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7 ways to talk about sex

Things have changed dramatically since children were given talks about “the birds and the bees”. Navigating teaching our children about sex education and their own sexuality in this ever-changing world can be a challenge for parents. Here, we look at having the “chat” with an open heart and mind.

Three-year-old Noah looked up at his mum’s very pregnant belly, and said, “Mummy, how did the baby get into your tummy?” Thinking quickly, Jade said, “Well, God took a little bit of me and a little bit of Dad and made a baby.” Noah looked alarmed as he eyed his mum from top to toe, and said,
“I don’t see any bites out of you?”

While it can seem cute or even funny to weave a tale of fun and fantasy for your little one, being upfront and honest is very important.

But it isn’t always easy, especially if talking about sex education felt like it was taboo in your own family when you were growing up, or if it’s not something you are comfortable talking about as an adult.

It’s important to start talking to your child early as it makes it easier. Leave it too late and you also might be surprised at what your child already knows, sourced second-hand from the school playground.

Even before your child begins to verbalise words you can start by naming a child’s body parts while they are splashing about in the bath: eyes, ears, nose, vagina, penis, elbow. Teach your child the anatomically correct names for body parts. If you are in the habit of nicknaming genitals, Dr Justin Coulson, father of six and host of Happy Families Podcast says it’s a practice that needs to stop. “No gimmicks, no metaphors
— use the right word every time,” he says.

At the end of the day, educating your child equips them with information so they can learn to feel good about who they are and enjoy their sexuality in a safe, healthy and respectful way.

When talking about sex, everything should be on the table, when a child is able to understand it. It can also be helpful to start talking about people whose “body has a penis” or people “whose body has a vagina” instead of boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Gender identity can be fluid and complex. By addressing it early it will make it easier for kids to understand later that not everyone identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.

For kids under five, it’s all about understanding boundaries and what is and isn’t appropriate touching. Under-fives may also ask how babies are made. A simple explanation like “Two grown-ups share a sperm and an egg, or they might get a sperm or an egg from another person” will often suffice. Follow your child’s lead and answer questions as they arise. Picture books and other books that you read with your child when they are young are another effective learning tool.

Vanessa Hamilton, sexuality educator and founder of Talking the Talk Healthy Sexuality Education says you may find when explaining about sexuality there will be a few giggles. “If kids laugh and say ‘Oh that’s weird’ I’d suggest you say, ‘It seems weird for kids, because it’s not for kids, it’s only for adults’ minds and bodies,’” she says.

From around age six it’s a good time to introduce the digital realm, and what kids might find there. There is no doubt that things have changed in the last few decades with the explosion of sexualised imagery and content, social media and internet pornography. With the global proliferation of multimedia your child will see images and content emblazoned on billboards, in movie theatres and TV, and through sexualised images of those they might “follow” on social media platforms. Unfortunately, even very young children can be exposed to confronting information that is potentially loaded with untruths and innuendo.

As kids become pre-teens they need to know about sexism, respect, consent and safe sex. Topics like how to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancies should also be up for discussion. Your home needs to be a safe space, where your teenage child can ask questions about masturbation or erections, fellatio or other topics they are curious about. If you talk often and early, when the real challenging stuff arises your child will feel more comfortable approaching you.

Coulson says it’s also important to talk to the kids in the language they hear and understand. “As kids get older, use the words they use like oral sex or 69,” he says.

He adds that keeping ahead of the game is so important. “We as parents need to be in front of the curve, so we can keep talking and keep listening to our children,” he says.

Ongoing discussions

Many parents wait for the “right time” to talk about sex education and sexuality, and sometimes that time never comes.

Unfortunately, some parents are also simply afraid to teach their kids. Hamilton says some people believe children will lose their innocence if parents teach them about sex education and sexuality. “That’s incorrect. They’ll lose their innocence if something happens to them that they didn’t want to happen, or if something happens to them that they didn’t know about,” she says.

The good news is more parents are beginning to have open honest dialogues with their kids about it. But according to Coulson, we’ve still got a long way to go. “We are getting better than in the past, but the majority of parents still aren’t having any conversations at all, and when they do it’s just a one-off, or something like a glib comment to their child as they walk out the door: ‘Don’t get anyone pregnant,’” he says.

There isn’t one correct way to navigate the topic either — it depends on you and your family values, traditions and so on. Some parents delay talking about sex education because it might feel uncomfortable, and they think school will take care of it. Hamilton says it should be parents who get the ball rolling. “I always ask parents, who do you want to be your child’s main source of information about sexuality, respectful relationships and consent? I would hope it’s the parent.” Ideally, what you are aiming for is that through a series of conversations over time as your child grows and develops — that you are the person they go to, not kids at school and not Dr Google.

