My wife Maile and I looked at each other. She laughed nervously.
“Is now a good time?” I asked.
“As good a time as ever,” she said.
“You look a little anxious,” I said, smiling. She laughed again. I walked to the stairs and called down to our older two children: our ten-year-old son Cade and eight-year-old daughter Lucy.
“Come up here for a minute!”
Maile and I had felt for quite some time that we needed to begin introducing conversations about sexuality into our family. But having both grown up in homes where it was rarely talked about, we had a lot of questions. How would we bring it up? How would our children respond to it? How would we handle their feelings of squirming discomfort?
We were about to find out.
* * * * *
When I started reading Bruce Feiler’s “The Secrets of Happy Families,” one of the areas I was most intrigued by was how happy families talk about sex and sexuality. I knew the model I had grown up with (of basically not talking about it) wouldn’t serve my children well in today’s culture.
Feiler immediately reinforced my suspicions.
“… consider that in Europe, where research shows sex is more openly discussed within families, teenagers engage in intercourse an average of two years later, and the rate of teen pregnancy is eight times lower.”
In other words, it’s not good enough to simply have “the talk” anymore. As parents, it’s our responsibility to create an open environment where our children feel comfortable coming to us with their questions and experiences.
* * * * *
“We’ve got a few books we’d like to read with you guys,” I said to our kids. “The books talk about boys and girls, their bodies and how babies are made. Sound interesting?”
They both nodded. The four of us hopped into Maile and I’s bed and I reached for the books. The kids laughed—the four of us barely fit in the bed anymore. But I could tell they enjoyed being close and were intrigued by the books we had chosen.
It was a great moment in the life of our family, and it reminded me that I need to take more time to just be close to my kids and talk with them about things they don’t understand.
It turns out that having a warm, loving relationship with your children is another thing that makes a difference in their sexual journeys. Feiler writes:
“In addition, how warm parents are to their children, and how attached those children feel to their parents, all delay the onset of sex.”
And then there is this:
“Also, the more supportive mothers are of their daughters, the later they have sex. The same is true for sons.”
“The landmark Add Health study of ninety thousand adolescents showed that girls who have a close relationship with their fathers were more likely to delay sexual activity.”
The facts all point towards healthy parent-child relationships as a key to children having a healthy view of sex and sexuality.
* * * * *
Feiler leaves us with three lessons when it comes to communicating with our children about sexuality:
Lesson #1: It’s never too early to start talking
Use proper names for your child’s body parts from an early age so that those words don’t begin to feel taboo or inappropriate. Don’t laugh when your kids ask questions, even if the questions are cute or way off base. And, for the younger ones, keep it brief—you don’t have to go into the details of intercourse with your four-year-old.
Lesson #2 – It’s easier to talk with a nine-year-old than a thirteen-year-old.
Start talking about sex when your children are young enough and you’ll find that it becomes a normal part of life, but if you wait until they’re older, other barriers to transparency might start to present themselves: for example, a teen’s discomfort or embarrassment with his or her changing body, or a strained parent-child relationship.
Lesson #3 – A little bit goes a long way.
If you don’t want to make a big production of the first talk, start by asking or answering a few simple questions about their bodies or about nature. Take the conversation as far as you want, and allow their natural curiosity to steer it. Don’t force the issue, but make it clear that the topic is always up for discussion.
* * * * *
A few weeks later, my daughter read a different book on her own, one about how to take care of her body and the changes she can expect to see in the coming years. Bolstered by our new commitment to create meaningful conversations on the topic, my wife sat down with her and asked her what she thought of the book.
A few simple questions led to my daughter opening up about a lot of things: her concerns about menstruation, her confusion about anorexia and bulimia, and her eagerness to grow up.
Topics that seemed scary and taboo were no longer off-limits; my daughter’s questions bolstered my wife’s courage. Now I catch them having little exchanges every few days about the differences between women and girls, and what my daughter has to look forward to as she grows up. It reinforced for me the truth behind the title of Part Two of Feiler’s book:
Talk, a lot.
*pleas note: We know this can be a sensitive topic for families, and we encourage you to preview these resources carefully to decide if they are a good fit for you.
My Body is Private by Linda Walvoord Girard and Rodney Pate
The Story of Me (God's Design for Sex series, book 1) (We like all the books in this series) by Brenna Jones, Stan Jones and Joel Spector
The Care and Keeping of You (from the American Girl series) by Valorie Shaefer and Josee Masse
Where Did I Come From? (dvd) by Howie Mandel
On Mondays in August we're discussing The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More by Bruce Feiler. Join us next week as writer Seth Haines finishes up our discussion. In September we'll be reading Matt Appling's Life After Art. Hope you will join us for that one! If you are reading along this month, join the discussion in the comments or drop you link there if you blog your thoughts. See you next week to talk about more secrets!
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