Why Talking to Your Kids Early About Sex and Sexuality is a Great Thing

by C. Imani Williams

People differ in their beliefs on the appropriate age to talk to kids about sex and sexuality. It often depends on the parent and child. Certainly hitting a seven-year-old with topics that he or she is not emotionally ready for will likely do more to confuse than to explain. Another reason the conversation is not easy is that adults (whether they be parents, grandparents, guardians, or any other adults with influence) may not have a clear understanding of how to broach the topic while using age-appropriate language that kids can understand. Personal beliefs about topics such as gender, sexual orientation, and abstinence can also affect how and when the conversation takes place.

But it's important that parents know discussions around sex and sexuality absolutely should happen. When communication is seen as a verb it encourages the fostering of strong, trust-based parent-child relationships. A strong bond means that children will feel more comfortable opening up. This makes them more willing to share concerns, disappointments, and triumphs growing up. Open communication is important especially during the teen years when many kids shut parents out, often turning to surrogate parental figures and mentors (when available). Most times, peers end up fielding queries on life's growing pains, which can spread misinformation.

Below you will find five reasons why it's important for parents to discuss sex and sexuality an ongoing conversation from an early age with their children.

Young people should know how their bodies work.

While sex and sexuality includes many different aspects—mental, emotional, spiritual—many of us relate it to the physical. It's important for children to know what body parts they have and what those body parts do. Talking to young children about their vulvas, vaginas, and penises is a great start. As they get older, they should learn about the other body parts—such as the vas deferens, uterus, ovaries, and so on—as well as reproduction and sexual development. Teaching children the proper terminology is also important, as using coded language can often give the impression that these body parts are shameful.

Young people need to know they don’t have to be limited by gender roles and gender identity.

Parents help shape ideas around sexuality and gender roles. And though many have old school ideas about enforcing gender roles on their children, more and more people are realizing that gender identity is fluid and maintaining gender roles is restrictive. Having conversations about gender, while also explaining to children that they don’t have to limit themselves, can have positive impacts. Long gone are the days that girls could only wear pink and play with dolls, preparing her for domesticity and motherhood. And long gone are the days of putting boys in blue and telling them to “man up” when they are hurt.

In today's world, girls can be scientists, firefighters, and professional boxers. At the same time, boys can be master hairstylists, chefs, dancers, and nurses. Gender roles and expectations go beyond professions as well. Having discussions about gender can also help children understand family, sexual orientation, and relationships.

Young people need to be informed about healthy sexuality vs.  sexual violence and unhealthy relationships.

Discussing sexual abuse, molestation, sexual assault, and domestic violence can be difficult at all ages, especially in families where abuse has taken place, and no one ever talks about what happened. Molestation and child abuse cause generational and cyclical harm if they are not dealt with. The horrors of incest can turn a family upside down. The child or children affected deserve to be better protected to deal with emotional and physical pain.

It’s also important that parents discuss what healthy sexuality is. Having conversations about consent and mutual respect with children from a young age will instill in them that they have the right to decide what happens with their bodies. Parents can also fight rape culture and how society often objectifies women by having discussions about media programs that show these harmful depictions with their kids.

Parents should understand when and how to expose children to different aspects of sex at appropriate ages.

The adult entertainment industry nets millions in profits annually by indulging sexual appetites. And many people now use mobile phones to view porn. And we know that many children and adolescents are constantly on their phones these days, and parents may or may not be monitoring what they have access to. But it’s safe to assume that nothing in cyberspace goes unseen. Mental health professionals also note that premature (negative) exposure to sex can have adverse affects on individuals in later life. Girls and boys exposed to sex and sexual images too early often have a hard time setting boundaries required for healthy relationships.

Talking about sex and sexuality can improve communication and trust between parents and children in general.

To foster open communication, parents are encouraged to inform their children about sex and sexuality as questions arise. By having these conversations early and often, levels of trust will deepen and children will feel comfortable seeking their parents’ guidance as they get older and their understanding of sexuality becomes more nuanced.

For kids to grow up with positive images and ideas around sexual health, the information they receive has to be comprehensive and should focus on their overall health and wellbeing. Gauge your kid's readiness for “The Big Talk” by having lots of recurring, smaller, meaningful ones in the years leading up to it. Parents can set the pace and tone of conversations while being open to discussing things as they come up.

And remember, one of the best things parents can do is show positive examples of healthy sexuality themselves. By seeing parents be affectionate, respectful, considerate, and trusting of one another, children will learn that these are the characteristics they should share with their own romantic and sexual partners.

Feeling a little nervous about having "The Talk" with your kids. So are lots of other parents. Take the pressure off by watching this hilarious video from The Cut:

C. Imani Williams, is a freelance writer and human justice activist. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles, and a Masters in Guidance and Counseling from Eastern Michigan University. Her work has been published in Between the Lines, Tucson Weekly, The Michigan Citizen, Harlem Times and with various popular culture, health, news blogs and magazines.

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