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Beyond the Birds and the Bees

August 30, 2017

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Let’s talk about sex.  Got your attention?  Good.  Because I guarantee it has your teenager’s attention.

I’m sure by now we’ve all had some semblance of The Talk with our pre-teen and teenage kids.  And many of us have also had the benefit of additional sex education for our children through schools, churches, or other institutions of learning to fall back on.  We probably feel fairly confident that they understand the basics of what their bodies go through and the mechanics of how those parts fit together in the appropriate context.

I remember asking our son who he wanted to have The Talk with, me or his dad.  His response?  “You, Mom.  Dad uses all these weird metaphors.”  And so I did.  In detail.  I explained everything he would likely be experiencing and feeling and eventually doing.  I wanted him to understand that all of it was perfectly natural and normal and that if he had questions we would be here to answer them.  We giggled a few times, but we got through it.

But that isn’t enough.  Because our kids are also learning from other sources, ones that may not view things the same way we would like our children to: friends, media, the internet.  Information and images our generations whispered about at sleepovers and sneaked peeks at from the pages of a stolen Playboy have evolved into a steady stream of graphic feedback available at the click of a search engine.

While researchers have been largely unable to identify a causal relationship because viewing online pornography and risky sexual behavior in teens, it stands to reason that children and teens who view online pornography during a time when their sexual identities are being formed may develop unhealthy, unrealistic expectations of sex as well as bogus ideas about gender roles and body image.  So how can we, as parents, counteract this?

The obvious answer is to restrict internet usage: limiting computer and phone usage to shared family areas in the home, installing parental controls, setting rules for how and when children can access the internet.  But relying solely on this approach fails to take into account the fact that homes our children visit may not have these same boundaries in place.  It doesn’t address the reality that children and teenagers will share information with one another and discuss things they’ve seen and heard.

Given these factors, experts recommend starting conversations early with children as young as four and five-years old about equality and respect.  Teaching children to honor personal space, to treat others with respect, and to respect their own bodies lays the foundation for a lifetime of positive interactions and healthy sexual attitudes.

When we begin to talk about sex and relationships with older children, we can expand beyond the physical actualities and discuss intimacy and the importance of mutual respect and consent.  By doing so we can help our children and teens filter information through a lens of understanding that allows them to differentiate between fiction and reality, to place what they see and hear in the context of what we’ve taught them about relationships.

We also need to have conversations about the “What Ifs.” The more we arm our kids with knowledge and give them opportunities to plan in advance for situations they may encounter, the more likely they are to make wise choices.  About how to avoid being in positions where they could end up harmed or falsely accused.  About how to handle it if someone makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.  About how to respond if they witness someone doing something unsafe or unkind to someone else.  About what is appropriate to text or Snapchat or photograph in general.

Perhaps most importantly, we can show them what healthy, loving relationships look like.  After all, we can talk until we’re blue in the face but what we do will always have more impact than what we say.  By demonstrating respect towards our partners and fostering a climate of open communication with our children, we are setting the tone for their future relationships.  The way we talk about and treat the opposite sex sets an example for how our children may do the same.  The manner in which we treat matters of consent and show respect towards our own bodies also guides them in how they interact with others and how they view themselves.

We have a responsibility as parents to foster healthy habits and attitudes in our children.   The world we now live in can make that incredibly challenging.  Raising children in a digital age of social media and easy access to information is often a daunting task.  But if we encourage our children from an early age to communicate with us without fear of judgement or recrimination, and if we model appropriate behavior and initiate dialogue that frames sex in the context of loving, mature relationships, we can help them navigate these choppy waters.

We just may need a bigger boat than previous generations.


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