If You Want Your Sex Talk to Stay in the Family

Recently all the Good Vibrations Sexy Mama bloggers received the following email from the editor:

I was chatting with a friend the other day about talking with kids about sex and she mentioned something interesting. Part of her resistance to doing so, despite her awareness of the value of it, is her concern that she’ll have to deal with the fallout if her kid passes information along to other kids, who then tell their parents. Another is that kids are learning about what’s ok to talk about in public and she didn’t want to deal with situations of her child saying something about sex at the supermarket.

What are some ways to deal with other children’s parents? What happens when your child says something in public that would be fine at home but feels embarrassing when it’s out among strangers? How do you deal with the social repercussions of other people’s negative reactions? How do you teach your child that you have different expectations and awareness about sex than lots of their friend’s parents?

The above parent recognizes the importance of talking to her kids about sex, but she prefers the sex talk to stay in the family. I personally feel a responsibility to publicly stand by everything I teach my daughter about sex, but my position does not match this parent’s comfort level. To her, my position might seem idealist and impractical. While I would at least try to encourage her to see how she in fact could have a positive effect also on her child’s friends if her child were to pass on what she teaches her child, I would give her this as another option: Tell the truth.

Tell your child you’re not comfortable with her or him passing on what you talk about at home when you talk about sex (and here you could add other things you also don’t feel comfortable leaving the family circle). Be as honest and as detailed as you can be. Maybe you wish everyone were as progressive about sex and talking about sex as you are, but even so, you’re reluctant to announce it in public.

Prepare to answer why you’re reluctant to do this. Is it because you still feel some discomfort in talking about sex? Or is it because you want to avoid potential confrontations and arguments with the parents of your child’s friends? Or is it because of a sense of politeness and respect? That you recognize that other parents may hold very different values and opinions about sex, and about when to talk about sex, and about what to say. And that you want to respect that.

Thinking through as thoroughly as you can for yourself why it is that you don’t want your child to pass on what you tell her or him about sex to other children, or talk about it in the public, will help you explain to your child why you feel the way you do. And it can help you explain to your child why it is that you feel uncomfortable when your child suddenly says something in the supermarket that would be fine at home but feels embarrassing when it’s out among strangers. Children have not yet developed a strong sense of impulse control, so even if you’ve asked your child to not talk about sex in public, he or she may very well still do so. Gently reminding the child that this is something you’re not comfortable talking about in public can end the conversation there without shaming the child, which you don’t want to happen.

I really believe an honest full disclosure on your behalf to your child is the best approach. If not, how will your child interpret the conflicting messages of your positive sex talk and the negative secrecy?

For practical advice and lists of questions to think through to help you prepare for how to communicate to your child about what your values and level of public comfort is when it comes to sex and talking about it, I very much recommend From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children by Debra W. Haffner, a parenting and sexuality educator with more than twenty years of experience. Haffner takes into consideration different religious, ethical and individual norms and comfort levels, and provides informed and balanced advice to adults of different backgrounds and values on how to teach their children about sexuality and serve as positive role models for them.

Haffner’s inclusion of parents of various backgrounds who hold different norms and comfort levels can also be helpful in thinking through how other children’s parents might respond to your values and approach to talking about sex, and help you prepare ways to deal with other children’s parents who hold different values than you do. If you ever encounter other parents’ negative reactions or other unwanted social repercussions based on your approach to your child’s sex education, it might be helpful to remind yourself just how diverse people’s backgrounds can be, and especially in this country, and that when people react negatively to something, it is usually more about where they’re coming from than what you’re doing.

Teaching your child that you might have different expectations and awareness about sex than lots of other parents, begins with your building your own self-awareness about where you’re coming from and communicating this as honestly and clearly as possible as you can to your child. Developing awareness in your child about your specific values and comfort levels, and that your specific values and comfort levels are bound to collide or at least not always agree 100% with those of other parents, is also a good starting point for encouraging your child to be attentive to his or her own levels of comfort. Which will help your child develop and fine tune the skills to identify what feels good or not to her or him. And that will be an asset to the child both in helping him or her recognize predatory behavior, as I discuss in this post, and also to be clear about what she or he is ready for in terms of physical and sexual intimacy, and when.

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