This originally appeared on Alternet.org. Republished here with permission.
Don’t wait for the perfect moment. There is no perfect moment.
Why should you take advice from me? It’s a reasonable question given that I lack any visible credentials, like initials after my name. So, here’s my calling card: I have three kids, 15, 18 and 20, and none of them has gotten pregnant, impregnated anyone, or gotten an STD (at least, as far as I know.). And they talk to me about lots of things, including sex. Sometimes too much. Not so long ago, my son went into some detail about how he was going to deflower his girlfriend, and what kind of condom he would use. I did not need to hear that. He did so in front of my (relatively new) boyfriend, who was fairly dumbfounded, and I suspect, did not need to hear it either.
But it was fine. Generally speaking, TMI is best when it comes to things like your kids and sex. Agree? Also, I think my fellow parents will agree that humor is essential to this whole enterprise, otherwise suicidal or homicidal thoughts can take hold.
I don’t want to brag or anything, but other parents have expressed some envy about how open my kids are with me.
The first time my son played spin-the-bottle he came home and told me about it, and none of the other kids told their parents. It was traumatic for him, and I got to talk him through it. And I know how far my 15-year-old has gone. I also know that “hooking up” means different things depending on the age of the person saying it. Different at 12, 15, and 20. Trust me.
OK, I do want to brag.
If you want to achieve the same kind of open and occasionally cringe-inducing dialogue I have with my spawn, here are my tips for how to talk to your kids about sex.
It’s not just one big talk, it’s an ongoing series of conversations. Don’t wait for the perfect moment. There is no perfect moment. Also, it’s too big of a topic to cover in one conversation. Too much pressure on everyone. Normalize it. Bring it up. Take any and all questions, frequently.
2. Way before they—or you—are ready.
Don’t wait too long. They’re already talking to their friends, and getting some weird combo of information and misinformation. Don’t dread it. Don’t make it an “it.” Even if they put their hands over their ears the first couple of times you bring up the topic of sex, believe me—they’re interested and they are listening.
3. Before they ask questions.
Often kids don’t even know what they want to ask, so don’t wait for them to formulate a question. In fact, ask them questions. Here’s a good one: So, what are your friends saying about sex these days?
Use accurate names for body parts, even and perhaps especially, when your kids are little. Try not to indulge in overly cutesy names. Nothing wrong with vaginas, penises, clitorises, vulvas, labia, and testicles. If you do not know the names of things, learn them. I am always amazed at the number of grown women who seem to think their entire pelvic region is called a vagina. And for Pete’s sake, make sure that everyone knows about the clitoris. I spent years being confused about where mine was. I may be a slow learner, but hey, your kid may be too. All this anatomy info should be unisex. Girls need to know what boys have. Boys need to know what girls have. And did I mention the clitoris?
5. Matter of factly.
You want your kid to come to you for information, right? That’s why you’ve got to be calm and informative, and admit when you don’t know the answer. “Let’s look it up,” you can say.
6. Not about your sex life.
If you must trot out examples, better to use ones from your youth, judiciously, of course. And while we’re on the subject of your youth, know that, if you are a mom, at some point your daughter will ask when you lost your virginity. (Or your v-card, as one daughter put it.) Be ready for that. If they’re clever they will know if you’re lying, and they’ll ask you repeatedly, until in some weak, unguarded moment, you’ll blurt out the truth, then make them swear up and down not to tell their other siblings.
7. About pornography.
Your kids are viewing pornography, possibly right now, and way before you want them to. Obviously, some of these images can be pretty alarming and upsetting. It’s a big topic, but let your kids know that pornography is generally not a realistic depiction of sex. You can get more into details as they come up, like explaining that most penises are not 12 inches long and the circumference of a coffee mug.
8. About pleasure.
I’m assuming that you, and hopefully, if you are in a state that allows sex-ed, your child’s school, will cover the usual ground of “sex is risky, potentially pregnancy-inducing, and a good way to get diseases.” Of course, someone needs to talk about safe sex, barrier methods, and birth control and the like. And, as I said before, not just once, but multiple times. But what often gets left out of the discussion is really the biggest point of all—that most people have sex for pleasure, most of the time. Here’s a lovely essay on talking about pleasure and the whole topic of talking to your kids about sex.
Telling our kids that sex is mostly for pleasure gives them a greater sense of agency. I’m revealing my bias here. I’m especially talking about girls (my girls and your girls) and how important it is to empower them to communicate with their partners about what pleases them. And how that is the sexiest thing of all.
Janet Allon writes for Alternet.