By Sol Gordon, PhD
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Advocates for Youth.
Imagine the one day your child comes home and asks you, point-blank, what intercourse means. What do you say?
Well, there's always the avoidance reaction: "Go ask your father (mother)" or "We'll tell you when you're old enough to understand."
Of course, "Where did you get that from?" is a possibility. Or, difficult as it may sound, you could sit down with your child and explain what intercourse is. This way you'll be the one who tells him, not the kid down the block.
Everyone agrees that parents should be "open and frank" when they talk to their children about sex, but no one is willing to tell parents how. After centuries of silence and secrecy, parents today are suddenly asked to "liberate" themselves. How can this transformation be started? How carried out?
First, parents should recognize that before they can communicate freely with their children, they must be able to talk freely with each other and to develop sensitivity to their own feelings.
Parents can start by asking themselves such questions as, "Am I satisfied with my own relationship?" "How has our relationship changed since we were married or together?" "Are we able to express the affection we feel for each other?"
In my professional experience, I find that parents are very often "out of touch" with their own feelings. Such talks can make them aware of their own "selves," and more open to their partner's needs. At times parents have simply forgotten that before they were parents they were lovers. Taking on the responsibility of parenthood shouldn't lessen one's sexuality or love for each other. Through these open talks, as each partner becomes aware of and confident about his or her own needs and desires, parents will become better prepared to deal with their child's developing sexuality.
In addition to increasing their own sensitivity to sexual feelings, parents often need to brush up on some basic facts. For openers, accurate knowledge about masturbation, intercourse, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is essential for parents who want to develop guidelines for children.
Lastly, parents must talk about sex. Those who are uncomfortable hearing or speaking sexual words can practice them—alone, with their partner, or in conversations with a friend or trusted counselor—until they feel natural and comfortable. This is important because children are sensitive to the emotional value parents give to certain words or may pick up what their parents feel rather than what their parents say.
Although most adults today know that masturbation doesn't cause acne, impotence, or insanity, as was once believed, there is still a great deal of unnecessary anxiety about it. A parent's reaction to his child's masturbation will probably be conditioned by attitudes toward the practice when he was growing up, but should still reflect his adult knowledge that it is normal if your child does it and it is normal if s/he doesn't do it.
When talking with children about sexual matters, parents should be receptive to the child's language but supply proper terms. Giving the child the correct names for parts and functions of the body is important in lending them dignity and naturalness.
If a young child repeats a sexual obscenity that he has heard in the street or from adults, parents should explain what it means without being afraid to use the word. The approach has several advantages. First, the child will know that he can't use the obscenity as a weapon against his parents. Second, the child will realize that no question or topic that he may bring up will make the parent uncomfortable. Third, by explaining the meaning of the obscenity with proper terminology, parents are treating the subject of sex with respect, instead of relegating it to the gutter.
Some children come to believe that expressing physical affection is inappropriate because they rarely see adults touch! Consequently, many grow up without knowing how to express themselves physically. As teenagers, such children may to believe that touching another person is only a prelude to sexual intercourse, rather than a legitimate form of affection itself. Obviously then, parents shouldn't cut their children off from physical affection after infancy; the older child still needs this assurance of his parents' love and can accept it as a natural and meaningful way to express feelings.
Many parents fear that presenting basic information is the same as giving young people permission to be promiscuous. My own belief is that, while for many good reasons teenagers are not ready for sex, withholding information about sexuality, STDs, and contraception until young people are "ready" only increases the chance that they will make mistakes.
Parents need to provide moral guidelines, in my opinion. Given the fact that many adolescents engage in sex without their parents' consent, adults can try to ensure that these sexual encounters are not disastrous. Standards of behavior are good for adolescents, as well as for adults. Adolescents want and need sensible guidelines from their parents.
Here are some "morals" I offer the young people I talk with:
- No one has the right to exploit another person's body, commercially or sexually.
- No one has the right to bring unwanted children into the world.
- No one has the right to spread disease. If infected, get medical treatment fast.
As with other facets of experience, the best way to help your children develop healthy attitudes about sex is through example. If parents are honest and well informed, children will learn the value of knowing the facts. If parents are generous with affection for the child and spouse, youngsters will themselves learn to be loving partners and parents. In effect, if parents are comfortable with their own sexuality, children will have an excellent opportunity to learn how to lead sexually healthy lives. And they will have learned how from the people who can teach them best—their parents.
Sol Gordon is the author of many books* on parent-child communication and sexuality, including:
Raising a Child Responsibly in a Sexually Permissive World
Sol Gordon & Judith Gordon
Adams Media Corporation, 1999
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How Can You Tell if You're Really in Love?
Adams Media Corporation, 2001
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When Living Hurts: A Lively What-to-Do Book for Yourself or Someone You Care about Who Feels Discouraged, Sad, Lonely, Hopeless, Angry or Frustrated, Unhappy or Bored, Depressed, Suicidal : For Teenagers and Young Adults
Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1994
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* To order one of the books, simply click on the "click here to purchase this book" link. You will be taken to Amazon.com, where you'll be able to purchase the book you selected. Advocates for Youth will receive a five percent royalty from the sale.