The Talk: or, how a grade-school gossip chain can ruin all your plans
Greetings, Grounded Parents! My name is Ginny Brown, and while I’m not a parent yet, I’ve been working with children and families for my entire life: from being a big sister/lieutenant Mom, to being a full-time live-in nanny in a few different families, to teaching parent/child classes and assisting in a Montessori school. Like many of us, I grew up in a conservative religious family and for many years my ideas about how families should work were inextricably tied up with my Christian values. Say what you will about the Christian church (and I’ll join you!) it often does a great job of valuing and supporting families. Since deconverting, I have developed a passion for providing the same level of support, affirmation, and guidance to secular families that I grew up expecting from my church.
My particular field is sexuality education. The field of sexuality is much wider than just sex acts, encompassing things like body image, gender role and identity, and trust and intimacy in relationships. As such, it impacts us for our entire lives, from birth through old age. I’m here to provide tips, stories, and evidence-based advice on how to help your child develop a healthy self-image and set the foundation for fulfilling adult relationships, from infancy through the teen years.
As part of my introduction, here’s a story from my own childhood. While I had to do some remedial self-education to make up for my parents’ abstinence-only approach, they were very good about many aspects of sexuality education, especially when we were young. When I was around 6 or 7, my mother conscientiously prepared to explain the basics of sex to me. I’m sure she was nervous, especially since I was her firstborn. Like many parents, she relied on a book for help — in this case, a Christian classic called The Wonderful Way Babies Are Made.
My mom sat me down on her lap and began reading with me, no doubt planning to answer any questions I had as we went through it. (For parents who are anxious about initiating The Talk with their kids, this is a good approach, although obviously I’d recommend a different book for secular parents. Having a book gives you the words to say, and if you read regularly with your children, it can help the whole conversation feel more familiar and less intimidating. Reading together opens up the conversation between you and your child, making it easier for them to come to you with questions both now and in the future.)
What my mother didn’t know was that my cousin Carrie, two years older, had spilled the beans to me earlier that year, in much more blunt and unadorned terms. I can still hear the exact intonation of her voice as she said, with triumph in communicating something shocking to her naïve little cousin, “The boy puts his penis in the girl’s vagina hole.” At first I didn’t believe anyone would do anything so ridiculous, but somehow she convinced me it was true, and then swore me to secrecy. It’s the secrecy part that really stuck with me: I realized I’d been a recipient of a prime bit of gossip, and like most “secrets” at that age it wasn’t really meant to be kept, but to be carefully spread around as an indicator of social clout. You whispered something to your friend, and if they didn’t know it already you gained a little bit of status. I tried spreading around this arcane tidbit about penises and vaginas, but it turned out most of my friends knew it already, which was disappointing — it meant I was behind the curve, and in fact looked a little silly for thinking it was news.
Somewhere in the complicated social dynamics of secret-spreading, I thoroughly internalized the idea that this was something only kids knew. I don’t know how that worked in my brain: Carrie had explained that the process was connected to childbearing, and my parents had two children, but my young mind didn’t make that connection. Maybe I associated it with the cool, edgy older kids I both admired and was intimidated by, and who were worlds different from my comfortable, normal parents. For whatever reason, if you’d asked me, I would have been confident that this secret, however far it had spread among my peers, definitely hadn’t reached my parents.
So I was on my mom’s lap, reading this nicely-illustrated little book about families, when suddenly it came to a page that explained intercourse, and I burst out crying. My poor mother, wanting so much to start her first child out right on the path of understanding sexuality, must have panicked a little (although she gave no sign of it at the time): even in the gentlest and most positive words, something about the dynamic of sex was traumatizing to her little girl! But what was upsetting me was much more simple: my mom was finding out this big kid-world secret! In the first confusion of reading the book I actually thought that she must be finding out for the first time that penises sometimes go into vaginas. Through my tears I stammered out, “I didn’t want you to know!”
She talked me through it and figured out, generally at least, what had happened, and helped correct any misunderstandings I’d picked up from Carrie’s account. I can only imagine what was going through her mind in the meantime: I’m sure it was a scary parenting moment, however funny it might have been in the aftermath. Which brings me to the moral of the story. For parents today, there’s so much anxiety about sexuality in children, about the dangers of sexual abuse, about the possibility of forever warping your child’s ability to have healthy, happy relationships in the future. And good sexuality education is important (clearly I think so!) and abuse prevention is important. But children are often both more knowledgeable and more innocent than we expect them to be. When a moment occurs that makes a parent think, “Sex education is traumatizing to my child!” or “My eleven-year old might be having sex!” it’s a good idea to stop, breathe, and make sure you understand what’s really going on before jumping to the worst conclusions.
We can’t always control the timing of when our kids learn important things, about sex or anything else. It’s more important to be an open, accessible listener than to pick the Exact Right Time to talk about something. Talking with our children about their bodies, about gender, about healthy relationships and personal boundaries, is something that can and should happen over and over throughout their development, the conversation growing alongside them. If it goes horribly (or hilariously!) wrong one time, there is time to get it straightened out later. I’m hoping my writing here will empower parents to be their child’s first and best sexuality educator.
Featured image by ap.
I didn’t mind teaching my kids about what sex is. We read “Mummy laid an egg” early and often, we explained to them why touching your clitoris is both fun and good and healthy but at the same time something you don’t do during lunch in preschool. And while we don’t have sex in front of them, of course, things like condoms and some toys are in the open and they can ask questions if they want to.
What I DID mind was having to talk to my daughter about sexual harassment at the age of six, because some older boys in grade school thought it was the height of fun to tell her she had to sleep with them. 🙁