By: Samantha Jones
One Easter weekend, I accompanied my fiancé to his parents’ home for a family dinner. During dinner, his siblings and parents were sharing stories about their “high school years.” My future mother-in-law started to share a story about a prank one of her sons pulled while in high school. Before starting, she turned to her 13 year old granddaughter and asked, “Do you know what a condom is”? The girl’s mother, who is my fiancé’s sister, shrieked, “No, she does not!” Sensing the tension in the air, the conversation moved on to other things. Later, after the other adults left the room, my fiancé’s sister explained that her daughter does not, and will not know about condoms for some time.
I was stunned and couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. I believe by the age of 13, children should know what a condom is and what is used for. This is not because I’m a proponent of younger teens having sex, but because as a sexual health educator I know middle school aged children know about sex. It’s all around them in the music, movies, online and discussed among their peers and sometimes even in school health classes. So, they should also know about condoms. Condoms are a way for people to be safe during sex. They are a tool for staying healthy. As such, condoms should not be a secret.
Creating secrecy around condoms creates confusion. For my niece, this lack of information opened the door to misinformation – if her family won’t give her accurate information, another teen or other source will. The reactions – spoken and unspoken – to the question about condoms taught my niece about her family’s values and comfort about sex, teens rights to information, and even consent. This brief exchange really made me think about the variety of beliefs about sex that can quietly co-exist within a family. It also showed me first-hand how families can influence their younger generation’s view their own sexual health and sexuality.
I often see parents take a reactive approach to conversations about sex with their children. Just like the conversation with my niece, parents are often blindsided by situations in which sex comes up in the presence of their teen. Curious questions from teen can make a parent instantaneously flustered. Being proactive about conversations about sexuality can create stronger bonds and open the flow of communication between parents and their children.
Rather than wait, parents should think about what they do want their teens to know about sex and sexuality and share that. Parents should know what they are comfortable talking about and what is outside their comfort zone. They should be honest with their teens about what is hard rather than shutting down the lines of communication. Parents should know that they may not always have answers to the questions their curious teens ask, but parents can control their emotional reaction to the subject. Let’s face it, maybe the dinner table at Easter is not the best time to bring up condoms. On the other hand, if we weren’t so nervous about addressing the topic of sex, we could have continued to enjoy each other’s company and grown closer as a family.