Let’s talk about a topic that, while occupying a great amount of human attention, is also one most likely to cause discomfort when broaching it effectively with our children: sex. I remember when, as a new parent, I had an idea of how I would go about talking to my children about the ‘birds and the bees.’ Apparently this was my first mistake: I was planning a talk about mallard ducks and pollinators, because somehow I had grown accustomed to using similes, metaphors, and silly nicknames for sex and body parts.
When my first son was just under two I made this embarrassing discovery about myself. I was visiting a friend, a tough-talking, burly West Coast woman who spent a great deal of time slipping out onto her deck to chain-smoke. She was also a kindergarten teacher with a Master’s in Education. To this day I can’t make the connection between her two identities.
I was changing my son’s diaper and said to him, “stay still, I have to wipe your pee-pee.” She looked at me with withering disdain, and sneered, “are you really going to teach him that his penis is his “pee pee”? Do you have a problem using the correct terms for his body parts?”
As parents, we are continually challenged through our interactions with our children to hold a mirror up to ourselves and say, “Exactly why did I do that?”
How we talk about the human body and sexuality is largely informed by both our personal values and by how we were raised. If we have a problem saying the word ‘vagina’ and instead find monikers drawn from environmental flora and fauna, it’s time to deal with our discomfort. As our children grow, we need to set the foundation for clear and open discussion about sexuality because it can, and will, affect their lives in a magnitude of ways.
If we attempt to be open and frank, while age-appropriate, with our children, and at least get curious about examining where our own hang-ups are, we are heading concretely towards living one tenet of parenting that I aspire to subscribe to, a modern version of the maxim “Know thyself.” That tenet is, “work to develop self-awareness,” about the limitations we hold due to our own perceptions, beliefs, and biases.
When we begin the process of confronting belief systems that are no longer useful, not only do we avoid burdening our children with them, but we are able to listen attentively to our children and respond effectively at the right time. As parents we need to be the intuitive arbiters of scientific information about sexuality so that we get ahead of the curve of the school ground chatter, and then the parties, raves, and bars our children may attend. A good start is getting comfortable with talking about sexuality clearly in a way that encompasses our personal values while not obfuscating the issues.
Another vital reason to keep open about sexuality with our children is to protect them from sexual predators. Meg Hickling, an award-winning sex educator, who also works in prisons with offenders who have abused children, discovered that these offenders prey on children who are vulnerable. States Hickling, “Sexually intrusive people will almost always choose a victim who knows nothing, and hence, will not tell either…If a child knows appropriate sexual vocabulary, the offender knows that some enlightened adult, usually a parent, has taught them.” As those “enlightened adults” in our children’s lives, let’s say goodbye to the storks, the cabbage patches, the birds, and the bees as explanations for sexuality that are no more than fairy tales.