Chances are, those ten pounds you’ve sworn you’d lose this year are likely your genetic destiny and aren’t going anywhere. Maybe you will send thank you notes by post instead of leaving Facebook thank you messages. But life probably won’t end or be massively changed if you don’t keep those resolutions.
This is one that really matters. It weighs a lot more than ten pounds, and unlike those little numbers on the scale, someone is going to be deeply impacted by whether you do this or not, now and through the whole of their lives.
In my work with young people and sexuality, with each year that passes, there’s something I hear from them with increasing urgency. That’s what parents aren’t doing, or could be doing a lot better than many are. While I can do a lot for young people, I’m not their parent or guardian. They need you far more and more often than they need someone like me. Even when I’m hitting the ball out of the park with them in their sex education and our discussions about sex, without you as their partner in this — without you being Babe Ruth and me being the relief hitter — what I can do is very limited.
I’ve been working in child and teen education of all ages and stages for around 20 years now and in sex education for over a decade. More young people have talked to me about sexuality than anyone else I’ve ever met in my field. I know a thing or two about parenting and certainly about the impact parents can and do have on young people, especially with sexuality. I’m acutely aware of where a lot of them are not getting their needs met, and also aware of how many parents want to do their best to meet those needs, but have a tough time identifying what they are and how to do it.
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I’m not a parent. I’d never suggest I could tell you how to parent your particular child or children or that I acutely understood what it is to parent: I can’t. But what I think I can do, for you and the young people we both care so much about, is help build a better bridge between you in this area by passing on some of what they tell and show me, filling you in on some ways to better parent around sexuality you may not have considered. Here’s my top ten list for parents to hit it out of the park themselves in 2011.
Encourage active consenting and healthy boundaries
Rates of intimate partner violence and/or sexual assault are high for young people. Sexual assault and abuse rates always have been — more sexual abuse and assault happens to people of all genders under the age of 18 than any other age group — and IPV rates among teens have been rising. I had a young woman the other day ask me from whom her sexual partners — who had been awful about her boundaries — could have learned anything about consent and boundaries if not from sexual partners. Her friends had shared with her that they, too, thought that the only way sexual partners could learn about boundaries, and that they matter at all, was from sex partners. The fact that I even had to explain that we learn the most about boundaries from our families growing up speaks volumes.
I counsel survivors of abuse and assault. One of the biggest things many mention is that they did not realize or feel they had a real right to their own physical and emotional space, to their own bodies. It’s hard to see danger coming, or even know when it’s happening, if you haven’t gotten clear messages that someone touching you in ways or at times you don’t want to be touched is never okay. It’s hard to understand how important consent is if you’ve grown up with yours dismissed or not taken very seriously or watched consent — in every respect — be a nonissue in your household.
A child who doesn’t want to kiss Aunt Mabel, but is told they have to and they’re rude or mean not to has been given a clear lesson that denying someone physical contact you don’t want but they do isn’t okay. A child whose parent doesn’t ask if they can snuggle with them in bed, or who doesn’t take no for an answer when a child doesn’t want to, gets the message that consent doesn’t matter. A child who’s touching their parent in a way the parent uncomfortable with, or when they just need some freaking space, and is silently tolerated or only shooed off with hands once you’ve hit your breaking point gets a very different message than one to whom a parent gently but firmly explains that sometimes people want space, and they’d like some for themselves now, please.
Talk about healthy boundaries and consent with them. But you have to show them in action, too. Do what you can to make sure you’re modeling and respecting active consent and healthy boundaries; to encourage and support them in setting and holding their own lines, even with you.
Privacy is part of this picture. When a child or teen wants privacy, and they will tend to want more and more as the years go by, denying it denies them bodily autonomy. If they want the bedroom door closed, let them close it. If they’d rather have a doctor look at their genitals than you, take them to the doctor. If and when they become less comfortable with you seeing them half-dressed, respect that boundary and allow them that privacy even if you don’t understand what the big deal is. Talk about privacy: find out what the young person or people in your home want and need when it comes to their privacy, and make clear that you want to respect whatever that is.
