We have been having a lot of conversations about sex around here lately. Lots of questions. Lots of time for contemplation. Then lots of questions again. Kind of like any topic really.
I know a lot of people didn’t grow up in sex positive households. Because of this, I know a lot of parents view sex as a very private thing that is uncomfortable to talk about. I always felt free to talk to my parents about sex, but I know my husband jokes that ‘the talk’ with his parents was the anonymous placement of ‘Where Did I Come From’ on the end of his bed when he was…fifteen.
We haven’t really had ‘the talk’ either. That would be kind of strange. It implies it is a one off chat. And then what? You never speak of it again? Sex is a conversation constantly evolving, pausing mid sentence while information is taken in, picked up again days or weeks or months later. We have answered a lot of questions over the years about lots of things to do with the body and that has come together to form a more coherent picture over time.
How this develops for each family is going to be different so rather than retelling our story, which could never be a blueprint for anyone else, I want to focus on some of the key messages and elements I think are really important.
Always begin with ‘what do you think?’
We are bringing a huge amount of adult knowledge to these conversations and sometimes what we think a child is asking is different to what they are actually asking. Asking a child ‘well what do you think?’ will give you insight into the level of information they are seeking. When a child asks ‘where do babies come from?’, maybe they just want to know that they grow in a uterus, or that they are birthed through the vagina or a cesarean section, not the university lecture on procreation you are wanting to launch into (I get those urges often, I understand).
And sometimes a child just wants to confirm the information they already know. I can still remember a conversation I had in the car with my middle child when he had just turned five.
‘Mum, how are babies created?’
‘Well how do you think?’
‘Dads have sperm and mums have eggs and they join together and turn into a baby?’
‘Yes, that’s right. Do you have any other questions?’
‘Yes, I have one more question….’
I was poised and ready. This is it. This is the moment he wants to know how these things get together in the first place. I took a breath.
‘How are volcanoes created?’
Kids seem to stop asking questions when they have enough information on a topic for that moment.
Use the anatomically correct name for body parts
There are so many reasons for this. I have written about the importance of using the correct names for body parts as a precaution against sexual abuse and as an important element of respect for the body here. But it turns out these are not the only benefits! Building your child’s vocabulary with simple, factual terms when you answer questions, means they have all of the base information they need to understand the more complete picture of sex. For us, this has meant our children understood the terms sperm, egg, fallopian tubes, uterus, vagina, penis, testicles on their own before they were interested in the mechanics of how this all worked together.
Kids want to know what stuff looks like
Kids want to know what a sperm looks like. They want to know what the ball inside the scrotum is. They want to know what a uterus looks like. This is all really important information. Most of the time I have found what we needed online with diagrams, but we also have some human anatomy books that have been useful as well. Find stuff that helps answer their questions so that you can discuss it together. Children are naturally curious. If you don’t provide what they need, you run the risk that they will go looking on their own. Finding the appropriate pictures and material allows your children to get accurate and safe information. Create an environment that feels shame free and open to asking and answering questions.
Mum, that doesn’t sound very nice. What does it feel like?
When you talk to kids about sex in a really shameless way, and they have their head around how it all works, they may ask questions about the physicality and emotional aspects of sex. I know my children have! This is your opportunity to give the information that they need to form healthy attitudes towards sex, so be honest!
Some of the messages my husband and I have aimed to send are:
- It should feel really good and enjoyable for both people.
- Both people must want to have sex and if one person doesn’t want to, even if you really want to, you don’t do it. And sometimes that might even happen in the middle, so you might have to stop what you are doing but that is ok.
- Sex is something that you can choose to do when your body and mind have matured and it isn’t something that you do as a child or that someone should try to get you to do as a child.
The journey of sexuality and sexual experience is going to be very different for each person. Some people will have one partner. Some will have many. Some will attach significant connection and emotion to each experience. Others will be drawn purely to the physical encounter. I am very conscious that I am raising three different people who will define their own paths. I want the message from me to be clear. Among consenting partners, where there is respect on each side, there is no right or wrong here. For this reason, I have left out judgmental phrases in our discussions that may allude to the conditions of ‘love’, ‘relationships’ or ‘the desire to make a baby’ needing to be present in all sexual experiences. I don’t want my children to feel alienated if their experience deviates from this path.
These conditions that parents often drop into the conversation around sex remain blanks for us at this point. They haven’t come up and I haven’t inserted them into the dialogue. My children don’t have the life experience or the understanding of sex on a deeper level to delve too far down the emotional rabbit hole. But it will come. And when they ask, I will talk openly about my own decision to live in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship and how that fulfills my emotional needs. But I will also be clear that my experience is mine alone and that a different path is just that, different, not less than.
My children have asked about some things that have really caught me off guard, but I have tried to swallow my unwarranted initial reaction, and answer in a factual way. I don’t want certain areas of sex to be off limits in our conversations, because as long as there are two willing, unpressured participants who enjoy the experience, it really shouldn’t be a taboo thing. Sex and sexuality is a diverse and complicated topic and I always want my children to be comfortable discussing the grey with me.
The body is a beautiful thing. Sex should also be a beautiful thing. I hope the conversations I have with my children help them grow with a deep respect and understanding of both.
Here are some links to diagrams I have found useful with my kids to save you the trouble of having to google sperm. It’s a murky world out there! If opening a link to a giant diagram of a vagina is going to be awkward where you are reading this, maybe save the links for later.
Vagina This link has lots of diagrams of the vagina from different angles depending on what you are talking about with your children
Penis From the same site and lots of images again.
Egg and sperm The first half of this video (about 5 minutes long) gives a very scientific explanation about fertilisation. The second half is a different video about baby development but there are better out there and lots to choose from.
There is a Norwegian series called Pubertet you can find on Youtube which won’t be for everyone, and is subtitled, but gives a very frank and graphic look at the changes that happen during puberty to bodies. I have only watched the first part of the puberty series, but I understand that later on it also covers topics like masturbation and sex very thoroughly. Some people will find the use of actual naked bodies confronting. I didn’t like some of the slang terms used for body parts in the translation, but otherwise I think it is really informative. My children haven’t expressed interest in these areas yet, but I wanted to include it for people who are looking for resources for older children. I like that they show real bodies and the changes they go through. There comes a time when cartoon depictions don’t cut it.