The rise of internet pornography

When 10-year-old Arlo approached his mum Freya he was sobbing; she thought he must have hurt himself playing on his new skateboard. When she finally dried his tears, Arlo confessed he’d discovered some internet pornography sites. Freya was shocked — but she should not have been. Kids these days are accessing internet porn at an average of around age 10 or 11.

Even if you do have parental controls, kids can still source the information outside the home. Coulson says research has found that when kids are exposed to explicit content online, it changes the sex script for them. “A 10-year-old boy accessing depraved content has probably never held hands with a girl let alone kissed one,” he says. “He might have an idea about what intimacy should look like then sees explicit content and it changes his ideas, beliefs and behaviours.”

Hamilton agrees that when it comes to internet porn, parents are definitely falling asleep at the wheel. “You need to talk to kids about the inaccuracies of porn, so when they view it later in life you’ve given them an alternative version of what sex and relationships should look like; they can almost see the comical nature and the unreality of those online images,” she says.

Let’s talk about life

Coulson suggests it can help to have difficult conversations with your kids before they are two. “I say that tongue in cheek. Obviously a two-year-old isn’t going to understand things about alcohol, drugs and sex,” he explains. “What it does is it gets the parent used to talking about those things in the presence of their child.”

Having regular conversations with your kids about all kinds of topics is one way to empower them, and to build confidence and trust in this ever-changing world. Coulson says in his own family regular talks are definitely on the agenda. “It’s something we do the first Sunday of every month: sit down and talk to our kids in an age-appropriate way about challenging topics,” he says. “The last one was STIs. We’ve also had one about pornography and procreation.”

After you chat about a topic, give ita few days and check in with your child to see if they have any ongoing questions or need a bit more clarity.
A powerful prevention tool Research shows that talking about sex, giving kids accurate and age-appropriate information makes children less susceptible to abuse and more likely to delay having sex. They also feel better about their bodies and are more accepting of sexual diversity.

A study by Montclair State University Professors Eva Goldfarb and Lisa Lieberman, which analysed 30 years of research, the first of its kind in the field, shows comprehensive sex education can prevent child sex abuse and intimate partner violence and increase appreciation for sexual diversity. They say education should begin as early as kindergarten and be diverse. Goldfarb says: “While many people think of sex education only in terms of pregnancy and STD prevention, these findings speak to the broader impact of quality sex education.”

Embracing sexuality

Same-sex couples have always existed throughout history. Our biological sex, whether we were born with a penis or a vagina, doesn’t always match someone’s gender, which is the unique sense of who we are.

According to Rainbow Health at Latrobe University, international and Australian research shows roughly 3 to 4 per cent of the population have reported identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual. The numbers are higher in under 25s: 4 per cent for males and 7 per cent for females.
Humans have always been sexually diverse, but what has changed over time is that now society is giving people permission to be themselves.

When talking about sexuality with your child, it’s important to keep in mind sexual orientation, who your child might see themselves attracted to, as well as their gender identity, who your child sees themself as. Your ongoing conversations with your child may change and evolve depending on your child and what they need to know.

Getting over embarrassment

If parents are struggling to talk to their child about sexuality, it might be an idea to examine their own core beliefs. Hamilton says kids need to know it’s OK to talk about it — that it is natural and part of who we are. “There is nothing shameful, disgusting or taboo about the amazing human reproduction story,” she says.

If you find yourself breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of discussing sexual topics with the kids, here are some tips. Hamilton suggests making the most of drive time. “Talk in the car; you have a captive audience and everyone is facing forward,” she says. “Get the conversation going … Look at that pregnant person crossing the road, that reminds me have we talked about how babies are made?”

If you are finding the topic of discussing sexuality with your child more perplexing than you thought, it could help to do a little soul-searching. As a child, was sex never talked about in your home? Or have you experienced shame or ridicule around sexuality? If that’s the case, reaching out for support and professional guidance could help.

As you continue to have conversations with your offspring about life, love and sexuality, wisex

th so much information available to teens the chances are your child will ask a curly question or two that you either don’t know the answer to, or you might feel confronted by. Hamilton says if you feel you’re on the back foot it’s OK to buy yourself some time. “Say, ‘What prompted you to ask that question?’ or ‘What do you know about that already?’ That gives you some insight into where to pitch your response,” she suggests.

It’s important to follow your child’s lead. Remember, these conversations are an ever-evolving process.

Article Featured in WellBeing #204

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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