Talking with our children about sexuality means that we as parents must first think about what we want to say! We don’t need a course in physiology or intensive psychotherapy (though it can be helpful.) But we do need to be able to communicate our concerns, our values and whatever part of our own sexual history we are comfortable sharing. It is one thing to hand kids a book about sex and quite another to sit with them and listen to their concerns. We need to let them know that we are sexual beings as well (or else how did they get there?)
This conundrum was brought home to me when a single mother came into my office with her teenage daughter of 14 whose older sister was sexually active and had a baby, father unknown, at 16. The mother was concerned that this young girl would follow the same path as her older sister. The girl herself seemed quite innocent about sexual matters and said she thought sex sounded disgusting but her comments did nothing to assure me that she would not follow the path of her sister. When I spoke with the mother I said that it would be helpful to clarify her own values and communicate them to her daughter. The mother looked absolutely horrified and left the office. I never saw them again. My intuition, which may or may not have been correct, was that the mother’s own sexual history had been quite turbulent and that she felt a sense of shame that she wasn’t about to share with her daughter.
But if we want our children to manage sexuality in ways that are positive and not destructive to themselves or someone else, we need to clarify our values. Do we preach abstinence? Do we advocate committed relationships? Are we okay with casual sex? We have years of experience that we can share but if our past is shrouded in shame we will not be able to communicate effectively with our children. If we think about it that’s what parents do—share their lifelong learning to help their kids make good decisions.
I’m not saying it’s easy. It is such a fine line to walk—how much to share and how much to whitewash. It‘s a balance between giving them TMI or hearing them say “EEEEWWWW!” and providing valuable lessons based on our own experience. When our four sons were growing up Bob did the lion’s share of the sex education. He found books that were very helpful and they sat together reading them or looking at pictures. I am sure there are many more such books available now. I found that I really couldn’t be the parent to provide that for my boys. If we had had daughters I am sure I would have given it a try but it would have been tough. I was raised in a home where sex was never talked about. It was just a one-word lecture: DON’T!
I find it fascinating and disturbing that in the culture of today, at least in the US, many people are still not comfortable talking about sex. Sexuality is in our face in many, many forms but we still can’t talk about it a rational and respectful manner. If we attempt to bring it into public forums such as schools or faith-based groups, the debate about what to present becomes so heated that we lose focus on the topic. Our collective shame wins the day. But if we are to manage sexuality as individuals and as a society we must bring the topic into mindful discourse. If we are to address its harmful effects in the form of sexual assaults on campus or soul-sucking addictions to porn we must allow the topic to enter conscious rational thought. We need to integrate our values with our actions so that sexuality can be the joyful and fulfilling activity it is meant to be.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.