As I listen to the chatter among moms, a concern that often comes up is when and how to deal with “The Talk.” This concerns me because it suggests that these parents believe that there will be one talk about sex and sexuality and not that it will be an ongoing discussion over many years. Just as with talking about drugs and alcohol, it will be much easier to feel your way bit by bit rather than saving up everything for one lecture.
Actually, when it comes right down to it, I don’t even think of sex as the main topic. I divide “sex” into two categories, plumbing and relationships.
Plumbing is pretty straight forward. Label body parts (I prefer textbook terms—elbow, penis, vagina, breast, shoulder, etc) as your child is learning them. Kids usually learn the difference between male parts and female parts between three and four. They’ll be obsessed with the terms for a while and then, when they have integrated them into their understanding, they’ll stop talking about them. Depending on the babies/new siblings/etc. around them, they’ll ask where babies come from. Again, I prefer textbook explanations: Babies come from sperms cells and egg cells. The man has the sperm, and the woman has the egg. When they come together, those cells grow into a baby. Inevitably, the child will ask how the sperm and the egg get together. Unless your child was conceived in some other way, I would stick to saying the man puts his penis into the woman’s vagina and delivers the sperm to the egg in the womb, which is where the baby grows. Now, if you are lucky, your child won’t ask, as mine did, Mommy, did you like it when Daddy put his penis into your vagina? (Fortunately, my succinct answer of yes, I did sufficed.)
Knowing Your Limits and Recognizing Others’
One’s own body in relationship to others is the next lesson, and teaching it starts from the very youngest interactions. Every time a mother removes the baby from her breast because she has been bitten, she is teaching the baby to be gentle with another person’s body. Likewise, when a father stops a child from hitting him during a tantrum and tells the child to use her words, he is teaching the child respect for another person’s body. These lessons continue when we help children see that their sibling has reached a limit for rough housing or just needs some space on the couch. The lessons should include a conversation about privacy and good touch and bad touch. At the same time a child learns to be sensitive to other people’s limits, he should learn to advocate calmly and clearly for his own limits—whether that is not wanting to kiss a grandparent good-bye or not wanting his hair played with.
Just as important is learning to articulate and be at ease with emotional limits. Very often one friend will need another friend more than she is needed in return. Let’s say that Sally and Lucy are friends, but the relationship is uneven. For Sally, Lucy is her only friend. For Lucy, Sally is one of many friends. Sally is going to need to learn to share Lucy and to reach out and find other friends to do things with, and Lucy is going to need reassurance that that is oaky: She can be Sally’s friend without being her everything. Lucy is going to need to learn to say clearly, but firmly, I’m going to play with Jane today but I hope you’ll play with me another day. Being able to negotiate these early relationships with kindness but clarity about how one wants to be treated is the first step to being able to negotiate a solid romantic relationship. As girls tend to mature faster, boys often come under a lot of pressure to be in a relationship. If they are not comfortable with that, they need to be able to say, you are a nice person but I just want to be friends. Parents can provide support by roleplaying these kinds of conversations. The aim is to develop empathy for the other person’s feelings without feeling that you have to be the one to provide that person’s physical or emotional need. Harder, of course, is learning to accept that you are responsible for handling your own feelings if they are not returned in the way you long for.
If all these lessons are firmly in place in elementary school, they become the steppingstones for conversations about how to approach budding romantic interests in middle school. From there, it is much easier to show how at their base romantic relationships are like friendships: They require the same respect, sensitivity and give and take. They are multifaceted, not just physical. If you are well into the habit of talking about your children’s friendships, it shouldn't be too hard to include a conversation about how much it is okay to text someone you like or when it is appropriate to hold hands.
As a parent, recognize that relationships are not all or nothing. There is a progression. You cannot control when your child has his first or her first crush, but if you have been a sounding board for your child’s friendship questions, you will be the first to hear about this new interest, as well.