Q&A: Talking about Bodies and Sex with Your Kids
I am loving being a boy-mama. My sons are almost 10 & 12. The “challenges” I’m having are (although I don’t have a “problem” with this – just mystified confusion) why EVERYTHING relates to a penis. Everything. “Heh-heh…that rock looks like a penis, you smell like a penis, that cloud looks like a penis. PENIS.” LOL!! But… why?? I don’t remember hearing girls talk about vaginas.
And I’m wondering how much I should “push” to have conversations about sex & sexual matters. Everything including erections are common topics, but they really shut me down when I try to take it to another level. Should I just talk to the air but out loud, should I zip it, should I just hand over a book, or wait until they are more open to talk about more? I just don’t want them to get used to holding back. I’m thinking that later it would seem awkward for them to initiate the conversation. Like I can’t imagine, “So about this thing that’s happening…”
We all have to navigate this with out children, talking about their bodies.
There are different strategies that may involve talking about it sooner or later, getting to the sex question in particular. Where Nathan started in thinking about everything related to a penis is that it’s really weird having one. He prefers to refer to people as either penis wearers or vagina wearers, because gender roles are starting to break up. It’s becoming more difficult to talk about boys and men and women and girls. When we get to this stage, he brings out the terminology of “penis-wearer” and “vagina wearer.”
Being a penis wearer, regardless of how you identify or what your sexual preference ends up being, it’s different than being a vagina wearer because it is so “out there.” It bumps into things, it causes weird sensations, it gets caught in the zipper, it reacts strangely in certain situations. It’s a constant thingie metaphorically “in our faces.” There’s a propensity in varying ways for penis wearers to live with that. Some do it with a version of “let’s make a joke- this looks like a penis, that looks like a penis.” That’s one version. Touching it a lot is another version of coming to terms with it. Avoiding it is actually another way of coming to terms with it.
Nathan has 3 girls and did not have the experience of everything being about a vagina. But he does have the experience of 3 very different experiences of relating to one’s vagina. Even girls become aware of it and even girls play with it, so it isn’t just a boy thing. But we see it more with boys in part because it is external. It’s an external item. There are more opportunities for it to be a weird or funny thing.
There’s another level of boys entering pre-teen and teenhood that it is also kind of taboo. Penises are never just a penis. Once you reach teenhood, there’s almost always some kind of connotation, whether it is sexualized or making a joke or something derogatory, by calling someone a name. I think it’s similar to when kids learn how to cuss. We can say this thing and it’s it kind of incendiary? We can talk about penises and it is automatically funny and taboo without a lot of pressure or the stakes being very high.
On the one hand, you have to grin and bear it. Also, as Rebecca talked about, there are things that definitely are worth claiming a boundary, so that our boys get a sense that taking your penis out in the living room and starting to play with it is generally not considered what the rest of the herd wants. And while that’s perfectly fine to do for yourself, it is generally considered more conducive to herd happiness, the rest of the family, group or community, for you to make that a private event. Or between you and your lover, eventually. There are useful boundaries to claim or useful information to give our boys around how to investigate themselves, or handle themselves or be with themselves, while also maintaining respect for others. Part of it is the self-respect piece and the other side is respecting others.
An example with one of Nathan’s daughters
Nathan went back to an example with one of his daughters who was very interested in her anatomy at a very early age and very interested in the wonderful feelings that came when she put pressure here or there. She had no idea that anyone would have any other thoughts or maybe even notice that at all. She felt really comfortable when they would start to watch a movie and she would hop onto one of their laps and just start playing with herself. They did eventually feel like it was happening enough that it was appropriate to say, “Hey! We totally get that feels really good and you’re loving that and we want to encourage you to explore and enjoy that as much as you want to, but not while sitting on my lap, maybe.”
They had some back and forth of listening to her and what her interest was and finding out what the experience was and what experience she was after, and communicating that it was ok and basically “have at it.” And here’s some information you might want to know, like clean hands, this might be a good private moment, and being gentle with herself, and expressing their preferences. She got the information she needed without having to be shamed or without them having to draw a big scary boundary around it or without them having to feel uncomfortable or put up with something that didn’t feel good to them.
Later, because they had set it up in that way and had been able to connect with her on it, and were clearly able to communicate with her around it, she was able to come to them more about it and ask more questions years later. It set up the kind of relationship we most want to have so that our children feel comfortable coming to us with their questions and or investigations or to share with us things that are going on for them, and to hear what we have to say about it or to just be with them.
That’s the best part. It was great to empower her to do what she wanted to do and to do that in a way that meshed with their personal preferences for what happened on their laps, but that she felt supported in a way that she could get further support if she wanted it. That goes a long way for not only helping our children to feel safe, but maintaining that connection through the years.
Rebecca’s experience with her sons
Nathan wanted to ask Rebecca, since she has boys, if there are other thoughts she has about what’s appropriate to mention and how she handled penises (or didn’t handle them or whatever the right way to talk about that is… ha). She had a similar experience with the curiousity, touching, and what their boundaries were, what she was comfortable with and what she wasn’t, being able to state that and creating the space where they’re able to come and talk to her about those things so it wasn’t taboo or shame.
Rebecca had a very similar experience Nathan described with both of her boys. She concurs with everything that he was saying he went through, even though he was talking about girls. There are so many similarities about all of this stuff. Both girls and boys have bodies and they’re curious about them to varying degrees – some kids are more touchy than others and some are avoidant.
Rebecca went back to Jamie’s other question about how much do I push to have these conversations. There’s a place for creating the space and letting them know that you’re willing to talk about these things, and that it’s normal to have questions as they get older. Don’t push too much beyond where they’re ready to have a conversation with you because it defeats the purpose. We want them to feel comfortable coming to us.
