That talk: Sex and puberty
Best intro ever for a talk about sex and consent: Tea and Consent
Talk to them about puberty and sex: Just do it
Here’s the thing: your kids – regardless of gender, gender identity, gender of attraction, preferred source of attention – will need to learn about bodies, puberty and sex. And, maybe more importantly, they will need to learn about respect and consent. And yes, this is a conversation you need to start early, well before you think it’s time or relevant. Here’s the thing: this is YOUR job, dear fellow parent, to help them understand, own and embrace these concepts. It is NOT/NOT the school’s job, and you should NOT/NOT leave this knowledge gain up to the internet or their peers. This.is.your.job. Take a deep breath and get it going. Yes, it will possibly be awkward, and you may not know all of the responses. It’s okay to say you don’t know, and it’s okay to acknowledge the awkwardness. The more you talk, the more you circle back to this, the more comfortable all of you will feel.
Whether they’re dating boys or girls or nobody, talk to them about consent — watch the British PSA video “Tea and Consent” together as a jumping-off point — and then, if they’re having sex, give them space and room for it arming them with relevant information and what they need to make and act on the decision that works best for them. Because, despite whatever fun you may have had behind the bleachers or in somebody’s parked car, hurried sex tends to be bad and potentially unsafe sex. The more they know, the less they will make missteps or have errors in judgement. The more you talk about it, the less taboo the topic will feel, and the more your kids will open up to you. If they are determined to have sex, they will have sex. Wouldn’t you rather it be safe, using what protection is necessary to prevent disease and pregnancy, and they go into the situation feeling fully informed? Yes, I know, this is your baby talking to you about sex, but … this is a part of growing up.
If your school is anything like our schools have been, there will be a one day conversation about puberty, possibly with a video. Probably boys and girls will be in separate rooms, and there will be no sharing of information. This is not going to create a well-informed decision or action. It is really, really important to have an open dialogue with your kiddos about sex. Don’t use code or cutesy words; talk openly and straightforwardly about bodies, growth, sex, puberty, etc. By learning the correct words for their body parts, they are empowered and able to speak directly about them, and they know they can come to you with questions and get an honest answer. Or a frank “I don’t know, so let’s find out.” Not knowing is okay. Try to never seem grossed out or shy about anything to do with the bodies of either gender. If you have a daughter, talk about her period and periods generally from day one so there is no shroud of shame around them. If you have sons, talk to them about the process, too, because it is important for them to know what the female body goes through every single month. Boys, too, need to understand all about menstruation, not just because it is a process half the population of the planet goes through, but also to help them better understand pregnancy, women in general, and the amazing things the female body can do. See below about respect.
Very importantly, be trustworthy. Be respectful. If they turn to you with something bad or hard, the first message should be, “I’m so glad you told me.” The second message should be, “How can I help?” It’s more important to listen than to fix. While it’s true that teenagers have always been teenagers, their worlds are different than yours. It’s easy to just dismiss things as “I went through that, you’ll be fine.” But they are dealing with social pressures that we never had to deal with and we owe it to them to try to really listen. As much as you want to just fix it all, this time, your role is different: you are there, in their corner, 100%, but it is not your situation to fix.
R E S P E C T
Teach your boys to respect women. Full stop. Not in the pretty-object-on-a-pedestal way of things and art; in the way of real, human equals with a right to their self-determination, intelligence and space on the subway. And teach your girls to respect themselves. Her value is not diminished if she says no. Teach your kids to never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever send a picture of him or herself to someone, anyone, that they wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing on the front page of the New York Times. Teach your kids that they are the boss of their bodies. Every child understands the concept of ‘boss’. If your child wants privacy while getting dressed, “For sure, you’re the boss of your body.” If they don’t want to kiss Grandma , “You’re the boss of your body; it’s up to you.” If they’re playing with another child who doesn’t want a hug, “He’s the boss of his body, you need to stop.” You can see how empowered each child feels by allowing them to be the boss. Alternately, maybe you’re leaving a playdate, and you can empower your kids by suggesting they ask their friend if they would like a high-5 or a hug. By phrasing it as a question, you allow both children to decide if they want to embrace — or not. Those small linguistic changes can seem inconsequential, but think how much they might shift your perspective as you grow up into a pre-teen, teenager and adult — and when it comes to hooking up and sex. By giving the option, you are teaching them that it IS an option to allow others to touch you, and you are the boss of your own body.
It is very important to normalize a healthy reaction to rejection of affection. Even from parents! If you offer to give your child a hug, and they say “not now”, smile and say okay. Let your kids know the appropriate reaction to saying ‘no’ to physical affection is saying fine and moving on. Not a guilt trip, not anger, not eye rolling, not sulking.
And “No” doesn’t always come as a word. It is also very important to help our kids learn to notice social and body cues: does it seem like the baby likes it when you squeeze her? Her face looks upset. That means you need to stop right away. People don’t always have to say no in order to mean no.
Is this everything you will need to successfully help your kids navigate this minefield? Probably not. But remember: you’re not in this alone. You, your parenting partner, your school partners, your friends, me … you’ve got this. And your little person will grow up to be a respectful, upstanding, good human. Really.