Since we’re talking about sex (and the way we talk about sex) I thought it would be pretty silly to NOT include my incredible wife Jill in the conversation (for what should probably be obvious reasons). When I first started here at A Deeper Family, a fellow storyteller warned me that two of the hot-button issues were discipline and sex. Naturally, the two times we’ve worked together on projects we’ve covered…you guessed it…discipline and now sex. We’re edgy and cantankerous like that. It’s just how we roll. You can catch her writing here by the way, and I would highly recommend you do and no, I’m not biased at all.
We recently came to a conclusion: there was something very wrong with the way we were talking (or more appropriately, not talking) about sex with our kids.
I (Luke) was 12 (strike one) when my mom (strike two) first told me about sex using a cartoon book (strike three). I had learned more about sex from discarded magazines and those analog cable channels that we watched between the squiggly lines than I learned in that conversation, but God bless her, she soldiered through the awkwardness and marched on. But that embarrassment we both felt said something in itself: that sex was shameful, dirty, and not something we really talk about.
I (Jill) was 6 when a neighbor girl told me that sex was when someone “kisses you all over every part of your body and you make a baby.” As we walked down the street pulling the wagon with our dolls in it, trying to imagine how the baby gets from the inside to the outside of the mommy, I couldn’t wait to get home to ask my mom if it was true. My mom, however, was not nearly as interested as I was in having the conversation. “You’re not old enough to know about that,” she said. So from that moment, sex was a secret, something to be hidden, maybe even something to be feared.
And our experiences, we’ve found, are not unique. I mean, let’s be honest, positivity and openness about sex aren’t exactly common in the US period, and in the church?
Forget about it.
A lot (and I mean a lot) of us grew up with some pretty distorted and destructive views of sexuality, and like most parents, we’re just hoping that we can provide our kids something better than what we had.
So, now we have two boys (granted, they’re only not quite 4 and not quite 2) and we’re already wondering how and when we’re going to have to start talking about these sorts of things.
Are we jumping the gun here?
The eldest, paragon of self-confidence that he is, likes to be naked.
Like, a lot.
He’s quite the free spirit.
Now, we could shame him into keeping his clothes on all the time and have him halfway to a body image complex by the time he starts kindergarten, but the reality is, he’s just a kid and being naked really isn’t that big of a deal. The problem, however, is that a good number of his little friends are girls, so playdates with dress-up time and the inevitable wardrobe changes that come along with it, can turn into an impromptu anatomy lesson. Turns out, not everybody is as comfortable with our son being naked as we are.
So we have the conversation:
“E, you can’t get naked in front of your friends.”
“Uh…because we just get dressed by ourselves.”
“But you and daddy get dressed with each other.”
“Well that’s different, mommy and daddy are married.”
He looks up and to the left for a minute, meaning he’s accessing his (expansive) imagination, and I can’t help but wonder what he’s imagining. Is he thinking about how awesome it will be to have somebody he can just hang out naked with, or is he thinking about that cotton candy flavored popsicle in the fridge. Smart money says it’s the latter, but that doesn’t stop us from wondering how the groundwork that we’re laying now, as he’s navigating the waters of pre-schooler social dynamics, might translate to a healthy view of bodies, sex, masculinity, etc as he grows older.
Will bodies be secrets to be kept? Sex something to be feared? Masculinity something to be used as a weapon?
Or are we just paranoid? Is it just way too early to be asking these questions?
Here’s the conclusion we came to the other night in the kitchen while rehashing a spate of tragic stories about unhealthy views of sexuality culminating in Elizabeth Smart’s tragic commentary on purity culture, and how it affected her self-image during her ordeal:
Sex does not exist in a vacuum, and our voices are just two of many talking to them about it.
The lessons that distorted Elizabeth Smart’s view of sexuality and its relationship to her identity started at a very young age, when she began to internalize the shaming mechanisms inherent in purity culture. When a seemingly normal 13 year old kid in Iowa attempts to rape his mother and ends up murdering her because she took away his video game, it’s probably not an unfair assumption that there are some unhealthy and distorted views of sex and power in play.
Our kids are going to learn about sex. That much is certain. They are going to learn about it from a number of different sources with competing value systems. But which voices will they listen to the most? Which narrative about sex will they internalize, the one where sex is about power or image? Or will it be the one where sex is about love and beauty and connection? When the time comes that they are confronted with a view of sex and sexuality that runs counter to the values we’ve tried to pass on to them, will we have given them the tools to be able to set it aside? Will our voices be loudest?
Will our voices even be counted amongst those that they’re even willing to listen to?
The questions we’re grappling with, as our little exhibitionist becomes more aware of his body, are
- How do we lay the groundwork now for the development of a healthy sexual identity and sexual ethics later? and
- How do we create an environment where they know it is safe to come and ask us questions?
I mean sure, we’re not necessarily having a discussion about the mechanics of it all, but we can try to teach them about important concepts like respecting other peoples’ bodies, consent, self-respect, communication, gentleness, respect, and self-control, all of which inform a healthy sexual identity. We try to model what a loving relationship looks like and don’t really hide our affection for each other, and always strive to be affectionate to them in ways that make them feel both loved and safe (so when we ask E for a kiss and he says no, crushing as it is, we respect his feelings).
We also try to be pretty open about answering questions they might have. Sometimes that means we have to have the same conversation about boobies more than we’d like and in venues where we’d rather not be having the conversation (like the grocery store, or the church nursery drop-off line), but in the end, I suppose we’re hoping that if we power through the artificial awkwardness now, it’ll be easier to talk about this stuff later on after they’ve stop believing we’re the coolest thing since popsicles on a hot summer day.
So we’re stumbling along trying to figure this thing out as we go, but what we’re REALLY wondering is what about all of YOU? For those of you with younger kids, are you even addressing these sorts of things yet? If so, what are you doing? What works for your family and what doesn’t? Those of you with older kids, what worked and what didn’t? Can you see how the things you taught them when they were little translated to their tween-teen-twenty something views? What about those of you without kids or who aren’t married? How did what you were taught as a child inform the view of sexuality that you hold now? What did your parents/guardians/influencers do well and what could they have done differently?
It can be awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing, etc, we get it. But alas, you can always just comment pseudonymously! We won’t be upset if a dozen John and Jane Smith’s weigh in, we promise. But in any case, let’s try to push past the taboos about sex that we (especially we in the church) carry around, even if just for a day in this little corner of the internet, and have an honest conversation about the way we talk about sex in our families.