Alexis suggested I write a post about how one can talk to children about sex. Other people have asked how I, as a parent, chat with The Green Bean about matters related to the birds, the beeds and beyond.
I am a sex educator. Talking to people about sex is something I do on a daily basis. I give workshops and seminars. I’ve lectured at universities. I’ve read several books, articles and blog entries on the subject of how to discuss sexuality with little people.
But most of the time, I’m just flying by the seat of my pants
My best laid plans to sex-educate my son go awry at every turn. Much of teaching younger kids about their bodies – particularly the fun parts – is about doling out honest but easily understood, age-appropriate nuggets of information. Simple in theory, but a bit trickier in practice. I don’t have a magic formula for how to give the perfect sex talk. What I do have are my favourite pieces of advice about taking to kids about sexual matters and examples of how I turned each one into a comedy of errors.
1. Use correct words when talking to kids about their genitals.
The theory here is if you teach the young’uns words like “penis”, “vagina” and “vulva” to your kids, they’ll learn that those parts of their bodies are nothing to be ashamed of or embarassed about. Makes sense. It also makes sense to me from a safety perspective. If my son doesn’t have shame around these words, he’s probably more likely and more able to tell us if – heaven forbid – someone were to harm him sexually. So no “pee-pees” in my house.
All was well and good until The Bean decided to set-up a one-man, preschool genital task force. According to his daycare provider, The Bean took it upon himself to expand everybody’s vocabulary by teaching them the words “penis” and “vulva”. Fortunately the teacher thought it was great. Unfortunately some of the other parents did not.
In my zeal to normalize the penis, I had neglected something…
2. Teach the importance of privacy and boundaries.
A gentle, age-appropriate talk about privacy seemed in order. I started, thusly:
Me: “Green Bean, for now words, like ‘penis’ and ‘testicle’ are at home words, okay?”
Green Bean: “Why?”
Me: “Because penises and testicles and vulvas and vaginas are private parts of our body.”
Green Bean: “Why?”
Me: “Because…they’re really cool and so it’s nice to keep them kind of private.”
Green Bean: “Why?”
Me: “I guess because some people also feel shy about those parts of their bodies. They may not be comfortable talking about it and we don’t want to do things that make people uncomfortable.”
Green Bean: “Why?”
Me: “Because that’s not very nice.”
Green Bean: “You made me eat peas yesterday and I was not comfortable. You’re not very nice!”
3. Take advantage of everyday, teachable moments.
Over the past few months, we’ve had several pregnant friends and relatives. Naturally, The Bean has been curious. Like many children his age, he’s asked a lot about the babies in people’s “tummies”. This time I decided to harness the wisdom of a book. We bought The Green Bean a wonderul book called, It’s Not The Stork. It explains conception, pregnancy and birth in super easy-to-understand terms, with lots of great pictures.
The Bean was especially taken with one illustration that showed the inside of a pregnant woman at the movies. In one part of her body was the baby and in another was popcorn.
“See?” I pointed out, “The popcorn is in her tummy and the baby is in her uterus.” The Bean nodded gravely.
A few weeks later, a friend of mine gave birth. Shortly, thereafter, our family were invited to a party at her home to celebrate. The Bean kicked off his shoes and started nosing around the house intently. Eventually he went marched up to my friend, the new mother.
Green Bean: “You had a baby!”
Friend (indicating sleeping baby in another party guest’s arms): “I did. He’s right over there.”
Green Bean: Where’s the popcorn?”
My friend made my son some Orville Redenbacher, while I sighed at yet another teachable moment gone awry.
4. Be honest and matter-of-fact
Recently, The Green Bean came to us, midly concerned.
Green Bean: “My penis is sticking way up.”
Me: “That’s an erection. It’s a thing penises do sometimes.”
Green Bean: “Oh.”
For once the simple explanation seemed to satisfy him. My son went off to play and sighed at finally having got it right. A few days later, The Bean was home with me when a solicitor knocked on my door. I was all set with my standard something’s-burning-in-the-oven-I-can’t-be-solicited-right-now excuses, when Bean ran up beside me and loudly announced, “I had an erection!”
I used my actor’s training and slipped into the role of a woman who wasn’t totally flustered.
Me: “Remember we talked before about private words?”
Green Bean: “I’m at home!”
5. Share your values about sex with your children.
In our home we believe that sexuality is a natural part of human nature . I also believe that humans are sexual throughout the life cycle, from infancy through our elderly years with experiences far beyond the partnered coitus we tend to associate with “sex”.
Once, The Green Bean came home from school and informed us that another boy in his class had been laughing because “girls have ba-ginas”.
First I did a mental fist-pump because a kid other than mine was talking about genitals in school! Then I had a chat with my son.
Me: They’re called va-ginas. A lot of girls have vaginas and vulvas. It’s just part of the body. It’s nothing to laugh at, right?
Green Bean: “Right!”
And so my little sex-positive crusader returned to school the next day. And when his classmate started cackling about vaginas, The Green Bean told him in no uncertain terms that it was not funny. And when that didn’t deter the behaviour? The Bean smacked him.
Addendum to no. 5: Also share your values on anti-violence with your children.
Yeeeeah. When it comes to talking to my kid about sexuality, I bumble, I fumble and I definitely have my fair share of missteps. But that’s parenting. Nothing about raising kids is perfect, but ultimately I’d rather these conversations be part of the every day misadventures of life with a kid, than a shameful topic shrouded in mystery and taboo.
What about you? Do you talk to your kids about sex? Have you had similar facepalm moments or do you have a success story to share? I look forward to reading about your experiences in the comments!