Never “If you ever…”
Many teens I talk with who aren’t asking parents for help when they need it, aren’t being honest with parents about their sex lives or are clearly drowning by trying to make sexual choices when they’re not ready to do that alone report statements parents have made in the past about how they’d react negatively to a hypothetical sexual future. They remember if you said you’d kick them out of the house if they got pregnant, or that you’d not let them see a boyfriend or girlfriend ever again if you found out they were having sex. They tend to interpret those statements as never-changing gospel truth. Not only are those statements scary, they also don’t tend to keep them from doing those things, or keep things from happening to them they don’t even have full control over in the first place. Those kinds of statements only assure they’ll shut you out and go it alone if and when they do.
The only productive “if you ever” statement I can think of around sex and teens is something like, “If X ever happens, I hope that you’ll come to me, knowing and trusting I will do my very best to be supportive of you, will help you as best as I can and will love you, no matter what.”
Help counter sexualization and stereotyping
There’s been increasing awareness about how children, tweens and teens can have external sexualities projected unto them by others and we’ve also been experiencing some cultural backlash around gender roles, status and norms. It’s easy to finger media and marketing for this — and valid — but that’s not the only place this stuff comes from.
For example, all relationships aren’t potential or actual romantic relationships: if your child cultivates a friendship with someone of a different gender, calling Joey their “boyfriend” or or Susie “their girlfriend” — a common oh-isn’t-that-so-cute adult response — not only sends a message everyone is heterosexual, it suggests that relationship is sexual in some way from the onset. People’s value as people shouldn’t be determined by who has or hasn’t had sex, or what someone’s sexual partners look like. Genitals aren’t just about sex (just like all the rest of the body isn’t just about not-sex). Wearing a miniskirt doesn’t mean someone must be advertising sexual availability; asking questions about sex doesn’t mean someone is having any or even wants to. How your daughter looks is only so meaningful, and isn’t only meaningful because of her potential attractiveness to men. These kinds of messages or responses, sent overtly or covertly, are some ways parents may inadvertently play a part in sexualizing.
If I had a nickel for every young person taught by a parent that boys are jerks who just want to get into someone’s pants (we hear this reported as coming from fathers far more than mothers, by the by), that women’s sexuality is only an answer to what men want or that women who have sex without marriage are the enemies of other women (both of which more often are messages from women), that men can’t get hurt, only women can, and women can’t do harm, only men can, that there are only two genders and two sexes and different rules both must follow based on biology, not cultural structures, inequities or ignorance, and a host of other terribly destructive falsehoods swarming around many households, I’d…well, I’d be really annoyed by a house where every room was full of nickels and I couldn’t get to the bathroom.
Stereotypes tend to be awfully self-perpetuating, something people so sure they’re true often seem to dismiss. If you tell a daughter all guys are jerks, and she dates guys, she’ll probably wind up with jerks because you’ve led her to believe that’s just how guys are. If you say that to a son, you’ve just told him no matter what he does, no matter who he is, what’s between his legs means he’s a jerk. If you tell your children everyone who isn’t straight is miserable or that they won’t be able to have a family as a queer person, you’re playing a big part is setting them up to be miserable and not feel empowered to make their own families.
That doesn’t mean you can’t address realities like the fact that some people (no matter their gonads) are self-serving jerks and our world is still homophobic and biphobic enough that it can be rough to be queer. But words like “some” and “can” are your pals. So is talking to them about all their choices and ways of managing their lives so they’re most likely to be happy and healthy, as is recognizing and qualifying your personal experiences as personal, not universal. You can be real without stereotyping and leading them to believe that they, others and their world are a lot more limited than they actually are.
Unpack your own baggage, including any sexual posturing
Sexuality isn’t just loaded and challenging for young people. It’s loaded and challenging for everyone.