It may be appropriate to say, “Are you interested in learning more about your body right now? A lot of kids your age are. There are many ways I can help give you information on this topic.” They may reply with, “Mom, if you’d just give me a book and if I have any questions, I’ll ask you.” or, “I like videos. Are there any videos I could watch that would give me the information that you would feel is appropriate and if I have any questions, I can ask you.” It’s opening the door and setting yourself up, especially at 10 and 12, to say, “This is normal at this developmental stage. Your body is changing and it’s ok to ask questions. It’s ok to come to me and ask those questions. I’m here.”
When to have the sex talk
In terms of addressing when to have the sex talk, it’s important to start early. Many of us reel back from that and don’t want to give too much information too soon, and worry about what they are going to do with the information. My worst nightmare is that my 7 year-old goes to playgroup and talks about his penis. I don’t want to open that can of worms.
But what they have found over and over again is that children will take whatever they can at each level. You can be as open and straightforward as you want to about what sex is with your 5 year olds, and they’ll only absorb as much as they’re able to. And then they’ll come back at 6 or 7 or 8 or at all of those places. “You talked about penises and vaginas and the papa’s penis, so how does that work again?” And then they get another level, and some other question will comes up later and they’ll get another level.
Nathan shared that they’ve had the same basic conversation 4 or 5 times because their eldest brought it up and their youngest heard it but didn’t get more than 10% that time. And then she had more questions. Then his middle one had questions and they all got another round of information. It helps them to get as much as they can at an appropriate stage level, but it utterly normalizes the conversation.
What happens to some parents is that they stave it off as long as they can and make it more uncomfortable for everybody because they just didn’t make it normal. The basics of what happens in sex is so plain, so normal. Even at 10 or 12, that’s not late by any means, but even at that age, it doesn’t take more than 30 seconds to give the basic description of what sex is, and you’ve crossed over that uneasy doorway of talking about sex. You’ve waded in real quick and then you’re out of there.
Even if it is uncomfortable for you or your kid, it’s over before the discomfort even starts. You’ve started this conversation for it being a more normal thing. You’ve already lowered the stakes for what’s involved. Even if you have to get up the courage to ask me something about it, you know my answer is going to be one minute, so you don’t even have to live through it that long. It makes it less weighty.
So what he’s saying is that parents don’t have to get out the charts and the diagrams. That will probably help a lot of people.
Nathan and his wife have given their girls the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as a place to get more information if they just want to do more investigating on their own without having to be in conversation. And they have. And in some cases, they’ve come to them and said, “In Our Bodies, Ourselves, it says blah, blah, blah. What does that mean?” And then they have another round of conversation and it’s just easy and basic because they haven’t made it weird. Nathan feels like many parents wait too long to have these conversation because they don’t want to make it weird for their kids and they don’t want to give more information than they need or can handle. Or they’re afraid of what their kids might do with the information.
Parents of younger kids, when you start having these conversations, you might want to say to them that not everyone talks about this early, or not everyone talks about this at this stage of their lives. As much as possible, it isn’t something that you run around and tell all of your friends. You want to respect where other people are with this kind of information.
The way they did it was kind of how they handled cuss words. This stuff is 100% safe to talk about in your close relationships, and you have to get permission or make an arrangement with people outside your circle. So if you don’t have that arrangement, don’t wade into cussing a bunch or talking about this stuff. That being said, generally the worst Nathan has seen happen is that a 7-year-old said penis to another 7-year-old and that can be uncomfortable, but that’s not the worst kind of fears that we think might happen.
Before Nathan had kids, he was afraid that he would tell his kids how sex was done and then they would go and do it. That’s so far from the truth if you start the conversation early. It’s like talking about going to Mars, for kids. They get that there’s a planet out there and it’s red and someone could travel to it, but it’s totally alien. It isn’t until much later once the hormones start to kick in and their body starts to give them sensations that they’re like, Oh! There’s something more to this sex talk. Mars is a little closer at hand and I’m starting to understand. “I can see the red planet from here!”
Talk about sex early and create the space for them and their curiosity.
They’re only going to take in what they’re ready for. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation and you don’t need flip charts like a major presentation. The point is to create the space where they can come to you and ask questions.
If they come to you and you’re having a conversation and you feel like you can, you can always turn it back to them by asking “Anything else you want to know?” And even if they say no, it is a great way to keep it open and communicate that the space is open and you recognize it is an ongoing exploration for them. As their bodies change and grow more, it’s normal to have more questions.
Be sure to talk about consent
As the conversation develops, whether that’s early or later, it’s important to move the conversation to discussions of consent. There’s the mechanics of how you have sex and there’s the important emotional elements of when you have sex. And not just for girls, who are the gatekeepers, for lack of more eloquent terminology, but also for the boys to investigate for themselves as well as their eventual partners. It’s a big theme in our culture.
Going back to our conversation about wiping. Even when our kids are little, we can be embodying these kinds of themes like consent. “Are you ready for me to wipe you? Do you need a minute?” Have them be part of that interchange. Take that into any parenting thing and we can work on that theme even when they’re little.
It’s so important the way we communicate. It’s respect, but it’s consent in particular.
When Nathan’s eldest was a toddler, so maybe about 2 ½ or so, they were hanging out with friends who had a really young baby. The mom actually talked to the baby about what she was going to do with the diaper change. It landed on Nathan like a ton of bricks.
Everything we want to do with our kids, we want to make room for their consent. Even if it is something like, as an adult, we have to make a decision that they don’t like, we can still make room for how that impacts them and respect them as much as we possibly can, even though we’re having to carry them out of the room. Looking for all those tiny moments when we can ask them what they prefer, we can let them have a voice and give them an opportunity to set their own boundary. Consent is so important, from the beginning.