Why The Dutch Are So Awesome At The 'Sex Talk'
The Netherlands is winning “how to talk to your kids about sex... and everything else.”
If I talk about sex, won’t it encourage my kid to make risky decisions?
This is one of the most common questions we get from folks who worry that by bringing up sex for the purposes of education, they will be hastening their kids’ path towards it. While we understand the concern, we are here to say that a robust body of research tells us that teaching kids about their bodies and about sex and a million other complex topics in puberty and adolescence actually keeps them safer. And yet, in many states across the country, public policy is going in the opposite direction, away from sex-educating kids. Not talking about an issue doesn’t make it go away, it just provides less information about it. So if our country is getting it wrong, who is getting it right?
Sex education in the Netherlands begins at age 4 and continues throughout a kid’s entire school experience. Their curriculum begins by teaching the names of all body parts and moves onto topics like consent, love, and, eventually, sex. As a result of a nationwide philosophy of ongoing and inclusive sex education, Dutch families openly discuss a wide variety of sex and relationships at home. Here’s the amazing upshot: rather than creating a culture where teens are having rampant, anonymous, unprotected sex will-nilly (pun intended), the exact opposite turns out to be true. On average, Dutch teens report having sex for the first time at older ages compared with their US counterparts; they experience significantly lower rates of teenage pregnancy and exponentially fewer cases of STIs/STDs; and they describe higher levels of sexual satisfaction. (If you want all the nitty gritty data, we write all about this phenomena in our new book THIS IS SO AWKWARD, citing the important work of sex educator Bonnie Rough.)
So why does talking more allow the Dutch to achieve better health outcomes? Because with knowledge comes power (and safety and health). As in all things caring for tweens and teens, it might be a whole lot easier in the short term to stick our heads in the sand, but in the long run, that just leaves our kids in the dark and at higher risk. So besides eating Edam cheese and riding our bikes, how can we be like the Dutch?
Here are a few foundational ways:
- Start early and keep it simple. People often confuse the overarching concept of health and sex education with super specific conversations about sexual intercourse. We are here to refute that assumption. The truth is that effective sex education begins with topics that have nothing to do with sex — things like simply teaching kids the anatomically correct names for their body parts. While we don’t like to go dark, there’s an important data point worth mentioning here: children who know the names for their genitals are less likely to be victims of sexual predation. Their knowledge makes it clear to a predator that there are trusted adults in that kid’s life who are talking to them about their bodies and their safety. So if you’ve been using pet names in your home for genitals, that’s an excellent reason to change course.
- Consent is about so much more than sex. Although many of us were raised to understand conversations about consent solely within the confines of sexual relationships, consent is a universal topic that affects all kinds of relationships unrelated to sex. In fact, we can start teaching kids about consent in preschool in the context of sharing toys or sitting on a friend's lap or waiting in line for dismissal. Helping kids build the skills of asking for permission to touch someone else and requiring permission for someone else to touch them underlies all relationships as they grow older, well beyond physical intimacy. Building kids’ understanding of the many ways they have agency in the world and their need to respect other people’s wishes and feelings creates an overarching understanding of respect. That respect — for themselves and others — ultimately paves the path toward consensual sexual relationships down the road.
- Leave the door open for a million conversations. So often we hear from parents that they tried to have a tricky conversation with their kid and it either went nowhere or it went south. The goal is not to have a victorious one-and-done conversation where you cover everything required in 30 minutes or less. Just the opposite. Talking to kids about consent, respect, love, and sex involves tons of tiny conversations over time, some of which will go well and some of which will not. But the aim is that the door between you and your kid is always open for the next conversation, the next question, the next hug. Sometimes the door will be flung wide open and sometimes open just a crack, but teaching kids about sex boils down to communicating to them that we are there when they need us.
- Don’t forget to talk about love. Shafia Zaloom is one of our favorite sex educators and she reminds parents not to forget love when talking to kids about sex. We know it sounds obvious, but in practice, it’s easy to forget to bring up love. Instead conversations focus on fear of pregnancy or STIs/STDs or sexual assault or consent. And while all those topics are critically important to cover at some point, the ultimate goal is for kids to someday grow into adults who have meaningful, loving, and pleasurable sexual relationships if they choose to. When we include love in our conversations about sex, we remind kids of the vital role emotional intimacy plays in that future.
Take a deep breath. You got this. And when in doubt, pretend you’re Dutch.
Cara Natterson, MD and Vanessa Kroll Bennett are co-hosts of The Puberty Podcast. Their new book, THIS IS SO AWKWARD, will be published on October 10. Cara is a pediatrician and author of the bestselling puberty books The Care and Keeping of You Series and Guy Stuff. She is also the founder of OOMLA, a company designed to make puberty comfortable. Vanessa is the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company focused on building kids’ self-esteem through sports, puberty education and parent workshops. She writes regularly in her Uncertain Parenting Newsletter about the messy process of raising tweens and teens. You can follow them on Instagram @spillingthepubertea.