It’s common to present adolescence as a sort of sexual convection oven: we go in with no sexuality, and come out fully baked; complete. Not only is it false that we don’t have a sexuality before then, it’s false that at any point in our lives we’re “done” sexually: always ready for a given kind of sex at any time or in any given relationship, and as far as we get in the process of finding out who we sexually are and where our sexuality may or may not take us. I don’t care how old you are, if you’re still breathing, you’re probably not done with your sexuality and it probably isn’t done with you.
Sometimes it’s fantastically exciting to realize we’re never done; other times it can be daunting. Maybe we’d like to feel done. Maybe we worry that if we’re not, our lives may radically change, and something we feel comfortable in will later feel uncomfortable. Maybe seeing how confused young people are, and seeing that we’re really not that much less confused makes us feel embarrassed. Or, we may want to overstate the differences between our sexuality at 40 or 50 and theirs at 16 to feel more expert, or even just seek to comfort them by letting them know that the phase of sexuality they’re in will not always feel so uncomfortable, and shortcut by positioning them as just starting and ourselves as finished.
Hearing that sexuality is a lifelong journey and process makes being in a dawn of that process less scary, and can really take the pressure off them and you. It’s easy for them to make less-than-great sexual choices or rush in if they get the idea that certain things will get them to a finish line. It’s easy to get the idea that having sex proves maturity when so many adults frame it that way. It’s also pretty hard to talk to someone about anything that’s new to you, but you get the message they know everything about and have no challenges with whatsoever. Young people need some agency in these conversations, rather than to feel like parents lord experience over them. Sure, you may have more life experience, but send the message that both your experiences and perspectives matter, especially since sexuality is so personal and so ever-evolving.
Those of us who work in sexuality know our own sexual stuff is going to come up and know we need to stay very aware of that and be mindful in always managing it. It’s clear many parents aren’t prepared for that and are often blindsided when it happens. You don’t have to be a sexual savant or done processing your own sexuality to help with theirs. They don’t need you to know everything about sex, to have seen it all, or to have your whole sexuality sorted. They just need you to be honest with yourself and honest with them, and to try and accept and understand where they are without projecting all of your own stuff onto them, whether that’s about your body image, your own sexual satisfaction, your own teen experiences or even missing some of the way sexuality was or seemed when you were their age. The honesty that you’re also still learning, that it’s still challenging for you, too, can be a real comfort and a great way to connect.
Don’t be a mythmaker
Young people get enough misinformation from peers and the media. Some have even gotten misinformation in school sex education. They don’t need more from you. Teens have shared such parent-generated gems with me as “Condoms don’t work,” “You need to douche or else you’re disgusting,” “HIV is the only STD you need to worry about but if you don’t have sex with gay men, you won’t get it,” “You can’t get pregnant if you have sex during your period,” “Most women only have sex to please their partners,” “You won’t get raped if you don’t dress like that,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Nothing bad will happen to you so long as you only have sex once you’re married.”
Sexuality and sexual health, and information about them, changes all the time. This is my job, so I get to focus on it all day, every day, and I still find it tough to keep up. If it’s not your job, at least some of what you think you know about sexuality and sexual health is probably outdated or incorrect. Your sexual history and sex life also aren’t usually sound sources for information about all of sex and sexuality: only for information about your unique sex life. As well, most people of all ages didn’t get good sexuality education. There are plenty of older adults who still believe things they were taught when they were teens that weren’t true then and still aren’t now.
Try to keep up to date when you’re sharing information, and get some practice at saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, or am not sure what I think is right. Let’s look it up!” You can seek out current information together, using the library, the internet or your family healthcare provider. Not only does that assure you are only sharing accurate, current information, you’re showing a young person that it’s okay not to know the answers, but not smart to assume or guess, and you’re helping them develop skills and practice at finding good information.
