Most parents I speak to tend to worry about having "the talk"—aka teaching our kids about sex. But in our current cultural landscape, we can't put this off. Our kids need us.
We must talk to our children about their sexual health. No more excuses. No more avoiding. And, no more thinking you are done with "the talk" after just one conversation.
Gone are the days where we can shy away from talking to our children about consent and sex. In my generation, we received a little bit of information from our parents and a lot of information from our friends. But today, if parents don't take the lead on this, then friends, romantic partners and Google will be there their informants—and Google does not know your child.
In conversations with parents in my psychology practice, the primary barrier to a successful sex-talk is often a parent's own feelings of discomfort. Because what do uncomfortable feelings make us do? Avoid, squirm and try to get it over with as soon as possible.
Trust me, if you are uncomfortable, so are your kids.
When we shy away from this conversation, we likely do a poor job of teaching our children about their sexual health, their rights to consent and the expectations for respecting others' rights to consent.
Why are we so uncomfortable?
More often than not, we recoil when a child starts asking questions like "Where do babies come from?" or "Mommy, why can't I marry you?" or, my personal favorite from my 5-year-old son, "Mommy, do you have a penis?"
We are ill-prepared to field these questions, especially when they are sprung upon us—and they are ALWAYS sprung upon us. No child ever has said, "Dad, I'm planning to ask you about sex tonight, so be prepared."
We are likely so uncomfortable because we didn't receive an open and thorough sex talk when we were children from which we can model. And because we never feel prepared for this topic, we fall back on what our parents did, which is likely not what our children need in this current generation of the internet and social media.
So, take a deep breath. It's time to show up.
What are they ready for at each age?
If we truly want young people to respect each other's bodies, we must teach them. Generally speaking, preschool children are ready to learn about male and female body parts and the privacy of these parts.
We can teach privacy without making it taboo. We teach young children that private parts are the ones underneath their bathing suit. They shouldn't show them to anyone other than at a doctor's appointment or taking a bath, and no one should ask to see them without a parent in the room. If you have ever lived with a preschool child, most are not shy about their bodies (yet), so this talk merely is about privacy and safety.
Preschoolers can also learn about consent to be in someone else's space. For instance, when another child does not want to be chased on the playground, we teach children to stop chasing them.
Elementary to tweens
Elementary children are ready to learn how babies are made and about upcoming puberty, body changes and hormones. This is actually the best time to teach it because they are generally not embarrassed by these conversations with you (yet). They may think an idea is gross or silly, but you can laugh about it together.
Tweens need to be prepped on the idea that as puberty begins, they may have feelings of attraction towards others. However, they may not act on this attraction unless it is mutual, just like the playground game of chase.
As tweens become teenagers, their primary mode of socialization shifts from family to peers, so it's normal for them to talk to peers about these topics more than you. However, they will hear all kinds of things that may or may not be true. This is when you reap the benefits of the trusting relationship you've built so they can ask you about something they heard.
And, yes, they are going to Google things. This is why instilling a healthy sense of critical thinking in them from a young age is vital—when they read or hear about something that doesn't sound quite right, they question it and come to you (or another trusted adult) for clarification.
A few other tips to remember:
Dads must show up for girls and moms must show up for boys
In my psychology practice, the most discomfort comes from an opposite-sex parent. I know. You are uncomfortable with "the talk" to begin with, and you are especially ill-prepared if you are talking about an experience you have never had. Yes, the same-sex parent may likely have a better explanation that comes with experience. But when we run out of the room, we model that we are uncomfortable with our child's questions and, thus, send the message that this is an awkward topic.
Try to be present for the conversation
Think about how powerful it would be to have a conversation about consent and respect from the perspectives of mom and dad. This is especially powerful if you have, or have had in the past, a respectful partnership yourself and can share stories about a kiss between two people who both wanted it to happen. Single parents and parents in same-sex relationships have been handling both sides of these talks for years. Sharing different perspectives is powerful, and we can share others' perspectives through stories. The intention is that the child receives the message that you are comfortable with any and all questions.
Follow the questions
You do not need to have all the answers at that moment. In fact, you won't, because it will almost always be a spontaneous conversation. Good teaching is filled with honest conversations, and at times you might need to pause, talk to your partner or a friend or parent, get the book that goes with the conversation, or Google something yourself to get prepared to explain something on your child's developmental level.
Don't feel you need to over-prepare and have answers to every question that could come up
Your child will ask you things you can easily answer. Answer their questions and then stop. The rest of the conversation will continue later. Talking about a child's sexual health is never just one conversation. Children are developing human beings who deserve to develop their curiosities in discussions over time.
Consider individual differences
Consider your child's specific brain wiring. If your child is impulsive, you are going to want them to understand this aspect of themselves prior to their hormones developing. If your child is a literal thinker, you will want to teach the ideas of "some people like this and some people don't, so if someone says stop, you stop" to help them understand the gray areas of consent. If your child has delayed social skills, it is likely that they may develop hormones earlier than they develop the capacity to understand the nuances of romantic relationships. These are situations in which you may need to reach out to a professional to help walk you through the best way to support your child through puberty.
Above all, you want to start early to build your child's trust when discussing sexual health. And building trust means that you have to get comfortable with it so you can stay in the conversation as long as your child needs you. They need to know you are a safe person with the most accurate information.
This article originally appeared on dremilyking.com. It was published in April 2019. It has been updated.