Recently, comedian John Oliver discussed Sexual Education in America on HBO's Last Week Tonight (watch video segment here). His take on sexual education (or lack thereof) in America showcased some of the wide gaps in what we teach our children about sex and relationships.
While not everyone will be a fan of the way he presents the information, John Oliver brings forth a poignant conversation we need to be having -- both as parents and as communities (school systems). From convoluted videos to female shaming, the methods that are too often used today to teach kids about sex can be confusing and cause harm.
With the right knowledge base, you can transform what was previously an excruciatingly awkward talk into a conversation with only a little bit of awkwardness ("a little awkwardness" is much more likely to be effective). Plus, showing you are willing to talk about something that can be uncomfortable is a great way to role model the importance of talking. If you can't talk openly, what are the odds your child is going to be able to come to you in their most difficult moments?
There are several things to keep in mind when talking to your children about sex. The first one is to speak to them in a language that they will understand. Don't "elevate" or "lower" your normal way of speaking; this could come off as a lecture or as talking down to them. Once they tune out, getting them to listen again is tough.
Shame and Guilt
Parents need to understand that they can do more harm than good if they use guilt and shame when talking about sexual decision-making. Parents may not know if their child has already had sex. If your child has had sex, referring to someone who has had sex in the past as "damaged goods" or "a dirty shoe" could make them feel worthless and close off any chance you have of your child ever listening to you. A child wants and needs your love -- not your judgment.
Likewise, if a child is taught to run away from anyone who has had sex in the past, you are now teaching your child to devalue another human being based on a past sexual choice (and you are assuming that other person chose the sexual activity and wasn't pressured into it). Anyone can meet loving, respectful partners who have chosen abstinence and loving, respectful partners who have chosen to be sexually active.
Using guilt, shame and judgmental statements can leave the child open to depression, feelings of worthlessness and increase the likelihood that they enter into bad relationships because they do not feel they deserve good relationships.
Children should know that abstinence is a choice every person (of all ages) deserves to have. If you want to promote abstinence, share the what you feel are the benefits of making that choice without using any language that shames, makes one feel guilty or judges others for having made different choices.
Teaching what consent means and why it is essential is the best way to help increase the odds that every child's boundaries are more likely be respected.
When discussing consent, start with the basic principle that every person deserves to have a choice and that choice should be requested and given between two people of legal age, of sound mind and willingly (no pressure). No one has the right to engage in any sexual activity without consent.
Sexual intimacy can start with holding hands, hugging, kissing and/or can involve fondling or various forms of sex. When you talk with a child, the more comprehensive and age appropriate you can be, the better. Often what you are afraid to talk about, they already have or will hear from peers. Who would you rather be their source? You or their peers?
The goal is to teach our children that they deserve nothing less than mutually amazing relationships and to be with a partner that treats them with respect.