It's Okay to Be Honest With Kids
Saying "sex" around kids won't ruin them.
This week, a woman in Beverton, Oregon got upset when her children heard Color Me Badd’s 1991 hit, “I Want To Sex You Up” at a McDonalds play place. The woman was reportedly outraged when her 6-year-old daughter heard the lyrics and asked what “sex you up” means.
The owner of the McDonalds reports that he is investigating the claim. And the comments (besides the ones that deride the mother for taking her kids to a fast-food chain) are overwhelmingly positive. People, on the whole, seem to agree that kids shouldn’t know what sex is, not through music, not through popular culture. Nothing.
I frequently play pop radio for my children and my own playlist of music—some rap, some pop, lots of folk, that’s how we roll. Lately my toddler has been asking me what each song is about. “Dancing,” I tell her. Or love. Or dancing and love. Sometimes I have to tell her drinking. I am honest, open, I give few details and let her take the lead. The other day, she heard the word “sex” in a song. “What’s that?” She asked.
“It’s how people make babies,” I said.
She nodded and moved on. The topic hasn’t been brought up since.
I was raised in a bubble. My parents homeschooled us and we didn’t watch much TV beyond PBS. My mom often flipped over magazines in the grocery store check out so we wouldn’t see scantily-clad women or coverage of the Gulf War. I had no idea what a prostitute was until the eighth grade. I didn’t know what a lesbian was until 10th grade. Do you know what? It didn’t help. It didn’t protect us or make us safe. In fact, later, when a family member was abused by someone, it made things worse because she felt she couldn’t talk about anything. She still doesn’t.
Some parents are of the mindset that children get the sex talk once sometime between the fourth and sixth grade. Before that, children exist in a bubble where sex doesn’t happen. I don’t think it should work that way. Sex is a normal healthy part of life. It’s how we made our kids in the first place. So, why do we walk around and pretend like it doesn’t exist?
The sex talk isn’t one talk. It’s a series of conversations we have with our children over the course of their lives starting from the very moment they learn to point out their private parts. Teaching your children the correct name for the penis and vagina reduces their vulnerability to predators. And teaching your children about sex in a healthy and honest manner, teaches them that sex is normal. It is part of life and nothing to be ashamed about. Freaking out in a McDonald’s? That teaches them that sex is a blend of fear and shame and that is how misinformation spreads.
Recently, in the Pacific Standard, Alice Dreger wrote about talking to her son about sex and untangling the confusion he had from the coded language about sex in sex-ed at school. He thought HIV was hereditary and that pregnancy happens by accident. In each case, Dreger set her son straight with an admirable mix of honesty, kindness, and forthrightness that I hope I can emulate as my children grow older. But the contrast in Dreger’s parenting and the parenting of the woman at McDonald’s is evocative of our society’s confusing push and pull with the issue of sex. We use sex to make children and then tell our children it doesn’t exist. No wonder we’re all screwed up about it.
I support the right of parents to raise their children however they want. But it is absurd to think the rest of the world can sanitize itself to keep you and your children from learning about, well, life. Starting these conversations now, when our kids are little doesn’t “ruin their innocence,” on the contrary, it helps the stay innocent by teaching them healthy attitudes, boundaries and reducing their vulnerability.
We started our sex talk with our daughter at 2—teaching her that her vagina is hers alone and no one can touch it but her. We also tell her that she doesn’t have to hug or kiss anyone she doesn’t want to and that people don’t have to hug and kiss her in return. When she asked how her brother came out of my body, I told her, “Through the birth canal in my vagina.”
Do you know how she responded? She didn’t. She didn’t care. She just went on building blocks. Kids take our cues from us. And for me, if my daughter hears a song about sex on the radio and wants to know what it’s about, I will tell her and hope that this sets the tone for honest, sex-positive dialogue down the road, instead of one of shame and fear.
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