This I Believe…

I have been asked what I believe is important in sex education in the family. So here it is:

I believe that…
…parents have to talk to their kids about sex.

I believe that…
…everyone has sex, and should therefore know about sex.

I believe that…
…sex is not all bad, even for teenagers.

But this is just the surface. So if you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion of these issues, please take a minute to read my elaborations on each of these points. Feel free to comment as well!
Parents have to talk to their kids about sex. Before the kids start asking. Because otherwise it’s too late.

(If you’re already ready to stop reading, DON’T! I’ve written a book on how to talk with teenagers about sex. You can find it here.)

In talking with parents, what I have seen is that by the time parents start thinking about talking to their kids about sex, the kids are already in the know. Way, way too far in the know for most parents’ comfort.

This happens, of course, because Little Suzy in their class at school (or church or playgroup or homeschooling group or whatever) walked in on her parents in, shall we say, a compromising condition. The parents weren’t able to think up a convincing lie fast enough, and now everyone on the playground knows that Little Suzy’s parents get up to something funny during nap time. Now, neither Little Suzy’s parents nor any of the other parents probably have any idea that the children are contemplating compromising positions because the children are wise enough to know that when an adult lies badly, they shouldn’t go talking to other adults about it.

The moral of the story is to talk to your kids about sex. It might be really embarrassing for everyone. Okay, it probably will be really embarrassing for everyone. But better that than your 10 year old boy thinking that girls have two butts.

The other big benefit (beyond a simple transfer of information) to starting these conversations yourself rather than ignoring them unless you child asks, is that you are letting your kid know that it’s okay to ask questions. That it’s okay to use these words (penis, vulva, butt, vagina, breasts, wet dream, etc.) in conversation with you and other adults. This will pay off big dividends as they get older. Trust me.

What happens if you don’t talk with your kids about sex? Two things: First, they won’t come to you for help if they’re in trouble. Second, they’ll go for information and help elsewhere, to places you might not approve of and that might not be completely truthful or safe.

So here’s some conversation topics that should be started with little ones:

1. The differences between women and girls. The differences between men and boys.
2. A little introduction to what a committed romantic relationship means – friendship, trust, love. More on the physical will come later.

These two topics: (a) information about our bodies and (b) relationship primers. Almost everything everyone needs to know about sex falls into these two categories.

So to make sure you cover everything, take some time and make out a list of all of the conceivable things in each category that a sexually active adult would need to know. Then roughly order your list according to increasingly advanced knowledge. If your child/ren already know some of the stuff on this list – and they probably do – go ahead and mentally schedule a time to fill in any holes you think haven’t been covered yet. Then, over weeks and months and years, start working your way sequentially down the list. Check things off as you cover them. Don’t worry about whether it’s the right time or not. Your child/ren will let you know if you’re going too fast.

Everyone has sex. Not all teenagers. But all teenagers do need to learn the facts about sex. It’ll come in useful at some point. Promise.

The main point I want to make here is that you can educate your teenager about sex and sexuality without assuming that your child will therefore start having sex. Maybe your teenager will have sex during high school – maybe not. About half of all teenagers do. About half of all teenagers do not.

But I’m not even going to get into this argument right now. Because here’s the point: Everyone needs to know the facts about sex and sexuality. End of story.

This is not an argument about whether it’s okay for teenagers to have sex. This is not an argument about whether people should wait until marriage to have sex. This IS an argument for basic information about an activity that almost everyone in the world engages in at some point in their lives.

So if you have a hard time with sexuality education because you want your teenager to avoid having sex, change your perspective on what sexuality education is meant to do. Sex Ed is not like Driver’s Ed – you don’t get a license at the end. What you should get is good information that you can draw on throughout your life about (a) your mind and body and (b) other people’s minds and bodies and (c) how they interact.

(I want to point out that, in fact, not everyone has sex. But the vast majority of people do, and it’s probably safe to assume that your kid will. And even if he or she does not have sex, he or she should still be knowledgeable about it.)

Sex is not all bad. Even for teenagers. In order to maintain credibility, parents have to acknowledge that fact.

This is a scary point for lots of parents. But the fact is that all adolescent sex does not end with depression, low self-esteem, rape, pregnancy, and AIDS.

Teenagers who are sexually active within the context of a committed romantic relationship do not suffer from increased rates of depression or low self-esteem when compared to teenagers who are not sexually active.

Being sexually active does not increase the likelihood that a teenager is going to be raped.

Most sexually active teenager girls do not get pregnant. Most sexually active teenage boys do not get someone pregnant.

Lots of teenagers are sexually active without ever getting or giving an STD.  Teenagers’ sexual safety is dramatically increased with more education.  In addition to delaying sexual activity, comprehensive sex education makes the sexual activities they do engage in dramatically less likely to result in an STD.

Now, can all these bad things happen? Of course. Should we be diligent as parents to help our teenagers avoid them? Absolutely. Part of being diligent is making sure our children have the skills to make healthy sexual decisions and also making sure our children know that we know that every single time they do something potentially dangerous something horrible might not happen to them.

Otherwise, something like this happens:

Lucy’s mother has told her to never, ever have sex without a condom. Ever. Lucy understands from her mother’s warning that if she ever – EVER! – has sex without a condom she’ll get pregnant and get an STI.

Lucy’s best friend Marisol and her boyfriend Johnny have sex without a condom. A lot. Marisol does not get pregnant and does not contract an STI (that she knows about).

Lucy’s understanding of her mother’s warnings are now in direct contradiction with Marisol’s proven reality.

So good sex education needs to acknowledge that you don’t get pregnant every time you have sex without a condom – but then ask the question of whether the teenager is willing for this time to be the one when she does get pregnant.

My main point: Your child needs comprehensive sex education BEFORE he or she starts engaging sexually.

Before your child starts engaging sexually is the best time to present the information.  This gives your child time to think over your points about phsyical and emotional safety and to make personal goals and belief statements about their own sexuality.

The best way for your child to get comprehensive sexuality education is through a thoughtful, attentive process.  As your child’s parent, you can absolutely do this.  Or you can have your child attend a class (like the ones that I offer).  But what you do not want is for your child to learn primarily from peers, dates, popular culture, or pornography.  Even though it may be scary, attending to your child’s educational needs around sexuality has the potential to dramatically improve his or her life-long sexual choices.