When I think about “the birds and the bees” conversation between parent and child, my thoughts flash straight to every eighties movie ever. The scene is usually of a dad walking into his teenage son’s room and sitting him down for a serious talk. Cut to the end of the conversation; no one is comfortable and the teenager is no more well-informed than when they started.
Chances are getting your parenting cues from eighties movies is a bad idea. But, for many people, approaching conversations about sex and sexuality with their children is difficult. They don’t know where to start or when. Many parents hesitate on how exactly to approach any of it.
Scary Mommy touched base with Aleece Fosnight, a sexual counselor and PA and Medical Advisor at Aeroflow Urology, to get her take on how best to approach those sometimes awkward conversations.
There Is No One And Done Conversation
Contrary to what those eighties movies would have you believe, discussions about sex, sexuality, and bodies don’t start when your child is sixteen (going on twenty-two). According to Aleece, the conversations should be held from the time your baby is born, from the words you say during diaper changes, to the way you interact with children. For very young kids, conversations about sex and sexuality begin first with honest discussions about body safety, body boundaries (theirs and those around them), and how our body works. Topics like bowel movements, urination, and digestion are good places to start.
She also suggests talking to children about sexuality early on. For young children, this looks like helping them understand who they are as individuals, teaching them the proper names of the parts of their body, and how their genitals are just a part of their body.
Be Prepared For Questions
It’s important as a parent to educate yourself and be sure that you know exactly what happens during sex. “Adults don’t necessarily know the full anatomy,” Aleece notes, and confirms that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” and go look it up together. Parents can begin conversations by asking what the child knows about a topic. This not only buys the parent time but also allows the parent to see where their child is at with a particular topic.
According to Aleece, a helpful book for both adults and children is “Sex Is A Funny Word,” which is a comic book geared for ages 8-12, but which Aleece gives as homework to her adult clients.
Don’t Make Up Stuff
Aleece encourages parents to avoid telling children that babies come from storks or a cabbage patch. Though different children develop and are ready for information at different times, she encourages honesty and even to “make it fun and exciting.”
When describing how babies are born to her own children, she described how there’s a “really cool special tunnel…called a vagina, and that’s one of the ways babies come.” She encourages parents to also talk about adoption, surrogacy, C-sections and infertility, at least to introduce the idea that babies come from other places, too.
As children get older and ask more questions about how a baby is made, she suggests starting with the basic framework of when two people love each other, a piece of each of them comes together at a time when they love each other very much. Also, she urges parents to keep in mind that conversations around sex and making babies tend to be very heteronormative and to consider framing the conversation in terms of “those who are able to make sperm and those who are able to make eggs” coming together.
Teaching Children Consent Starts From The Get-Go
Aleece also emphasizes that “Consent is important [to address] throughout.” Letting children know that they don’t have to give their grandparents a hug if they don’t want to, or that they can say “no” when they are being tickled, is an important building block toward creating a person comfortable giving consent or saying no.
“That’s a clear foundation for when they start to have interactions with classmates,” Aleece says. It sets them up for being comfortable to use their words when on the playground and someone touches them in a way that doesn’t feel good. “There’s a whole notion in our country that hugging, touching is okay,” Aleece notes, or excusing the behavior under the guise of playing, but she confirms in no uncertain terms that it is not okay. The earlier children learn to use their voice to say no, the better they will be in taking that voice with them through all of their adult relationships.
Don’t Wait Until Your Child Comes To You With Questions
Aleece suggests introducing the idea of sex around age 9 or 10 and trying not to make it awkward. She notes that research has shown that having conversations about sex and sexuality with your children delays their “sexual debut”—as in, it delays their first time having sexual intercourse—and it’s also a more pleasurable and consensual experience when it happens.
Along with the idea of a pleasurable and consensual experience, she encourages parents to talk about pleasure. She suggests relating sex talk to food, how there are some foods you like and some foods you don’t, and the same goes for sex—who you’re attracted to and what sensation feels good and how that responds in the genitals.
When it comes to that parental discomfort, Aleece encourages parents to sit with their own discomfort. “We shut down a lot of conversations that feel uncomfortable but those are the ones we need to be having.” It’s important for parents to figure out where any uncomfortable feelings are coming from so they can be a better parent to their kids, and avoid their child feeling shame or discomfort with bodies and sex.
Most importantly, Aleece stresses that conversations about sex, sexuality, and bodies are ongoing and require an honesty and a willingness to move out of our comfort zone. Because the goal, Aleece notes, is to raise children “who can thrive, who feel pleasure and have fun, and can be in good supportive relationships.”