“Let’s Talk”: Parents as Sexuality Educators

The following guest post comes to us from Planned Parenthood Arizona’s education staff. Contact them at education@ppaz.org.

parent child talkingOctober is “Let’s Talk” Month. Do you remember your parents giving you “the Talk”? If you were unlucky, “the Talk” was an uncomfortable event that was never spoken of again. If you were really unlucky, your parents didn’t talk to you at all. If so, maybe you got some ideas on your own, or from your friends, from your coach, or from health class. If you were LGBTQ, maybe you saw a horrifically homophobic video like this. However, if you were lucky, you didn’t receive “the” Talk but instead had many conversations with parents who were open and honest. Maybe it was a bit awkward, like this. But hopefully they gave you accurate information and answered your questions as they came up. If so, good for them!

Being an “askable” parent helps keep the door to conversation open.

Having “the Talk” can be uncomfortable, or even hilarious. But if you’re a parent, make sure you do talk — early and often. At Planned Parenthood Arizona, we recognize that parents are the best sexuality educators for their children. Children get their first messages about sexuality from their parents, and they start wondering about sex earlier than you might think. It’s important for parents to talk about sex so they can be sure their kids understand their family’s values and beliefs. Kids begin collecting information about sex at a very young age — they get messages from the media, from their friends, and from teachers. Parents should ensure the ideas their children have are accurate and in line with their own values. Parents want the best for their kids, and can encourage them to make healthy choices that minimize risky behaviors. Although they might not seem to be listening, most teens say their parents are their biggest influence about sex.

If parents don’t talk about sex, kids get a clear message — that it’s not OK to ask. That’s bad news — If parents aren’t approachable, kids will find information from other sources. Would you want your teenager to follow their friend’s advice? Would you prefer if your children ask you a few uncomfortable questions, or that they go searching the Internet for facts?

What Keeps Parents from Talking About Sex?

What if I don’t know enough?

You don’t have to be an expert! If you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, that’s OK — tell them you’ll get back to them. If you are taken off guard or feeling upset about a question, say, “Can I have 15 minutes to think about how to answer that?” You can always call Planned Parenthood to ask for the facts.

But I don’t want to embarrass my kids, or myself.

Kids prefer to learn about sexuality from their parents. Although they might squirm, and the conversation might be awkward, the message you are sending is: I care about you.

But … Isn’t it too early to talk about sex?

Learning about sexuality is a life-long process. Kids as young as 2 or 3 already have questions — and they don’t always ask at the most convenient times. Maybe your child loudly asks about a pregnant woman in church. Maybe he asks the grocery store clerk if she has a penis. If a child asks you a question in a public place, you might say, “Could we talk about that when we get home?” Or you can decide that it’s better to embarrass a few adults than to stigmatize your child for her normal curiosity. It’s developmentally normal for young children to wonder about differences in bodies, or where they came from. If you’re curious about what stages are normal, there’s a great guide here. Parents who are able to stay calm and collected during these (sometimes inopportune) teaching moments will become lifelong, trusted resources for their kids.

If I talk about sex, my teen will take it as permission to have sex!

Studies have shown that good communication in families correlates to kids waiting longer to have sex for the first time. When parents discuss sex, birth control, and STDs with their kids before they first have sex, they are 2 to 3 times more likely to use a condom when they do first have sex. You might not be able to keep your child from having sex until you think they are ready, but you can make sure they understand the risks.

Tips on Talking to Your Kids:

  • Set aside time to talk to your child every day — not necessarily about sexuality, just to get in the habit of communicating well. Give them your undivided attention, so they understand they are important to you.
  • Validate the child’s question: “Good question!” or “A lot of people are curious about that” or “I can tell you’re thinking” or “I’m glad you brought that up.”
  • Make sure you understand what your child is asking before you answer. For example, maybe your child asks, “Where did my brother come from?” Your mind starts racing with words like “sperm” and “fallopian tubes,” but the answer your child is looking for is “Albuquerque.”
  • If you’re not sure, you can ask a clarifying question, such as “What do you think?” or “Do you have any ideas about that?” or “Do you know what that word means?”
  • Answer as accurately as possible, at the developmentally appropriate level for your child. You don’t need to tell them everything all at once. There are some good resources about developmentally appropriate sex ed, broken down by age group, here.
  • Check to make sure your answer was adequate: “Have I answered your question?”
  • Show your child that you are glad they came to you. Even if their question unsettled you, let them know that you want them to approach you, even if they’ve done something you don’t approve of. Remember, just because your child is asking you about something doesn’t mean they have done that, or intend to do that.
  • Be honest. It’s OK to say, “I’m a little uncomfortable talking about this” or “I’m not really sure about that.”
  • Encourage them to come to you again with any other questions they might have.
  • Be aware of how your own attitudes are influencing your answer. Be mindful of your body language and tone of voice. It’s OK to say “I believe” or “Our church believes,” but avoid responses that shut the door to communication.

Door Openers and Door Slammers

Some ways of responding will make you a more “askable” parent. “Askable” means that you are approachable and nonjudgmental, and your children see the door to conversation as “open.” On the other hand, some responses will immediately slam the door shut. Your child will feel that you are unavailable, that they will get in trouble, or that their questions are shameful.

Door Openers

  • “What do you think?”
  • “That’s a good question.”
  • “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
  • “I’m trying to understand what you’re feeling.”
  • “Do you know what that word means?”
  • “I’m glad you told me about that.”

Door Slammers

  • “You’re too young.”
  • “Where did you hear that?”
  • “If you say that word again, I’ll …”
  • “That’s none of your business.”
  • “I don’t care what your friends are doing.”
  • “That’s just for boys (or girls).”
  • “We’ll talk about that when you need to know.”

Let’s Talk!

Parents can be a wonderful resource for their children. They can model healthy behaviors and good communication for relationships. They can be a source of reliable, accurate information, and a trusted emotional support. Listening well, and having good communication with your child, is not just necessary for sex education. It’s a skill that will improve all areas of your relationship, and that will help protect your child from other risk factors. Go talk to your kids!