By: Isy Abraham-Raveson
Think back. What messages did you receive about sexuality from your parents/caregivers as you were growing up? Did they make you feel like only some kinds of sexual behavior were acceptable? Only some bodies? What effect did these messages have on your life? What do you wish your parents had done differently in terms of helping you understand sexuality?
It’s difficult to think about what we want to say to our children about sexuality when we may still be dealing with negative effects of what our parents said to us. It’s so important to take the time and think about the messages we have received, and process the feelings that continue to surround some of those messages. The more work we do on our own relationship to sexuality, the better equipped we are to support children in their sexual development.
After some introspection, we can begin to identify our values around sexuality that we want to pass on to our children. Knowing those values and being able to articulate them before any conversations with children take place will help prepare us for those conversations.
As a sexuality educator, my job is not to tell parents what their values should be. Instead, I teach parents and other caregivers how to identify their values, and then (most importantly) how to express those values without shame.
What is shame? Shame and guilt are related but distinct emotions. Guilt is the feeling that you have done something bad or wrong. Shame is the feeling that you are bad or wrong. Guilt can potentially be overcome through an apology, whereas shame becomes part of someone’s identity. Not only is shame a terribly painful emotion, but when people experience shame they devalue themselves, which means they feel less worthy of health, safety, and happiness. Thus, shame makes people less safe. The correlation between shame and sexual risk-taking has been documented in several studies. If we want our children to be safe, healthy, and happy, we must be vigilant in avoiding shame tactics when it comes to sexuality.
Expressing your values without shame might seem tricky, and it does take practice. For example, if your value is that you believe sex is best within the context of marriage, there are many ways to express that. You could say: “Sex outside of marriage is wrong,” or “Don’t have sex until marriage.” Or you could say: “I believe that sex is the most meaningful and positive when it happens in the context of marriage. That’s what I chose to do, and here is why it worked for me. Ultimately, it will be your decision, and I will love you no matter what.” The first two examples impose moral judgments of right and wrong. The last example, however, simply offers an opinion, along with a message of empowerment (i.e. you are responsible for your own choices) as well as unconditional affirmation (i.e. no matter what you choose, I will still love you).
Not only do we need to avoid shaming children with our own comments, we need to think about how to build them up so that they are resilient. Shaming messages about sexuality come from a variety of sources, from mainstream media to religious institutions to schools to peers to pornography. The messages we send to children should provide an alternative lens with which to understand themselves.
Once you have identified your values and practiced communicating them in shame-free ways, when and how will you talk to your child about those values? Will you have “the talk” with them that you wish your parents had with you? The problem with that model of talking to kids about sex is that it’s stressful for parents who are trying to fit in all of their thoughts and values and information about sexuality in one conversation while expressing themselves perfectly, and it’s stressful for kids because the topic has never been brought up before, they are trying to take in all of the information at once, and they can tell how stressed their parents are. Instead of “the talk,” I find it helpful to think about taking advantage of teachable moments.
Teachable moments arise when sexuality issues come up naturally. For example, a sex scene in a movie, a tampon commercial on TV, an overheard comment of “that’s so gay,” or a celebrity’s recent comments or behavior. For each of these moments, what values or messages would you want to communicate to your child? What would you say to try to send those messages? What experiences have you had that would have made good teachable moments?
Utilizing teachable moments allows us to have more than one chance to tackle a difficult issue, and to reinforce the message we’re sending about it over time. Teachable moments also allow for more of a back and forth than a lecture.
Ultimately, talking to kids about sexuality requires self-reflection and trial and error. We do the best we can, we make mistakes, and then we try again. As long as we go forward with openness, positivity, and a willingness to listen, we can support our children in developing more positive, shame-free relationships with sexuality.
Here are two questions for you to respond to:
How does this information change the way you want to talk to your children about sexuality?
What are your sexual values?