It’s a question often wrestled with by parents and leaders, when is the right time to talk to kids about sex?
The answer is simple.
The right time to talk to your kids about sex is just before they hear it from someone or somewhere else.
That might not be the answer you were hoping for. In fact, that probably opens up more questions than anything. How can you know when they’re going to be exposed to content on television, scribbled on a bathroom wall, stumbled across on a computer or device, conspiratorially whispered about amongst friends at a sleep over, or joked about in a locker room? It seems impossible to predict, and therefore difficult to pre-empt, but it is undeniably the ‘best time’.
The power of first exposure.
Our brains are wired to attach knowledge about a subject to the person who first introduced it to us in an informative or useful way. So, whoever first exposes us to information is solidified, subconsciously, in our minds as the expert on that topic. We are far more likely to return to that source if we find ourselves needing more details or, if we get data from an alternate source, we are likely to come back to the original source to verify or test it.
What an incredible opportunity that presents as parents or people of influence in the lives of young people. If they are introduced to concepts of sexual biology, reproduction, arousal, intimacy, consent, masturbation, boundaries, gender, safety, identity and responsibility by you, they are more likely to see you as a source of useful information and understanding on these topics. How much more preferable is it that YOU be in this position of influence than a child’s school friends, bus pals or anything that might spew out of a television or smart phone?
This doesn’t completely address the question of timing, but I believe it ought to create a sense of urgency and boldness driven by the value of equipping our young people to adequately navigate their own sexuality, understanding and expression in a highly sexualised culture.
“I don’t want to talk to my children too early because I don’t want to introduce them to concepts before they need to be … and I don’t want to arouse their curiosity, which might lead them to further (potentially unhelpful) exploration.”
This is a hybrid of commonly expressed concerns by parents when wrestling with decisions around timing.
The myth of early exposure.
It goes without saying (which generally means it needs to be said!) that when we reference ‘early’ conversations (as in, prior to when they might otherwise be exposed) those need to happen in age appropriate and ongoing ways.
It’s not just ‘the talk’ it’s a lot of talks. It’s a continuing conversation. Any thoughts you have, as a parent or leader, of having one conversation that articulately (and in completely non-awkward ways) covers all of the necessary topics and concepts your child needs to successfully land them in sexually educated, adjusted and healthy adulthood need to be banquished! Sorry! 😉
In light of this, any topics you broach ought to be couched in language and cover information that is able to be helpfully processed and absorbed by the individual child. It will be different at every stage of development, but it will most likely be different from child to child. Their level of maturity, sensitivity, social awareness, personal experiences, personality and intellect will all impact what they need to know and what they are able to absorb.
- You need to talk about everything in order to be able to talk about anything. Developing a relationship of open dialogue with your child (about Minecraft and puppies and football teams and complicated school/friendship dramas and …) will grow their confidence that you are someone they can trust to handle conversations about particularly uncomfortable or uncertain topics.
- Ask your child to ask questions – and then ask more questions. “What do YOU want to know? What do you understand and what more can we learn about together?” Respond to only the questions that are asked and check understanding as you go. “Does that make sense? Does that settle what you were thinking about?”
- Capitalise on ‘teachable moments’. Interact with books they’re reading or things they see on television – “Why do you think she/he reacted like that?” If your child says or does something that indicates a wrong understanding (like the Gr 5 child wrestling with a peer in the playground I overheard exclaiming “stop it, or you’ll catch puberty!”) or an awareness or exposure to something – speak to it, ask about it, clarify it.
- Act normal! Even if you don’t feel normal, ACT IT! It is counterproductive to try and explain the ‘naturalness’ of sexuality and intimacy while you stumble over words, don’t look anyone in the eye and scurry off as soon as there’s the slightest break in conversation. So …
- Practice! Practice what you might say, what words you might use, how you might describe certain acts, attributes or attitudes. Read articles or listen to speakers who can help you develop your language – it will help your child as well as increasing your confidence.
The myth of aroused curiosity.
Curiosity only exists in a void. It’s true, right? You are only curious about what you don’t know. Speaking about pornography or masturbation isn’t a guarantee that your child is going to go off and explore that more for themselves. They are far more likely to if there’s a gap in their understanding. If they haven’t asked the questions that they still have or if they haven’t fully understood what you’ve explained.
- Ask comprehension questions “Can you tell me in your own words what I just explained?”.
- Encourage active listening “Nod at me if you are following but stop me if I’ve said something that was a bit weird or confusing.”
- Plan a follow up chat. “That seems like enough for now. How about we check in later once you’ve had a chance to process that some more?”
- Monitor your child. If they have been disturbed or discomforted by what they’ve heard you might notice that in their behaviour, body language or responses.
What do you think? What have you found helpful or unhelpful in your own experience? What further information or discussion do you require to help you keep this conversation going (or to start it!)?