Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

This month’s flashback post brought to you in honor of Let’s Talk month. 

Dear World’s Okayest Mom,

It’s happened. My daughter came home from school and asked me where babies come from. She’s only nine! What do I tell her?! I don’t want to freak her out, but I know I’m supposed to talk about this stuff.

Not Ready Yet

Dear Not Ready Yet,

My daughter was seven when she popped the question. “Mommy,” she queried, innocent blue eyes blinking up at me. “How does the baby get inside the mommy?”

Like you, most of us parents dread this moment. We picture ourselves flailing around, word diarrhea pouring out of our mouth, or stammering, “Ask your mother!” even if we are their mother. But this little query is just the gateway, the first of many questions that our children will have about sex, relationships, puberty, body image, birth control and other complicated topics. It’s worth investing in a couple tools to ease the awkwardness. Unless, of course, you plan to abandon your child’s sex education to that kid down the street whose knowledge comes from Game of Thrones and his older brother’s browser cache.

Here are seven tips from the trenches:

1. Call it what it is

Woowoo. Boobies. Vajayjay. Using infantile code words perpetuates the idea that certain body parts are shameful or different than elbows or noses. Research shows this sense of shame and embarrassment about their bodies can prevent kids from raising important health concerns or bringing up situations of unwanted touching. So call it what it is.
Saying the accurate terms out loud may require practice. So practice: Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Breasts. It’s not so bad after the tenth (or maybe the hundredth) time. At some point you will stop blushing.

2. Think beyond biology

Sure, your child needs to understand the insert-tab-A-into-slot-B component of sex. But biology is the easy part; many (but not all!) will learn about fallopian tubes in school. But the difference between a crush and love, how to respond to peer pressure, appropriate use of social media, awareness of gender stereotypes, how to say no: these are topics with moral, emotional and social implications that need your guidance.

3. Be truthful

Most of us want our children — someday, maybe when they’re 35 — to have a healthy sex life. But we also have intermediate goals, like not qualifying for MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. This can make us say scary and non-factual things: “You will get herpes.”

Research shows that focusing only on dangers does not change behavior, particularly since our kids are steeped in a culture that constantly reinforces how fantastic sex is. Instead of fear and shame consider this message: Sex feels really good when you are mature and responsible enough to do it right. Then explain what “mature and responsible” means to you.

Each family is different. In ours, you are mature and responsible enough when you can discuss the decision and the steps you are taking to protect yourself and your partner with a parent or short-list of trusted adults beforehand. If you’re too embarrassed to talk about it, you’re not mature enough to do it. Your line may be different, but figure out where it is, and communicate it to your children.

4. Shut up and listen

You know the adults in the Peanuts cartoons? We too sound like “wah wah wah wah” when we lecture them. If you want them to hear you, ask questions. Ask their opinion. Ask what they know. Ask what they want to know. Ask what’s important to them. Ask what they are worried about. Just ask.

5. Start somewhere. Anywhere.

If your kids are nine or ten and haven’t asked questions about sex or puberty, it’s time to be brave and start the conversation.

“Let’s talk about sex,” is a terrible opening line, but — lucky for you — American culture is chock-a-block with teachable moments. Almost every song, movie, or book provide fodder for starting conversations. Teen pregnancy, cheating, lying, homophobia, drinking, peer pressure: it’s all there in our songs, movies and television shows. Listening to pop songs in the car is a great place to start: there’s no eye contact when you’re driving. Everyone — including you — can blush and squirm uncomfortably in relative privacy.

Here are some good conversation-starting questions: What do you think just happened in that scene/song? Why do you think he/she did that? Do you think they made the right choice? What do you think they could have done instead? Have other kids you know faced that situation? What did they do?

What will likely happen is this: “Mom/Dad…[eyeroll] I don’t want to talk about this with you.” This is your moment to be an adult and say, “It’s okay to be uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable too, but this is important. So we’re going to do this.” Then do it.

(Want more tips on this? Check out this useful tool for using TV to prompt conversation.)

6. Buy yourself time

Let’s say they ask a question you’re not ready for. Instead of bumbling around and saying something you’ll kick yourself for later, try this: “That’s a great question. Let me think about the best way to answer it and get back to you.”

Bam! You’ve honored their question and you bought yourself time to frantically Google “how to talk about…” and call all of your friends for advice.

Just make sure you come back with an answer. No wimping out. It is your job to find a time to say, “Yesterday you asked me about [whatever they asked]. Can we talk about it now?”

7. Just do it

It’s never too late to start these conversations; a sexually-active eighteen-year-old may still need to talk about healthy relationships, since one in three adolescents in the US has been a victim of physical or emotional abuse from a dating partner. It’s also never too early; your five-year-old is ready to notice that Disney princesses are strangely obsessed with finding boyfriends. And remember that your sons need these conversations too.

These tips are not going to make your conversations all rainbows and unicorns. It’s still going to be awkward. You know what’s more awkward? Herpes.
So start talking.

Want more? Check out Planned Parenthood’s For Parents site which breaks down age-appropriate information about bodies, reproduction, healthy relationships, identity and other topics.

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