This is the first in a series written by Steven Ing, MA, MFT, addressing how parents can engage in a healthy conversation with their children about intelligent human sexuality.
Most of us parents feel seriously awkward talking to our children about sex, oftentimes because we have no idea what we’re doing. Sadly, there’s no hard-and-fast rulebook that teaches us exactly what to say, when to say it.
(And it’s important to note: The kids are noticeably creeped out by this conversation, too.)
So before we even start down this path: First, ask yourself — as a parent — if you believe your children are good people who want good for others. Most of us believe in our children, so an emphatic “Yes!” means that we really need to focus on a conversation rather than a lesson or, worse yet, a sermon. Our goal as parents is to begin a process, not to trumpet our truth. Remember, none of us like to be preached at. Accepting that “the talk” is actually going to be several hundred (mostly comfortable!) talks will free you from performance anxiety.
And now, a caveat: Accepting that these talks are all part of a process helps us understand that our goal here is not indoctrinating our children into what to think, but to equip them for a lifetime of critical thinking by showing them how to think in an intelligent way about sexuality. We do this by teaching children that the subject of human sexuality is like any other: There’s a lot to learn, a lot to figure out and human sexuality can be interesting. No one wants to be that parent who single-handedly turns human sexuality into the world’s most boring topic.
With an understanding of the goal (beginning a process) and the outcome (teaching them how to think in a healthy way about sexuality), now let’s get down to some beginning steps.
Step one: Get used to using media as your major resource.
Examples of stories about sexuality are everywhere — on television while you’re getting ready for school, in a newspaper or on social media, among others. Find a story about some aspect of sexuality, then say, “Listen to this.” Read or discuss the story aloud at the breakfast table. Do this at least once a week. When finished, lean back and ask aloud something like, “Now, what do you think about that?” You can do the same with the many sexual issues brought up during your family’s favorite TV show.
Step two: Relax.
Listen. Allow children to express their thoughts and feelings — even when all they express is boredom, disinterest or discomfort by rolling their eyes and saying nothing. As the months go by, a conversation will begin as children start to think about these things, as they start noticing patterns, as they begin to realize that sexuality is an acceptable topic of conversation. Remember, this is a process, not an event.
Step three: Repeat.
What you as a parent are doing here is giving permission to talk about and to think about sexuality — and to have differing opinions. You will be teaching your children how to think, not what to think. Because most of us think that sexuality and “the talk” is about sexual intercourse, we have no comfortable human context for such a talk. We and our children need to see that sexuality is a far more vast topic that includes gender, religion, politics, fashion, sports and all the rest.
During our next installment, we’ll discuss what happens when you’re ready for the talk — but your child is not. (Spoiler alert: It’ll be ok. Promise.)
Steven Ing, MA, MFT, is a northern Nevada-based behavioral therapist whose practice is focused on helping clients gain an understanding of intelligent sexuality. For more information about Ing, visit StevenIng.com.