by Ronde S. Walch
“What class are you taking this semester?” I smile because I know where this conversation is headed when I reply, “Healthy Sexuality.” I am at lunch with three well-educated mothers in their thirties who excitedly launch into their own understanding of the physical, emotional, and meaning-making aspects of healthy sexuality, a term referring to a positive and respectful approach to sexual development. I listen closely and am impressed. These young mothers have desperately sought their own solutions as they grew up and became parents in a world that objectifies and idealizes the body and sexualizes children. They know they should speak “early and often” about sexuality using proper names for body parts. They know they need to talk about changes bodies go through before puberty begins. They know to talk about the “emotional connection between sexual intimacy and sexual behavior.” Still, like the rest of us, they are nervous and reluctant to take what they’ve learned largely on their own and share it with their kids, who range in ages from preschool to junior high.
Parents may feel they don’t know exactly how to go about these conversations, doubting their timing, communication skills, and ability to say the correct thing. Other obstacles that play into the complex world of teaching children about healthy sexuality include competing media influence, changing family structures, communication types, maternal and paternal role perceptions, and gender dynamics. These are all factors that contribute to the potential for children feeling uncomfortable about the subject and decreasing their willingness to come back to it at a later date. However, while the task of beginning a dialogue about healthy sexuality with younger children may seem daunting, there are numerous benefits for doing so.
One of the most wonderful and rewarding reasons to talk about sexual development with children is that such discussions lay the foundation for a stronger parent-child bond than any other topic of discussion. Starting this conversation while a child is younger may seem counterintuitive, but studies show that an increase in open, honest communication between parents and children about sexual development leads to a lower risk of engaging in problematic sexual behavior. Early communication about sex can pave the way for later discussions that will help children to develop healthy relationships. Children who communicate openly about sex with their parents may choose to have conversations with them about arousal, erections, and masturbation, rather than concealing these ‘taboo’ topics which are a fundamental part of healthy sexual development.v Children can feel safe asking a parent about such sexual experiences and receive guidance contrary to what the world would provide.
It’s certainly tempting for parents to stay in their comfort zone regarding healthy sexuality, but by not opening a dialogue on the subject with their children, parents lose the opportunity to create a more meaningful relationship with their children. Beginning the conversation might be uncomfortable and strange. However, that discomfort can push parents and children toward growth and personal development. Parents, in starting a conversation with their children about sexual development have the opportunity to show their children that, while the subject can be awkward, they have a safe way to discuss human sexuality. The goal is to instill curiosity, not fear.vi It is okay to fail to connect the first time. This ongoing conversation should be about growth and development, not perfection, allowing both children and their parents to bring their strengths to the discussion to learn and teach together.
Here are some tips to remember when beginning the conversation:
- Stay positive. Avoid attaching fear and anxiety to sexuality; save the sexual abuse talk for another time.
- Be persistent. Bring up the topic once a week. Just as children gradually develop physically, the emotional and meaning-making parts of their sexuality also develop over time. Expect follow-up questions on a later date.
- Be prepared to treat each question thoughtfully, respectfully, and honestly. This will help children to be receptive and willing to have future conversations regarding sexuality.
- Ask them what they already know, and how they feel about what they know.
- Connect with children on their level and within their interests.
- Start today and stumble on in.
Looking back on my experiences raising my older children, I wish I had been aware of the tools to engage in meaningful conversations about sexual development as they grew up. Dr. Leavitt, a contributing author of A Better Way to Teach Kids About Sex, says, “It’s never too early, and it’s never too late to start.” Having the opportunity to take classes on healthy sexuality has allowed me to start having these conversations with my older children on topics relevant to their stage in life, like cohabitating, sexual satisfaction, relationship stability, sexual communication between couples, and more. Although my young adults are not new to sexual development and learning about healthy sexuality, they still crave the connection that this level of intimacy provides. I am sure that if we had begun an open, honest, informative dialogue about their sexual development from early childhood, they would have been more willing to come to me with other sensitive topics later in their life.
Studies have shown children are more willing to open up and talk about sex if they are invited to be active participants in your conversations rather than passive listeners, so I decided to try this approach with my 11-year-old daughter. In the car on the way to school, I took the plunge, asking, “Abby, how are you feeling about your own sexuality? Do you have any questions?” Abby’s shoulders shrank as she rolled her eyes, mumbling a typical child’s response: “Mom, can we NOT talk about sex right now?” I persisted, appealing to her desire to be a mature contributor: “Well, I’m taking this healthy sexuality class, and it would be good practice for me to hear your perspective.” With raised eyebrows, she began to reconsider her part as a collaborator in our conversation. Her thoughts about sexuality spilled out with confidence, and I listened with delight and fascination, encouraging her participation with comments and questions. We weren’t just talking about sex. We were starting a lifetime conversation, bonding as we began exploring this topic together.
Ronde Walch is a senior undergraduate student in the Family Studies program at Brigham Young University. Ronde and her husband, Tad, have enjoyed raising their five kids together in Provo, Utah. She is grateful for devoted mentors like Dr. Chelom Leavitt and Professor Julie Haupt.