It was common for parents to have "the talk" with their children about dating, intimacy, and sex. In previous generations, one of the parent's sole responsibilities was to explain to their children why their bodies were suddenly changing and why they had such strong emotions, desires, and impulses.
Today, fewer parents explain what used to be called the birds and the bees to their children. Parents are often guided by when to initiate the discussion and what to say by cultural mores, religion, tradition, school curriculum, and of course, what the experts have to say. But it appears that having "the talk" has become a lost art amongst parents.
Today, instead of parents calling their children to the kitchen table to teen's chagrin to talk about birds’ and bees’ mating patterns as they relate to humans, kids are piecing together information about sex from various sources, but primarily social media. Because there is so much information on the World Wide Web, children may become overwhelmed by conflicting information. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) reminds us that it is never too early to start age-appropriate courageous conversations about sex.
Some parents argue that their kids will not listen to what they have to say about sex. However, the ODPHD states the contrary. Kids will make safer decisions about sex when their parents have an open and honest conversation. The sex talk may begin with the child's questions, which often starts with "where do babies come from."
These questions may require the parent to have an age-appropriate conversation about puberty, which is the normal physiological process that the body goes through as it prepares to move a childhood to adulthood. Puberty will lead to a conversation about the female and male reproductive systems and how the meeting of the two will produce a gamete and ultimately a child. Topics on the reproduction systems may include the fallopian tubes, uterus, eggs, sperm, voice box, and seminal vesicles. Again, the areas covered during these talks are guided by the child's intellectual level, as demonstrated by their inquiry.
Because kids may not be comfortable asking their parents about sex, parents can initiate the conversation. ODPHD suggests that parents can launch a discussion while watching a television show. Some kids may have questions about gender. Before children begin dating, parents must discuss the family's rules regarding dating. Parents should answer the questions about the appropriate age and the boundaries of dating. Very young kids may feel that they are of a different gender than what is listed on their birth certificate. Parents should not assume that their children are interested in opposite-sex dating; however, parents must assure that children who may self-identify as gender diverse love the child unconditionally.
The talk should always include a discussion on STDs and birth control. ODPHD tells us how important it is that when parents have "the talk," they be prepared to do more listening than talking. Some parents get uncomfortable when discussing sex, and so they become incredibly verbose. However, it is crucial to listen to the child. Parents can demonstrate active listening by nodding their heads, providing consistent eye contact, and paraphrasing what the child says.
At the very least, parents may want to ask their children where they get information on sex. There are excellent resources on the internet for parents to read and then discuss with their children. Fiona Tapp provides several resources and books for kids on age-appropriate sex education.
One, not so subtle strategy for talking about sex is to watch a popular television show with a child and ask questions about some of the themes. I recently had a conversation with a young woman who had no idea how sex resulted in unwanted pregnancies. Parents should never assume that their children are knowledgeable about sex education and take "the talk" back from social media and have a well-planned-out discussion about sex with their children.
• Lisa Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She also worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and wrote a book based on that experience. She and her husband live in Tracy and have four children. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.