I was privileged to read a beautiful letter from a dad to his daughter. It wasn’t a letter in the traditional sense, in which he reflected upon the delightful daughterly smiles and hugs that make his heart sing. Rather, it was a heartfelt, honest, open discussion about….sexual consent and respect!
I know, right? How many dads write letters to their pre-adolescent daughter about their emerging sexuality? Now, that’s love.
Just as that letter took some mental preparation to write, so does talking to kids about sex and relationships. You may wonder, “Where do I start? What do I say? Why do I need to have this conversation now?”
I have some good news. You’ve been talking to your child about sexuality since the day they were born. Every time you give them a hug, you are communicating a comforting sense of warmth and affection. When you ask to share a cookie, you are teaching them the concept of consent, respect and kindness. When you are considerate of your parenting partner, you are modeling what a healthy relationship looks like. Keep it up – those little nondescript teaching moments matter.
Besides those nuanced conversations you didn’t know you were already having, it is important to participate in purposeful conversations as well. There are a myriad of topics about sexuality that must be addressed before the kids exit your front door and begin their journey into adulthood. Consent, respect, identity, sexually transmitted infection prevention, and birth control are just a few topics that fall under the umbrella of sexuality.
Sex talks don’t necessarily come up on their own. It is rare that an adolescent will plop down in their seat at the dinner table and say, “Can we talk about how to put a condom on?” And rare is a parent that proclaims, “Why, yes, my child, I’ve got a condom right here! Let me show you with this cucumber on our table.” Rather, kids might go to their BFF, who proclaims to have sex alllll the time and knows everything about condoms, then pulls an expired one out of their wallet. In other words, don’t you want them to learn from you? A quasi-expert who really has had sex? In fact, surveys show that most kids want to hear what their parents think about sex and actually listen to what they say, even though their rolling eyeballs communicate something entirely different. And as the dad sexpert, you may find you need to start the conversations on your own.
There are a few tips you can follow to help you on your parenting journey.
- There’s no such thing as “the talk.” Rather, it is a series of short tidbits of information that you share throughout their lives. So, phew. You can stop worrying about having “the talk.” It’s not a thing.
- It’s never too early, or late, to start talking. When your child is a wee little infant, you start by teaching them anatomically correct names for their body: nose, toes, penis, vulva. There are two reasons we do this so young. First, it gets adults used to saying these words and the child used to hearing them. In our culture, we seem to be shamed by our genitalia even though we find they provide a huge amount of entertainment with our lovers. Instead, we use cutesy pet names to minimize our embarrassment. Your baby will grow into a child who accepts these labels as ordinary as the word toe. It also helps you, the parent, get used to saying these words that used to be a cause of unease. Second, communicating with healthcare providers, law officials, and other trusted adults is much more effective when everyone understands what is being stated. For example, if a child complains he stubbed his toe, we all know his toe hurts. However, if he complains his snickerdoodle hurts, no one really knows what body part he’s talking about.
- Know and understand your own history with sexuality and your personal values. The experiences you had growing up and in adulthood influence how you approach your kids. Religion, your parents’ teachings, your own past sexual experiences, and other situations impact your views and values. This matters. It is important to understand and accept that your kids are going to have very different experiences, influences, and values because they are very different humans than you. Plus, they are growing up in a different time. And that’s okay.Which brings me to the next point…
- Take an open, loving, nonjudgmental approach. Keep the freak-outs to a minimum. Let’s say your child does plop down in the kitchen chair and ask how to put on a condom. It is very reasonable to say, “That is a terrific question, let’s talk about it after dinner.” However, if you find yourself trembling, perspiring profusely, and your face is turning red as you exclaim, “OMG! Are you having sex? It’s that Jones boy, isn’t it? I’m calling his mother!” take a deep breath. Step back. Keep in mind that it’s only a question. And an excellent one at that because they are taking responsibility for their health. (Hellooooo, isn’t that what we want? Healthy kids?) Or, you can certainly tell yourself they are merely asking for a friend.(Wink) Either way, give them the information they need and want.Which brings me to my next point…
- You don’t have to know everything. In fact, no one does. That’s why we have people who specialize in different aspects of sexuality. There are so many reputable resources out there to guide parents in their conversations. If you are unsure of an answer, tell your child they’ve asked a very good question, and you will find the information and share with them later. Be sure to follow up as promised — you are building a foundation of trust. Or, hop on the computer together, and find the answers as a team.
- Use media as a teaching tool. There is no shortage of teachable moments when watching the news, movies, and binge-worthy series. Listen to the lyrics of popular songs and talk about their message. Consent and respect, which are extremely important issues to incorporate into your everyday conversations, can easily be addressed as you view shows together. At commercial breaks, ponder out loud “I wonder how she felt when he talked to her so rudely? What do you think? Do you think his/her behavior was appropriate? How would you have approached it differently? I would have done this…” Listen to what they have to say. You learn more from listening than talking.
- Use humor. Sex is fun, so approach sexuality in a light and open manner. Certainly, some topics are not funny, such as sexual assault. However, we want our kids to view sex in a positive manner. Fear and shame have no place in our children’s future sex lives. We want to raise them in a sex-positive household.
I challenge dads to be an influence in their children’s lives. Dads offer a unique perspective about sexuality and all that it encompasses, especially consent and respect. Conversations can be initiated by you or your child, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are connecting. That bond of trust and love will ensure that your child will come to you when life gets very complicated in adulthood.
You can write a heartfelt letter to your child telling them that who they are is who you love. You can enjoy a walk together while exchanging ideas. You can read a book about puberty or sexuality together. There are many ways to get that dialogue going and to build those bonds of trust and love. As they say, “Be the adult you wish you had as a child.”
You’ve got this!
About the Author:
Kim Cook, the author of Teen World Confidential: Five Minute Topics to Open Conversation about Sex and Relationships, is a Certified Health Education Specialist and a former elementary school nurse. As an educator, she supports parents to have healthy and productive conversations about sex and relationships with their kids. Understanding that parents often need support to get the conversations started, she has initiated the National Sex Education Day campaign, which encourages parents to spend just ten minutes engaging in age-appropriate conversations with their children on February 2. Kim can be found at TeenWorldConfidential.com