October is Let’s Talk month, a month all about encouraging communication between teens and their parents, guardians, and other important adults in their lives. There’s an old adage in sex education that “sex ed starts at home.”
Even before kids are born, adults make choices — whether they realize it or not — that dictate what and how kids learn about the world around them with regards to sex and sexuality. From what to call body parts to what relationships look like to how to treat others, parents, guardians, and other significant adults set the stage for what is normal and okay for young people.
As young people grow up, they are learning constantly. We often think about it as something that happens in schools, but we learn simply by being alive in the world: when we watch things on TV, scroll social media, read, talk with friends, observe something new. We are constantly surrounded by opportunities to learn. And that extends to sex and sexuality. Young people — and adults, too — are always taking in information that helps shape who we are, how we behave, what we value.
So what can you do as a parent, guardian, caregiver, or other important adult in a young person’s life? While you can lay a strong foundation, young people will continue to be influenced by external messages about their bodies, their gender, pleasure, consent, relationships.
That’s why it’s crucial to be active and intentional in talking to young people about sex and sexuality. It may feel overwhelming. That’s okay! Take a deep breath. We’re here to help.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you venture forward:
The concept of “the talk” is a myth.
You know the scene from the movies where the parent takes the kid aside and has a painfully awkward chat about “the birds and the bees?” Words are usually mumbled or inaccurate, the adult essentially stumbles through some sort of abstract explanation of how sex works, pats the kid on the back, and that’s that. Done! How much do you think that kid actually learned?
No one could learn everything they need to know about any topic from a single conversation, let alone topics as vast and complex as sex and sexuality. Instead of thinking about having “the talk,” start thinking about having the talks. Plural.
Talking about sex and sexuality can and should be a set of ongoing conversations that last throughout young peoples’ lives. Maybe this week you talk about what puberty is like. Next week the topic could be bodily autonomy and consent. And then maybe pleasure and masturbation.
Whatever the topics, just keep talking! The more conversations you have, the more trust you will build and the more likely they’ll be to come to you again and again for information and support.
There are TONS of opportunities to start conversations about sex and sexuality.
That song with the explicit lyrics you just heard on Spotify? That sex scene in the movie you just watched? That article you just read on threats to abortion rights? All opportunities to start a conversation about sex and sexuality.
Take notice of what young people are watching, listening to, and reading. If you haven’t already, check out that media. What messages do you hear about sex? About gender? Relationships? What messages do you think young people are hearing? And keep in mind, you may be taking away something entirely different from the same piece of media.
Need help getting started? Planned Parenthood created this guide to get going--it even includes specific questions you can ask to get the conversation started.
Be open, direct, and honest.
Finding opportunities to talk is all well and good, but what do you actually say once you start chatting? Whether you’re sitting down with a young person to have a conversation about a specific topic, or they’ve come to you with a question, it’s incredibly important to share accurate information.
Be direct and avoid mincing words or using colloquialisms to demonstrate to the young people in your life that you don’t shy away from sexuality-related topics. If you’re unsure about how much information is too much, resources like Planned Parenthood’s site for parents, this website, and this article give a breakdown of what sort of information is developmentally appropriate for kids of varying ages.
Being honest when you don’t know the answer to a question, or you don’t have all the information on a specific topic, is also important. It’s okay not to know everything -- no one does! In fact, when you don’t know something, it’s a great opportunity to learn along with the young person. You can look it up together using a reputable source.
An important note: There is an enormous amount of high-quality information about sex and sexuality available online. There’s also a lot of biased, inaccurate, and harmful information out there. It’s absolutely imperative to be critical of the sources of information you and the young people in your life use. The process of finding good information can even become part of the conversation--how do YOU know a source is reliable? What do you look for on a website to feel confident in the content?
Again, this isn’t one Big Talk. It’s a series of conversations that continue throughout our lives. There is never a shortage of opportunities to start another conversation, to reinforce something you’ve talked about before, or even to learn from young people.
Younger generations are forging new paths in identity, relationships, communication — they have plenty to teach adults. Listen to what they have to say! Their wisdom and insight can be truly incredible.
Especially if you haven’t had a lot of intentional conversations like this, getting started can feel overwhelming and sometimes awkward. In addition to the ones linked above, we’ve compiled lots of resources to help you get started and keep talking:
Tips on starting and continuing the conversation:
- Tips for Talking from Planned Parenthood
- Tips for Talking about Sexual Health from TeachingSexualHealth.ca
Quality sources of information:
- Planned Parenthood’s website
- Informational videos on just about every sexuality-related topic there is from Amaze.org
- Information about puberty and development, sexual health issues, and birth control from KidsHealth by Nemours (for Parents)
- Sex education by teens, for teens from Sex, Etc.
- Sex ed for the real world from Scarleteen
- Ask our Chatbot Roo - a resource for teens with questions about bodies, sex, and relationships from Planned Parenthood
Find out what’s happening in school:
- Policies differ by state regarding what content should be included in school-based sex ed, but the curricula and other educational materials that are used are usually dictated by the school board. Contact your local school board directly to find out what young people are learning in class, and advocate for more and better quality sex ed in your kids’ schools.
We hope you’ll take the opportunity during Let’s Talk month to connect with the young people in your life and show them they really can come to you about anything — today, tomorrow, and beyond.