Dear Dr. Jenni,
I just had twin boys. I read your column every week, so I thought I’d ask a question about my sons. It seems like many of the questions are from people who are semi-clueless or struggle with sexuality. I want to prevent this from happening to my sons. What would you suggest I do to raise them in the healthiest way possible in regards to sexuality?
—Raising Healthy Sons
This is such an excellent question, I’m going to devote the whole column to it. When it comes to teaching and talking to your kids about sex, I suggest asking yourself as a parent three important questions. First question: “How do I want my child to feel about themselves as a sexual person?” When answering, try to remember what it was like for you as a child and adolescent navigating the world of dating, sex and intimacy. Did you experience confusion, shame or guilt when exploring your sexual identity? How did you feel about your gender? Your sexual orientation? Your body? When it came to masturbation, did you feel good or guilty? At puberty, did you understand the changes that were happening to you? When you had sex for the first time, did you know what you were doing? Was it fun, scary, pleasurable, unexpected? Basically, did you feel good, healthy and empowered as a sexual person? How can you pass this on to your child? And if this wasn’t your experience, what can you do differently?
Second question: “How do I want my child to feel about sexuality in general?” When answering, consider where you received your sex education, if you got any at all. What types of messages were passed on to you? Positive, negative or neutral messages? If nothing was said at all, how did you interpret the silence? Most importantly, do you want the same for your child?
You may need to first ask yourself, “How do I feel about sexuality?” If it’s a place of fear or confusion, then you may want to work to change that perspective. If it’s a place of pleasure and happiness, what tools did you acquire on the way to frame your thinking?
Third question: “What do I want my child to know?” Answering this requires you to reflect on your value system. What do you want to tell your child and when? Do you want to encourage abstinence until marriage? Do you want to impart comprehensive sex education to discuss prevention of STDs and pregnancy? Do you want your child to know that sex is a place of intimacy and pleasure?
From a professional perspective, I encourage all parents to teach their kids proper anatomy at a young age at the very least. The more a child is informed, the lower the risk of childhood sexual abuse. Perpetrators are looking to groom easy targets — children who will keep the secret from their parents. Think of the child who can properly name their anatomy, including shoulder and elbow, as well as vulva, penis and testicles. The dialogue between child and parent is open and obvious, such that this child is not a good candidate to keep secrets from the parent. Imparting knowledge is basically an insurance policy to help protect against perpetrators.
In sum, whatever you do decide to tell your children based on your value system, ensure it comes from your mouth. Ideally, as a parent you are the primary source of sex education for your child. Children are little detectives. If you don’t tell them, they will certainly find the info elsewhere — such as the Internet!
Send questions for Jenni Skyler, Ph.D., to firstname.lastname@example.org. Skyler is a sex therapist and board-certified sexologist who runs The Intimacy Institute in Boulder, www.theintimacyinstitute.org.