Talking to kids about sex is one of the most anxiety-producing things for a parent. Most parents would rather have a root canal than this conversation. And although it's something most parents know they "should" do, it definitely isn't on the list of things they "want" to do.
However, teaching kids about their bodies and sexuality is occurring all the time. If you think that one conversation is all they're learning about sexual health from you, you're mistaken. Here are five things you're teaching them daily:
1. Body image
This applies to boys as well as girls. Since the time they were young they have listened to you talk about your own body, the bodies of others and probably theirs. All of this talk can eventually translate into how they feel about themselves as they enter puberty or a sexual relationship. Are they focused on certain parts of their body? How do they feel about nudity? Clothing choices? Do you only compliment your little girl on her "cute little legs" and your boy on his "strong muscles?" Directly or indirectly, you're teaching them how to think and feel about their bodies from the very beginning.
2. Names of body parts
Anyone who has ever been a parent of a young child knows how much they love putting their bodies on display. Children are inherently curious about their bodies. A favorite childhood song involves "head, shoulders, knees and toes", and kids love singing it. But what about other parts? Often parents are reluctant to use the correct names for penis, vulva, vagina, scrotum and so on. This often speaks to our own discomfort since our kids are born not being uncomfortable at all with their own bodies.
Research shows that using proper names can help give children a sense of empowerment over their own bodies. As a Sex Educator, I have found many adults don't know the names of their own genitalia, which makes it difficult to teach their children. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with your own body, practice saying the words, and then use them with your children. They'll become as normal as "ear" and "elbow", which is a good thing.
3. Whether some questions are "OK" and others are not
I was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes when my teenage daughter casually approached and asked a question about masturbation. Although I'm a Sex Educator, the question still threw me. I am also a Mom and couldn't believe what she was hearing at school. In that brief hesitation she said, "Don't worry about it. If you don't want to talk about it, I'll just look it up." I immediately put down the dishes and answered her question. Our kids look to us for guidance, love and information. As uncomfortable and some questions may be, would you rather they ask you or someone else?
In the age of instant information, looking up questions about sex on the Internet may lead them to places you don't want them to go. Creating an atmosphere of ongoing dialogue about sex, bodies, puberty, relationships, consent, hygiene and so on is crucial. Sometimes parents are under the impression that just because they had "the talk" when their child was eight that somehow that was sufficient. It would be akin to talking to them about how a savings account works, once, at age eight, and then thinking they never needed to talk to you about money again.
4. Your physical interaction with them and your spouse
Since they were babies, you have interacted with them through a variety of touch. Through your example, you've taught them about appropriate touch - hand holding, cuddling, hugging and so on - and inappropriate touch - hitting, biting, kicking and so on. This was the beginning of learning boundaries for themselves and others. They learned how to feel safe with themselves and with others. They learned that getting their back tickled felt good and relaxing. Children need continued touch to feel loved and cared for - the need for touch is part of what makes us all human. Sometimes, once children go through puberty, parents will stop hugging and touching their older children. Sadly, this is a time when kids need it more than ever. Anyone who has been a teenager knows it can be a lonely and confusing time. Making a concerted effort to give your child a hug, a nice pat on the back or other touch continues to help them feel safe in their own bodies.
Additionally, the interaction you have with your partner teaches them about adult relationships. How to, again, touch appropriately. How to have and create boundaries for themselves. And how to better manage, in a healthy way, their own growing desires for intimate touch. When they see you sitting on the couch together or giving each other a kiss upon seeing each other, you are teaching them how to engage with another human being on a romantic level. The media paint such a distorted image of what this is, and it's more important than ever for them to see an everyday regular relationship.
5. If you're afraid, they'll know it
Children are amazingly perceptive. They pick up on just about everything happening around them even if they don't have the verbal skills to articulate what they are experiencing. It's important to do a little soul-searching and decide if your sexual foundation is fear/shame-based or educational and love-based? This will inform how you go about teaching your children - or not teaching them. Moreover, it will create the basis for how they view their own sexuality. If Mom and Dad are afraid to even talk to me about it and if they keep it a secret then how am I supposed to feel about it? And why, if it's so bad, do movies and music teach me otherwise?
As parents, we walk a fine line between teaching our children values and traditions around things that are important to us, while creating space for them to explore their world and have their own experiences. What kind of relationship do you hope they have one day? If you truly desire they have a loving and satisfying one, creating a sense of hope, empowerment, and confidence within them will help make that more of a possibility. However, it requires us to look inside ourselves, discover our own fears, confront them and then move beyond them for the sake of our children.
This is happening, folks..
You're teaching your kids about sex and sexual health whether you deliberately are trying to or not. Taking a moment to reflect on what your hopes are for your children and how your own attitudes, fears, incorrect teaching as a child or shame may be affecting your interaction with your children in this area is key to raising sexually healthy children.