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Raising Kids With Healthy Sexuality

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Photographed by James Kicinski-McCoy

When it comes to talking about the birds and the bees, there’s one thing most parents can agree on: Instilling your children with a healthy sense of sexuality is important. Of course, talking to your kids about sex can be awkward, which is why we’ve tapped sex therapist Elizabeth McGrath to help lead the way. “The first major messages that children get about sexuality are from adults, primarily their parents, guardians, and caregivers,” explains McGrath. And if those messages are shrouded in disapproval or shame, it could lead to enduring sexual issues. Whether you’re aiming to raise “sex-positive” kids or merely a household with a high degree of openness when it comes to more difficult topics, these tips are keepers.

Looking at your own sexuality. Before you talk to your children about the topic, it’s important to evaluate your own relationship with sexuality. “We have an awesome opportunity to help our kids remain as free from shame around sex as they can from childhood and on into their adult lives. This process starts by looking at some of our own feelings about sex—our fears, our self-judgments—and looking at how they impact our responses to sexual conversations, questions, and things of a sexual nature that will come up with your children,” explains McGrath. “How can we acknowledge the things that make us nervous, feel awkward or uncomfortable, or the things that we feel are shameful, without letting that be the immediate way we communicate back to our kids? It can feel daunting to spend time thinking and feeling through our own stuff about sex, but it is through doing that that we have the chance to recognize that our children are little blank slates looking to us for answers and absorbing our feelings and responses.”

Talking about private parts. One of the first chances for sex ed? When your children discover their own body parts. Whether you decide to use proper genitalia names or something else is up to you. “These are also the moments to share information on where touching is good and not so good,” explains McGrath. “This conversation will be tailored to your child’s age. With a young child you might say: ‘You touch your ____ and sometimes mama touches your ____ when she is washing and changing you, but that touching is not for anyone else and at school or with other kids. Your ____ stays in your underwear.’ For tiny people, you are reinforcing the ok-ness of learning, exploring, and personal touch time, while informing them that there are great places to do that and other places where that doesn’t happen.”

Privacy and self touch. Catching your kid playing with his or herself might happen sooner than you think. McGrath suggests reiterating that “pleasure is wonderful and something to discover and enjoy, but is best done within their personal space—their bedroom or maybe the bathroom. And while it is an ok thing to do, it’s for personal private time and then eventually with a consensual partner when they feel safe and ready.” Which brings us to the concept of privacy. “Reinforce that while there is nothing ‘wrong’ with masturbation, it’s something that doesn’t happen in public, kind of like peeing or getting dressed,” says McGrath. If you catch an older kid “in the act,” chances are, embarrassment is going to set in. “You can approach it by revisiting it after that fact and saying any variation of, ‘Hey, I didn’t leave your room because I was upset with you, I wanted you to have some time to yourself for the touch that you were trying. I know you might not want to talk about it, but if you do, I am open and happy to tell you as much or as little as you want to know.’ You also don’t have to lie. If you felt nervous or shocked, you can share that, ‘Hey, I know you saw my shocked face when I left your room, but it was not because I was mad, you’re just growing up and sometimes it takes me a moment to let that sink in.’ Then revisit openness. You are human and you are going to have your natural reactions. Often kids think their parents are mad before they would feel anything else. Letting your kids know you have a diversity of emotions that are not immediately connected to anger can be helpful for them.”

Having “the talk.” While sex-ed often happens at school around 12 or 13 years old, studies have found that kids absorb accurate and clear sex information beginning at age 8. “As parents and caregivers, you get to decide when feels right based on the maturity of your child, how much exposure to sex info they have had at school and with friends, and whether they are asking questions themselves,” says McGrath. “You can also share bits of information in a neutral context as your child grows, for example, a pregnant friend can be a great moment to talk about how babies are made, including both intercourse and the non-intercourse need for sperm. You can choose to generally or specifically contextualize sexuality and neither choice is an altogether better one. Just remember that your feelings about it will be a part of the conversation and your kids picking up on those vibes will be happening at full strength. If you are nervous, go ahead and explain why. You can share that it was a weird conversation for you when you were a kid or that you fear not saying or doing the right things or that you fear making them nervous or that they won’t want to hear what you have to say. Going in feeling awkward about it will make it challenging for you. Consider what do you want to say and what is at the center of the information that you want to share. That you want them to have love with sex? That you want them to be safe with sex? That you want them to enjoy sex but also connect sex with self loving? That you worry about pregnancy and that overshadows your feelings about pleasure? Share that and share from that place. Again, shame is saying ‘Just don’t do that’ or ‘That’s bad.’ It is not shaming to say, ‘I want to talk to you about sex, but I get nervous, can we start with any questions you might have?’”

Sex and popular culture. “Modern media is constantly inundating us with images of ‘perfection’ and ‘sexiness,’ and while those images and themes are different for boys, girls, and young people coming to define their gender for themselves, the themes are often limiting, negative, stereotyping, and can make kids feel immense pressure to conform,” says McGrath. “One of the best ways to combat this is to laud our children for aspects of their selves that may seem outside the gender ‘norm.’ We need to reinforce intelligence and strength in our young women, not just beauty and niceness and a ‘get along’ attitude. We need to reinforce softness and emotional growth in our boys and not just strength. We also need to take opportunities to tell our kids that the bodies they have are wonderful just the way they are; that no matter how fast they run, how long and shiny their hair, how skinny they are, or how big their muscles, that they are loved and appreciated. Parents have so much more to deal with in this day and age with phones and laptops and Twitter and Instagram and all the tech gadgetry. To continue to keep up a loving and positive energy and message is necessary and to craft times to talk and connect, eyeball-to-eyeball, rather than over a device, is key.”

Teenage sex. It’s going to happen. Be prepared. “You are going to have a natural reaction and that’s ok,” says McGrath, “But where can you come from a place of openness and not shut them down completely? Teens are going to have sex. Just like masturbation, it is something wonderful that our bodies are made to do. You want to keep the feeling that sex is fun and lovely and pleasurable, but you also want to make sure that it’s safe and consensual and responsible. You can say just that. You can say that as a parent, your role is to help them understand what is great about sex and also make the best choices for them. My parents said to me, ‘Sex is a really wonderful thing and it’s the most wonderful with someone you love when you feel ready.’ That stuck with me and I took from it a message of self respect while keeping the elements of positivity.”

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