How and when to talk to your kids about sex
Patrick Carnes, a noted expert in sex addiction, believes that a “tsunami” is inevitable with regard to the impact of Internet pornography on today’s children and youth.
Research estimates that 90 percent of children today first learn about sex through viewing pornography. Other research reveals that a child’s first exposure to porn happens around nine years old. And this isn’t just a boys-only problem. Though pornography use is more prevalent with boys, girls are viewing it as well.
Aside from the many problematic issues with our children being introduced to porn at such early ages, porn as sex education leads to deeply embedded ideas about sex that could haunt, mystify, and stymie a child well into their adult years.
For instance, mature adults understand that sexuality is about more than just exchanging parts of your body. Sexuality finds its fulfillment and meaning in true connection and intimacy that takes the other person’s full personhood into account. In addition to being attracted physically, a person who’s capable of expressing his or her full sexuality also regards the other person’s intellect, emotions, spirituality, etc. When children are led to believe that porn equals sex, they receive an incredibly myopic vision of what sex can and should mean.
Several years back, I heard a sex therapist educator describe the state of sex education in America as being relegated to choosing from just two options: abstinence or safety. She then compared sex ed to driver’s ed.
What if driver’s ed only had two choices: no education or simple safety training? She likened abstinence to an adult refusing to talk to their child about how a car actually works: “You’ll figure it out once the time is right.” She compared safe sex to an adult just telling a child about the car’s safety features and nothing else: “There’s an airbag in there. Good luck.”
But that’s not how driver’s ed is conducted. In fact, our teenagers are required to endure months of classes by professionals, plus parental involvement, before being granted a license. The breadth and depth of today’s sex education, from both institutional and familial levels, pales in comparison. And in many cases, there’s an underlying, subtle current of shame running through every sex ed conversation, most often due to a parent’s own shame or awkwardness about approaching the subject with their children. But when given so little information about such a tantalizing subject, and when shame or awkwardness marks the conversation with a parent, where’s a curious child to turn?
To their phone. Or their tablet. Or their computer. Or their friends (who’ll just pull up something on their phone, tablet, or computer.)
That’s how the tsunami began. That’s how the tsunami keeps building momentum. That’s how the tsunami will flood your child’s mind with possible messages of hiding, guilt, and shame about their sexuality.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s up to parents to turn the tide.
In my counseling practice, rather than advocating for “The Talk” I suggest that parents have many age-appropriate talks over the course of many years which takes into account specific topics.
For example, when your child is three to five years old, discuss the names for parts of the body. From ages five through eight, talk about where babies come from, conception, fetal development, and childbirth. From ages eight through eleven, discuss topics like sexual intercourse, including boundaries, puberty, a woman’s menstrual cycle, pornography, and sexual abuse.
From ages eleven through fourteen, have more dialogue about puberty, love, dating, and more complex questions about sexuality.
Please note: This is simply one example. Keep in mind that you may want to adjust this based on the maturity of your child.
As a parent, I advocate that you be the one who helps your child define and understand their sexuality. Be the one to whom they come when they have questions about sex. Yes, it will be awkward and may challenge your own comfort level.
By encouraging these kinds of consistent talks, you’re setting your child up for success when it comes to navigating the incredibly challenging online world they face. By becoming a trusted figure in that area of their lives, you’re earning the right to speak into their maturation as young adults. You’re helping them to see exactly why you’ve placed boundaries on their online behavior.
Children who view porn (who have parents who don’t discuss sex) have a higher likelihood of becoming adults who treat sexuality in hiding with shame and through fantasy. As adults, you may know that real relationships require hard work, are less self-focused, and consider a more wholistic view of their partner. Take the time and have the courage to educate your child about sexuality. You can do this! Be the one who shapes your child’s sexual development.
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