As a sex educator, I’m used to being the odd person out. Unless hanging out with colleagues, I’m usually the only person in a group who will speak frankly about sexuality issues. As a grad student, I’d get annoyed when peers spread misinformation and I’d freely offer corrections. Luckily, I found an outlet working as a health educator and got paid for my advice and opinion. I recall providing workshops for foster parents struggling to handle sexual issues with the children placed with them. I emphasized the PLISSIT model, developed by Jack Anon and widely endorsed by sexuality education groups. This is based on a belief that most sexual problems can be dealt with by giving someone permission to be sexual (that’s the P) and limited information about how their bodies work (there’s the LI). A very small minority of people need specific suggestions (SS…) and fewer yet need intensive therapy. I encouraged these parents to give their kids permission to be sexual and the information they needed to understand their bodies. These parents needed the P and LI as well; like any other aspect of parenting, we don’t suddenly know how because we gave birth.
And then I became a Mom. In retrospect, I realize that I practiced what I preached. I still giggle at the memory of my son, barely age three, demonstrating that he was integrating a conversation we’d had about male and female bodies. We were visiting my father and step-mother, rather staid people with plastic slip covers on brocade couches, when my son stared first my dad, then at his wife and looked at me to exclaim ” Grandma — gina, Grandpa penis, yes?” O yes, I replied, that’s right! Boys and men have a penis and girls and women a vagina! The only thing that matched my pleasure at his insight was the intensity of my step-mothers agitation….. “Where did he learn to talk like that?!” she sputtered, red faced and upset. I never did find an explanation that she found acceptable. I know that I gave my son permission to ask whatever he wanted and limited information appropriate to his age.
Later, as he reached the “Mom we need a ride” phase, I was privy to all sorts of conversations observed from my rear-view mirror. Jokes about girls were gently squashed. Misinformation about erections was corrected. My intervention was limited to kids whose parents I knew; otherwise misinformation was corrected in private as soon as we got home.
I recently learned that my son and his friends freely helped themselves to the college level sexuality text books I kept in my office. I knew only to leave books accessible that I was OK with him seeing, and it worked. A boy will reach an age when his Mom is the last person with whom he wants to discuss sexual arousal, and he needs to know where to go to get his questions answered.
Any parent can prepare themselves to be the primary sexuality educator for their children. We’ve known for years that parent-child communication about sex helps kids make better decisions about sexual activity and promotes their sexual health. Now that so many sex abuse prevention programs focus on stranger danger without mentioning sex, parent child communication about sex is critical to sexual safety as well! I feel so strongly about this that I wrote The Sex-Wise Parent to help every parent do just that; talking about sex with our kids is not easy for so many of use, but you don’t need to be a professional sex educator to do it well; just an informed and loving parent.