What to say, how much to say and when to say it are just a few of the hesitations. Many parents believe their kids don’t want to discuss the subject with them or that they’ll just learn it from school, from friends, or the internet. The truth is though that kids do want to talk to parents and other trusted adults in their lives about sex and relationships and we might have been getting what conversations they want to have all wrong.
According to a report from Harvard’s “Making Caring Common” project, 70% of kids surveyed wished they had gotten more information from their parents about managing the emotions of a relationship.
They want guidance on:
In the work I do I talk to thousands of parents and kids, often times together, and talking early and often is really the key. There is so much to talk to young people about and as adults we need to practice and make ourselves get through any awkwardness of these conversations in order for them to get easier.
Sex education in Americas schools aren’t filling the gaps either. School courses are typically taught by teachers with little training or comfort talking to kids about sex. Some do a better job than others of course, but many states still support an abstinence-only-until-marriage version of sex ed. According to The Guttmacher Institute, only 18 states and the District of Columbia require that sex ed classes include information about contraception. By contrast, 37 states require information on abstinence to be provided.
When I was in graduate school I went on a European study tour with an organization called Advocates for Youth to learn about how other countries approach talking to kids about sex. Boy did I learn a thing or two. We visited the Netherlands, Germany, and France but the thing that struck me the most was not their robust public health campaigns, easy and affordable access to contraception, or compulsory sex education. Although all of those things contribute to their better health outcomes, like lower teen pregnancy and std rates, the thing that struck me the most was the culture. How open and honest, blunt and straight forward many adults are about discussing sex with young people.
I met a Dutch man who explained it to me like this, he said,
“Imagine a huge house with lots of doors and different rooms in it. In Dutch families we tell our children you can go into any room you want, any time you want, there is no room that is off limits. American families tell their children you can go into any room you want, but this one. This one is not for little kids and don’t you dare go into this room. What do you think happens once the parents leave the house?”
That’s right, kids want to see what is in the room they aren’t supposed to go in. Their curiosity drives them and they can’t help themselves. The key is to be open and honest and take the mystery out of sex so young people don’t feel so eager to go and see what it is all about.
In the Netherlands, sex is seen as a very normal human urge, need, and function. Kinda like eating.
They spend less time trying to convince young people not to have sex and more time telling them what they need to know and feel when they do. They are quite funny too. Their ad campaigns are not fear-based like they often are in America, but use humor and candor.
School lessons on sex education include more conversations than lectures. Like young people pairing up and discussing sexual beliefs or values in a lesson. They work on developing the skills necessary to be sexually healthy and use role plays and scenarios to practice. They place a huge emphasis on sex being mutual. That both partners should want to and someone should not pressure another person to do more than they are willing. They also promote the “double dutch” method of using condom and pill together when people do have sex. Another key to their incredible health outcomes success.
Well anything is possible but to shift a culture it starts with “we”.
We need to talk more about relationships. How to love and be loved. What healthy relationships look like, and why? What skills should we develop to have a good relationship? When left unexamined media and entertainment can promote many harmful notions about romantic relationship and love. Often times love is portrayed as an intoxication, an obsessive attraction: that “real love” is clear, unmistakable, and undeniable: that love happens suddenly and lasts forever.
Is that what love really looks like? Our young people may thing so...leaving them to believe when the butterflies go away that they are no longer in love with someone.
We can use everyday examples from TV, movies, celebrities, literature or politics as talking points for these conversations. Be on the look out for teachable moments and create opportunities to utilize them. Talk about the markers of healthy and unhealthy relationships with our children and ask them what they think before we talk. Listen to what young people have to say and engage them in critical thinking.
We need to consciously create and even schedule time to have important conversations like these. We all get busy, tired, and distracted by everyday to-do lists and its easy to lose time and pass up opportunities to talk with our kids. These talks will probably have to be deliberate and created.
We need to share lessons we’ve learned in our lives, good and bad, and engage young people in moral questions about romantic relationships. Dilemmas like what should you do if you know someone is cheating on a friend of yours? Is cheating okay under any circumstance? Kids need guidance, and want to know more about how to have caring relationships. These conversations can help kids develop problem-solving skills and enable youth to consider multiple perspectives and ethically reason through conflicting loyalties.
We need to continue having conversations about body changes, anatomy, gender, protecting from unwanted pregnancy and disease, and much more.
We need to use engaging books, explore research-based websites and teaching tools, and enroll children in comprehensive sexuality programs and courses to help.
We need to remember The Talk isn’t one conversation and really its lots of small ones, over time, that start early and end late in a young persons life.
We need to challenge ourselves to have the sometimes awkward and uncomfortable conversations, in fact thats the only way to make them less so and if our kids find a way to be comfortable talking to us about sex then they’ll be more likely to have the skills necessary to talk to their partners about sex as well.
We need to remember to always keep listening, then keep talkin’! We've got this!!
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