I was four years old when I realized the discrepancy between reality and what most kids knew about sex. During recess, a classmate was telling a group of enthralled students about how she came out of her "mommy's tummy." Proud in the way only a kid equipped with new information can be, I marched up to her and announced that she had come out of her mother's uterus, not her stomach. My mom later told me that the other parents were shocked that I knew the truth.
It's common knowledge that kids learn about sex by whispering through bathroom stalls or in huddled, shamed masses in the corners of the playground. Everyone knows how it works -- one kid has parents, an older sibling, or cousin who tells them the facts, and upon learning the mechanics scurries off to inform the other kids. But why is this how so many kids have to learn about sex? Why is it so common for parents to make up strange stories such as the stork or fairies dropping children off at the doorstep, or for parents to wait until their children are summoned in for health class to broach the topic? Even more puzzling, why do many never bring it up at all?
In an age of increasing sex-positivity, it is unsurprising to find that about 82 percent of parents have discussed issues regarding sexuality with their children according to the poll Let's Talk: Are Parents Tackling Crucial Conversations about Sex? However, these results are not as promising as they seem. Seventy four percent of parents have discussed saying no with their teens, but only 60 percent have talked about birth control. Even if teens decide to remain celibate until after high school, they should still be educated about birth control for the future. Even more concerning, despite the fact that 94 percent of parents feel they have the power to influence their teen's sexual choices, 57 percent of parents are uncomfortable having discussions about these issues with their kids. Why are so many parents reluctant to have these important conversations?
There are a myriad of reasons for the cloaked excuses adults make when kids ask inevitable questions. A common reason parents give for their reticence is that they themselves are uncomfortable discussing sex. This is understandable; our society does not take kindly to open discussions about sexuality, especially not with children. But parents' choice to stay silent often passes their own discomfort around sex on to their children, who in turn will propagate the cycle of secrecy and guilt. However, the most common answer that I've received when asking parents the reason for their secrecy is fear of shattering a child's 'innocence'. Raised in a household where I was presented with medically accurate information, this seems strange to me. How would abstract knowledge of sex rob a kid of a carefree childhood? Knowing about sex didn't prevent me from believing in the tooth fairy, climbing trees or pretending the floor was lava.
Perhaps the answer lies in what the child, who will grow into a teenager, might do with that knowledge. This trepidation, which is similar to the panic that drives fear-based educational techniques such as abstinence-only education, causes parents to avoid discussing sex with their kids. Maybe parents believe if they don't mention sex until they are much older, the child will never think about sex, and then will never do it.
This is unrealistic. The consequence of not discussing such an integral part of life often has the opposite of the intended effect. Teens often have sex anyway. The outcome of creating an environment where sex is taboo is that teens learn to distrust their parents, become secretive, and even fearful when it comes to sexuality. Furthermore, restricting information about how to have safe sex has been shown to increase rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs, as explained in Youtuber Laci Green's video "A is for Abstinence." Telling children pretty lies about procreation may have undesirable results. A study conducted at MIT found that children distrust adults who lie or deliberately withhold information, an attitude that can be dangerous when children grow into teens and need someone to turn to for guidance. How can teens be expected to talk with their parents about sex, or even to trust their parents with sensitive information, if parents make it clear that they are not comfortable discussing sex?
Although it may not seem necessary to brief an eight year old on the mechanics of intercourse, it is essential for teens to be able to confide in a parental figure during teenage years. Having a parent to talk with about sex and birth control eliminates many dangers, such as false or harmful information gleaned from peers, neglect of protective measures, and attempting to solve serious problems alone such as an unwanted pregnancy or an STD.
Parents all want the same things for their children when it comes to sex -- for them to be safe, happy, and protected. Some parents encourage their children to wait until marriage. Others tell their children that they can make their own decisions as long as they are safe. Still others never talk to their kids at all. However, evidence strongly indicates that having a candid conversation without shame or judgment and providing accurate information leads to healthy attitudes about sex and sexuality. So the next time your child asks where he or she came from, tell them the truth. Be honest and build an open line of communication so that when your teen needs you, he or she knows you will be there.