Use the media for good
Conversations about our personal sexuality are always going to be emotionally tricky, especially in families. We have to have them sometimes, we want to have them sometimes, but we’re also often afforded much less intimidating ways to start talking about sexuality that can make for much more comfortable inroads.
In the last year alone, television has provided many opportunities to talk about intimate partner violence, abortion, gender politics, and sexual communication. Current events have provided excellent inroads to talk about rape, harassment, tolerance and fairness, teen pregnancy and parenting, reproductive coercion, gender identity and more. These are fantastic opportunities to get just with the click of a remote.
Use what comes up in media to talk with youth about sexuality. Ask them what they think, listen, give your own feedback, and engage deeply. Pay attention in those conversations to cues they’ll give you about where they need more education and information. Not only do conversations about sex in media develop important critical thinking skills with media, vital to young people in such a media-saturated world, it gives everyone much easier routes to crucial and often difficult conversations.
Support outside help
A lot of parents feel they’re failing if they can’t do everything for their kids all by themselves, or if there’s an area where someone else’s skills or role is better suited to serving a child best. If you’ve worked hard as a parent to be someone your kid can talk to, it can sting when they want to talk to someone else instead of you, especially around big issues where you really want to be that person for them. Sometimes parents may be scared of supporting outside help because it may mean you have to take responsibility for something you’re not ready to or come out of denial around something really big.
For instance, I’ve seen parents be nonsupportive of counseling for childhood sexual abuse that a teen who had been victimized wanted, likely because they didn’t feel ready to deal with their guilt abound their child being abused in their family. That feeling is understandable, but it also has done those young people a lot of additional harm by keeping them from help they needed to heal. I’ve heard from teens whose parents have explicitly told them they should never be asking anyone but them about sexuality and have discouraged them from getting a consultation with a healthcare provider or talking to a school counselor when that’s what they wanted and needed.
As a parent, you know things come up with your kids that you may not be ready to deal with, but you’ve got to deal with anyway because they’re in it regardless, and they can’t wait on you. Parenting asks you to be awfully good at a very wide range of things, but everyone has limits. The good news is, you don’t always have to be ready to handle everything yourself, because you can ask for help and give them permission to ask for help, and sometimes they’re going to be served a lot better if you do. If you’re not a healthcare provider, you can’t be their healthcare provider. Even if you are a therapist, it’s not sound for you to be their therapist. You, like all the rest of us, can’t be the expert of everything, and you shouldn’t try to be.
Supporting and encouraging them in asking for help from others who are qualified to give it and supporting and encouraging them to talk to safe people who they feel more comfortable talking to isn’t you not helping them: that is helping them. Plus, if they see you asking for help and supporting help they want, you model that asking for help when we need it is strong, sound and healthy, a powerful message that will benefit them immensely in the whole of their lives, not just their sex lives.
Don’t Be the Judge
When I ask young people in crisis or who are making big choices if they’ve talked to parents or guardians, one of the most common barriers they voice as to why they have not is fear of disappointing you or getting judgment from you. Your opinion of them matters tremendously to them: often it matters most of all.
I know how hard it is to be non-judgmental when it comes to people and sexuality, especially when young people are making sexual choices I don’t feel comfortable with, or which I know are not safe or sound for them. I know it’s very hard sometimes to avoid making judgments, and we all will fail at it sometimes. Our judgments can bleed out despite our best intentions, or we may voice something that we didn’t even realize was a judgment until it’s coming out of our mouths and we cringe at the sound of it. I also know that it’s even harder for parents than for someone like myself who has a very different, far less intense relationship with the young people who talk to me.
You won’t always be able to resist or contain judgment. That’s okay: you just need to try. This is another place where your intention can go a long way. Telling them that whenever you do talk about sexuality you will work hard not to make judgments, and to take responsibility for them when you do, both makes your intent not to judge clear, and gives both of you a way to unpack them if and when they do happen.
