Talking to your kids about sex

I learned about sex when I was ten. An older boy, Mike, explained the "facts of life" to my friend Shep and I as we poured over a stash of Playboy magazines in our secret fort. Shep was sure Mike was lying. He told me not to believe any of it. I didn't know who to trust, so I asked my mom what sex was. She read a book with me about how the dad's sperm meets the mom's ovum and a baby starts to grow. That was all very nice, but the details of how that sperm gets in there were discreetly omitted. My curiosity was not at all satisfied.

Sex, according to my mom's book, was for reproduction. Even at ten years old I knew there was more to it than that. I'd venture to guess that less than .5% of all adult sex is for reproduction. The vast majority of sex is for intimacy, pleasure, or both. But no one I could trust was willing to talk to me about these things. I had to figure out what sex was about from adult magazines, movies, and the often very distorted information I could get from peers.

My experience was not unique. Most of us learn about sex in a shroud of shame and misinformation. Shame grows whenever it is not okay to talk about something. It's like anaerobic bacteria that festers in closed containers. Once exposed, it dies. Talking about sex heals shame (or prevents it from gaining a foothold in a young person's psyche). As a psychotherapist I am well acquainted with the effects of unaddressed sexual shame: men feeling inadequate due to unrealistic expectations of themselves, women unable to communicate their sexual needs, couples unable to find consensual love-making because one is desperate for sex and the other confused, and most everyone wondering at some level if their particular sexuality is really okay.

I think a lot of the trouble we adults have with sex is because our sexual education needs were neglected. In recent years we have been uncovering the tragedy of sexual abuse, both its shocking prevalence and its painful effects. But we have not yet acknowledged that the deliberate denial of information about sex is also hurtful to young people. If we did not teach our children to read, we would be considered neglectful. If we did not teach them manners, our parenting would be widely questioned. So I think it is time to consider sex education to be a vital developmental need that we cannot allow to be ignored.

How then, do we as parents talk about sex with our children? Most of us are too embarrassed to even bring the subject up. When we do, we often count on our kids to lead the discussion with their questions. If there are no questions we assume they know it all and we're off the hook. Try this instead. Go down to your favorite bookstore. Tell them how old your child is and ask for a good book on sex. Read it yourself and talk to your spouse or a friend about any parts that make you squirm. If you need more help, find someone who seems really comfortable talking about sex and ask them how they would explain sex to someone your child's age. Then sit down with your child and read the book together. Read it as many times as your child seems interested in it. Then pat yourself on the back. Well done.

© 2008 Tim Hartnett

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to E-Mail Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax.

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