Explaining ‘The Birds & The Bees’
Good news, parents. You do not have to have one big ‘The Talk’ with your children.
Bad news: You’ll need to have several age-appropriate conversations with your children, but we’re here to help.
By Angela E. Thomas
We consulted with Dr. Ashley Antipolo, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Adam Benton, a licensed psychologist with Arkansas Families First, to find out how to best speak with children about sex, sexuality, dating, respect and consent.
“First of all, there’s no single sex talk,” Dr. Antipolo said. “It’s important that parents engage with their children, discussing with them their bodies from the time they can speak, and the conversation should evolve as the child matures and the parents’ skills develop.”
“Parents should be intentional and look for opportunities to educate their children. Don’t wait for them to ask questions because that’s often too late,” Dr. Benton echoed this sentiment.
For instance, he said, a scene in a movie or on TV can lead to a discussion about safety and privacy. “If these are topics of ongoing conversation, it builds open lines of communication and opportunities to teach values, and to guide your children in interpreting what they see and hear from friends and the media,” Benton said. “Start with educating them about their bodies, then discussing privacy and what is acceptable.”
Antipolo said, “This starts with using the anatomical names for body parts. Don’t use pet names, and this should start when your child is 2 or even when you’re changing their diapers. [Teach your son to call] his penis a penis; his scrotum, scrotum—just as you do with eyes, ears and knees. This is especially important if your child has an injury or medical issue.”
This can also help parents prepare for questions from siblings of the opposite sex, while empowering children to feel confident about their bodies and the changes that will take place.
Being open and not treating body parts as if they’re taboo will help parents facilitate open conversations about sex in general.
“If you wait until your children are tweens or teens, you’re probably too late, as there’s so much exposure in the media, even on TV commercials. Parents often believe that if they acknowledge sex or sexual behavior that they’re condoning sex. But if we maintain open communication about who we are, our bodies, the changes that take place, being attracted to someone and so forth, establishing that this is all normal, this leaves an ‘open door’ between children and their parents. And parents are the biggest influence on how children engage with others.”
Dr. Benton stressed that there’s no absolute age for these topics, but discussion around sexuality should evolve as your children mature. Additionally, it’s especially important to talk about boundaries and what is acceptable behavior when children begin to function outside of direct parental supervision.
“While your child doesn’t have to know about the act of sex, he or she should know about personal safety, privacy, private parts and who they can talk to if something or someone makes them feel uncomfortable. It’s also important, early on, to teach your child to say ‘no.’ This should begin early in life, before they know a lot about sexuality. Parents should build their confidence and assertiveness skills so they can speak up for themselves appropriately when needed. This discussion should include what to do if someone touches them in ways they are uncomfortable with, non-sexually, like if a friend is playing too rough, in addition to any touching that involves private parts or violations to their personal boundaries.”
School-aged children, Antipolo said, should be taught how to say “stop” and “no” and how to respect others when they are told “stop” and “no.”
“Additionally, they need to understand how to read nonverbal cues and how to recognize the emotion behind words,” she said.
Parents should also respect their child’s right to say “no,” Antipolo added, “even so far as not forcing your child to give intimate contact such as kissing or hugging a family member. A high-five or blowing a kiss are good alternatives. And don’t make a big deal out of it.”
She suggests speaking to the family member explaining that you’re teaching your child to respect his and others’ personal space.
Benton said it’s very important that parents teach their children to speak up for themselves. Consent is also a topic that should be broached throughout childhood as well. Children should be taught to express their opinions appropriately and to respect others’ opinions and choices. This becomes key as puberty ends, and they become interested in dating and sexuality.
“The topic of consent is all over the media right now. As parents, we should stress that it’s your child’s right and responsibility to protect himself/herself and speak up. He/she should respect himself/herself and others. Additionally, consider your child’s disposition. If he or she is more passive, aggressive or impulsive, you’ll need to adapt the conversation to address these individual vulnerabilities.”
Antipolo suggests role-playing in which you prompt your child: “What would your response be if someone pressures you to have sex? To take drugs? To drink alcohol?”
“Act it out and practice saying ‘no,’” she said. “Additionally, set up a ‘no questions asked’ policy with a safe word, so that if your child needs your help—whether at a party, on a date or in a risky or unsafe situation—he or she can call or text that word, and know that you’ll drop everything and come to his or her aid, no questions asked. Preplan.”
When talking to your preteen or teen, stress that “yes” means “yes” and anything less than or unclear is a “no.”
“Desire, respect, personal space and individual rights should all be a part of conversations about consent,” Benton said. “That conversation should be casual, direct, matter-of-fact in nature and not be stressful.”
If you need assistance talking to your child about sex, speak with your pediatrician or primary care physician. Arkansas Children’s Hospital Adolescent Clinic’s doctors, for example, can meet with patients individually to discuss sex and cover topics such as birth control, risky behaviors and more.
Additionally, Dr. Ashley Antipolo recommends using the website healthychildren.org as a resource.
“Talking to your child about sex can cause anxiety. Remember you don’t need to cover everything in one talk. Just start with the basics. If things are awkward, acknowledge that.
“While it’s difficult, as parents, to avoid getting on your soapbox, you want to set an atmosphere of openness. While it’s OK to set your expectations, if a list of ‘don’ts’ is the only way you talk about sex, your children will be less likely to come to you in the future, because they don’t want to disappoint you. Try to strike a balance between giving information and communicating your values.”
She also suggests parents avoid teasing their children about their crushes as this can be a very meaningful and emotional relationship for the preteen or teenager. “You want to be there to help him/her navigate those emotions.”
And if your child is expressing emotion toward the same sex, you’ll want to be especially sensitive. “Even if your child doesn’t verbalize it, he/she is processing feelings of sexuality, and as a parent it’s vital that you establish and maintain open lines of communication. Children who identify as gay are at a higher risk for depression; sexual assault, rape and violence; drug abuse; and suicide ideation.”
If you are struggling with or would like assistance with discussing the topic of sex with your children, check out the Arkansas Families First blog. Log on to arfamiliesfirst.com, and click on “Blog” under the Resources tab.
Additionally, Dr. Adam Benton suggests the following books:
“My Body Belongs To Me” by Jill Starishevsky;
“It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health” by Robie H. Harris;
“It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends” by Robie H. Harris;
“Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts” by Gail Saltz;
“What’s the Big Secret?: Talking about Sex with Girls and Boys” by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.