable” adult—no matter what they might have questions about.
Tip #1: It’s Never Too Early to Start. It’s important to remember that sexuality has to do with far more than “sex.” “Sexuality” is a far-reaching, comprehensive term that encompasses everything from physical anatomy to understanding how to treat people with respect, to learning how pregnancy happens, and much, much more.
When you understand this, you know that children are receiving messages about sexuality from the day they are born—from the words people use around them to describe their body parts to messages they get from family, peers and the media about how they are supposed to behave based on their assigned gender. The longer you wait to talk with your child, the more you are competing with what they’re hearing all around them.
The important phrase here is “age-appropriate”—what your child needs to know as a kindergartener is much different from what she or he needs to know in high school. Start early, start slowly—and if you’re unsure, reach out for some guidance.
Tip #2: It’s Never Too LATE to Start. If you are the parent of an adolescent and you haven’t yet started talking with your child, you didn’t miss the proverbial boat. Start now and keep talking.
As your children get older, they will need to know new information with each passing year and be faced with making decisions about relationships and shared sexual behaviors. Your guidance will be imperative throughout their adolescent years.
Try to put the idea of having “the” talk out of your mind. You need to talk early, and often!
Tip #3: Take Small Bites. You don’t need to cover absolutely everything in one conversation with your child. It will overwhelm you as much as it will your child!
Look for teachable moments: watch television with your child and mute the television during commercials to discuss something you’ve just seen.
Take advantage of car rides to and from school and other activities. This is a non-threatening place to have discussions about sexuality and other important topics.
Tip #4: Talk with Your Partner or Spouse about Your Values. If you are married or in a relationship, make sure that you and your spouse or partner talk about your values and beliefs relating to sexuality so that if you have individual conversations with your child, the messages you are giving are consistent.
Be sure to deal with any differences you may have in your opinions and values away from your child. For example, if one of you believes it’s okay for 13-year-olds to date but the other thinks that that’s too young, you need to have that conversation independent of your child and figure out together how to respond in ways that provide information without undermining either one of you or your beliefs.
Tip #5: If You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know.” There is a strong pressure on parents to know everything. Although we may love it when our kids are younger and think we do, we can’t possibly. The good news is there are tons of web sites, books and other resources for parents.
If you’re stumped, be honest with your child, saying something like, “That’s a really great question. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. Let’s go look it up online together.” You won’t lose validity in your child’s eyes. In fact, he or she will appreciate your honesty.
There’s nothing about becoming a parent that makes us instant experts in sexuality—or in any other topic for that matter. But the good news is, you’re not alone.
You can get support from trained sexuality educators, learn from fellow parents and get guidance from folks in your faith community, if you are a member of one. Talking about sexuality isn’t always easy, but it is always important.
Answer is a national sexuality education organization dedicated to providing and promoting comprehensive sexuality education to young people and the adults who teach them, including parents, teachers and other educators. For more information, visit http://answer.rutgers.edu. Teens can find medically accurate, age-appropriate information on the teen Web site, Sexetc.org.