Dump “The Sex Talk”
Not only is trying to figure out the exact right time, place and way to have that singular, big “Sex Talk” enough to give you a coronary, sex is complex and far-reaching. It requires so much more than just one talk, one time. Young people need sex talks, and sex talking, not A Sex Talk.
As small children, they may have asked you the names for their genitals or what they’re for. They may have asked you about couples and their relationships, or even about your own. You may have talked with them about masturbation, when and where it’s okay to touch ourselves and when it is and isn’t okay for others to touch us. They may have asked about your adult body and why it looks different from theirs. These are all talks about sexuality, and ideally, they’ve been ongoing and relaxed, happening in real time as these issues come up. Hopefully, you’ve been willing to have those conversations even if they bring them up at the dinner table, or on the bus, rather than shutting down conversation unless it’s happening on your terms and within your own comfort zone.
The more you can normalize discussions about sexuality, and give the clear message it’s okay to talk about whenever they want to talk about it, the more talking about sex you’ll do with them at the times they’re most likely to really absorb the information and the more they’ll bring those talks to you, rather than you having to try and guess when they need them and what they need. Doing that also makes sex seem like less of a super hidey-hole secret, which means they’re less likely to feel ashamed about sexuality or keep sexual secrets from you.
Additionally, if you have the idea that only a parent of the same sex or gender should talk about sex with a given child, think again. The more perspectives a young person can get, the better off they are, and giving them the message that they can’t or shouldn’t be talking to someone of a different gender than they are about sexuality issues can inadvertently discourage young people who do or will have partners of a different gender than they are from talking openly with them. Which parent or guardian a child or teen feels most comfortable talking to about sexuality or a given issue may also have nothing to do with gender. Bear in mind, too, that what gender identity a child has (or was assigned) at one time may not be the gender identity they always have, so you can also assume a gender “match” with a parent that may not be a match at all.
Figure they can — and probably will — have it better than you did
It’s easy to feel bleak about sexuality and adolescence, especially if your experiences as a young person were not positive or comfortable (and all the more so if they still aren’t). But I’d encourage you to elevate your expectations for their sexual selves and lives. Be optimistic and positive. Because you weren’t able to do things like advocate for yourself sexually with a partner, practice safer sex well, make sexual choices you felt good about or feel good about your sexual body doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.
How sex or a given romantic relationship went for you in high school of college is not a sound benchmark for how it might go or is going for them. Their world isn’t your world, and they are not you.
Most likely, your experiences were the way they were for a host of reasons, few of them just because you were a young person, and a lot of them because the people raising you didn’t do serve you well with sexuality. But just like your kids and teens may do things better than their parents, the same is true for you. If you care enough to read pieces like this, it’s very likely your kids will have it better than you did. After all, they’ve got something you didn’t have: they have you as a parent.
You’re doing your best to do a better job in this for them than your parents or guardians did for you. You have resources they didn’t, information they didn’t and a much better understanding of how important this is.
You’re going to be there for them and will always make time for them if and when they want to talk to you and you will do your very best to listen and support them, even if it’s hard, upsetting or scary. Know that. Say that to them and mean it. Say it often, even if they don’t come to you or seem to blow that statement off. And if and when they take you up on it, make sure you step up to the plate and do just that. Even if that is all you do, know that you are serving them really well, and things really will probably go better for them than they did for you, thanks to you.
A piece like this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you want to find out more about doing a great job with, I highly recommend books like Logan Levkoff’s Third Base Ain’t What It Used to Be: What Your Kids Are Learning About Sex Today and How to Teach Them to Become Sexually Healthy Adults, Debra Haffner’s From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, Evelyn Resh’s The Secret Lives of Teen Girls: What Your Mother Wouldn’t Talk about but Your Daughter Needs to Know, Pepper Schwartz’s Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children about Sex and Character or So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne. More visually inclined? Check out educator Amy Lang’s DVD series for parents here. The Moms in Babeland blog is also a great resource (I wish I had something similar to link to for Dads!).