Last summer my daughter, S and I went away for a week, leaving Spencer, my husband, and A, my son, at home by themselves for a week. They had a great time together, rambling around like boys do, and then one evening at dinner then seven-year-old A asked his dad what the word “sexy” means. And from there, I am told, the conversation quickly “went there.”
There are many of us, I think, who dread the idea of having a sex talk with our kids. Perhaps this is because we remember this being an awkward conversation (or lack thereof) with our own parents. Perhaps it’s because we feel unqualified to speak on this topic. Perhaps it’s because we’re embarrassed. Recent research done on this has shown that most parents would prefer that their children learn about it in schools rather than having to explain it to their kids themselves. The best place for kids to learn about sex, however, is at home, because in a safe learning environment, taught by people they love and trust, they are much more likely to learn to make better choices when it comes to sex and their bodies. Is this terrifying for parents? Of course. I always joke that I learned about sex “from da streets,” because my own parents avoided the topic almost entirely, so I basically had to figure out what was what on my own. I remember once I asked a fairly innocent question to my mother about sex, and I was shamed for asking it. I’m sure that this is not what she intended, but that very powerful moment shut down any possibility that I would ever ever EVER ask another question even APPROACHING that topic from that point on. In that moment, sadly, I learned that sex is something embarrassing and shameful that respectable people do not openly discuss.
Of course I have worked hard to un-learn this. I now know that it is incredibly important to have not only one “talk”, but multiple conversations about sex and bodies with kids. Sometimes when my 5-year-old daughter openly starts talking about body parts with her unflinchingly casual tone, I find that that muscle memory kicks in and the shame tries to creep up my throat. I have to remind myself, then, that this is a sacred moment, an important moment in which I can demonstrate to her that she is not shameful, this topic is not shameful, and that a healthy interest and curiosity about it is, well, healthy. So she and I will often launch into a casual conversation about vaginas or penises, or breasts, or bums, and we will use all the proper words, because these are not shameful parts, they are lovely parts, and don’t have to be disguised in our discussion of them. Sometimes her dad and her brother will be there and the conversation will naturally evolve into a chat about the differences between girls and boys and men and women and why her stuffies don’t have any genitals, and which people we know have which parts, and so on and so forth. I must say, it is delightful to watch my kids’ curiosity bloom — watching their faces light up with knowledge as their dad and I roll it all out for them. THEY do not feel shame in these moments, and we have made sure of that. We can’t always control the other elements outside of our home, but I am satisfied that our home and the conversations that happen here will shape and guide them in positive ways, and that is a pretty important element toward encouraging them to make educated and positive choices, as well as to avoid shame and secrecy.
So when A brought up the word “sexy”, a word he had heard at school, and the conversation turned quite naturally and unashamedly towards sex, Spence rolled with it. A, while understanding quite a bit by this time about bodies and differences, had never quite turned his thoughts to the mechanics of how babies are made. And then his father, without skipping a beat, launched gently into a discussion of what happens when two people decide that they want to make a baby. After listening keenly to all his father had to say and all of the answers he had to give, my little boy, with a smirk and wide, glazed-over eyes, said, theatrically; “I think I’ll go faint now …” and they both laughed. The conversation continued from there as my son fired questions at his father and his father answered them with grace. Eventually the conversation naturally turned to something else, and they carried on.
When I came home Spence told me about this moment, and I was so proud of him. He has to fight that throat-creeping shame too, like many of us do, and he did it, and did it well.
This was a lucky moment for Spence, though, because A invited him to that conversation, while I think most of the time it’s us parents who need to do the inviting. When we get a nice moment alone with our kids and can get a feel for what they already know (or THINK they know) and can ask them if they have any questions, or ask them if they want to talk about where they came from. When we do the inviting, we reinforce the okay-ness of talking about something that sooner or later they are going to want to know more about. We create an environment of openness, without fear, where we can give our kids the space to either ask, or to just listen and learn. It’s a gift we are giving, and one we receive, that brings us closer to each other. For all that it brings, I think it is more than worth it to challenge the things that keep us from talking about sex with our kids. And I think, like anything, there can be laughter in the midst of it, there can be fun, there can be seriousness, and there can be silliness. Either way, they’re going to come out of it with a more healthy understanding of it than they could get absolutely ANYwhere else.