The year is 2012, and let’s face it, thanks to the virtues of technology and media, few kids are safe from discovering the complex, taboo adult world. How can they be, after all, when elementary school children tote around iPhones, reality television glamorizes rampant hooking up and casual encounters, movies with mere PG-13 ratings make sexually-explicit references, and an overwhelming majority of American adolescents and teenagers spend hours a day updating their Facebook statuses, tweeting on Twitter, and uploading pictures on Instagram?
As per human nature, we all have some natural inclination to explore and question the unknown, and most of us recognize this strong sense of curiosity in children. In fact, for the most part, we encourage the strengthening and expansion of their simple minds.
Yet, we still remain stubbornly ignorant when it comes to talking about sex. We remain ignorant despite believing children have more negative influences in the sexuality realm than ever before, despite the nearly 1/3 girls who become pregnant at least once by twenty, despite the 1/4 teenagers who contract a sexually transmitted disease, despite the explosion and quick accessibility of online pornography, despite the raunchy songs flooding our radio stations, and despite the saturation of hyper-sexualized media exposed to our children,
Just like most issues and controversies in psychology, the answer is not a simple, black-and-white matter. Instead, there are several reasons.
-Perception that children are not old enough to learn about sex: In one study, (Wilson, E. K., Dalberth, B. T., Koo, H. P., & Gard, J. C., 2010) the majority of participants (parents with children aged 10-12) agreed that while it was important that children learn about sex, they felt theirs were too young. A few stated they didn’t want to discuss sex until “their child brought it up,” somehow believing that they were blissfully unaware of the issue.
-Uncertainty or lack of information: Most parents understand the basics of sex and realize how careless teenagers can be once they start having it. Still, parents often fear they may not have all the answers or that their child will challenge them with an obscure question or remark. For instance, although a mother may stress the importance of using protection, she mights squirm if her daughter asks to see a doctor for a birth control pill prescription. Likewise, parents often feel uncertain about their own personal stance on the “rights and wrongs” of sex. For example, it is very easy to say, don’t have sex. But when a child prods further and asks when the right time might be, parents fear they may not know how to specifically responsible.
-Perception that their child won’t listen or won’t care: The stereotype of the distant, moody, hormone-laden teenager who fails to act receptively comes to mind on this one. Parents may fear that their children will process information by taking it in one ear and out the other when discussing sex, and some believe their children will perceive them as either out of touch or unable to understand. They may believe it is too late, and that if they do express concern or try to talk, their children may just neglect or completely ignore their advice.
-Denial: This is a very popular coping mechanism and a frequent parenting strategy when raising children. Many like to believe believe their child is superior to the rebellion norm, and when suspecting sexual activity or drug and alcohol use, they often resort to turning the other cheek, rather than believing their child is engaging in disappointing behavior. For this reason, parents may avoid talking about sex, simply because they believe their children are smart and savvy enough to handle the matter on their own.
-Discomfort: Although we live in a society that practically brainwashes us with images, music, and media centered on sex, we still find it exceedingly difficult to talk about it in a way that doesn’t make us or our listeners cringe. Likewise, we often struggle with the idea of our children growing up so quickly. How many times have we lamented that it was only yesterday, I was dropping her off for her first day of kindergarten or it was only yesterday, he was playing with his Hot Wheels. Suddenly, awkward adolescent children morph into growing teenagers, and we realize that sex must be on their minds. However, if we still perceive them as young, immature, or naive to the real world, we feel uncomfortable talking to them about such a private, “adult” issue.
Personal beliefs: Religion, ethnicity, or background all play a role in discussing sexual behavior. Many times, parents avoid discussing sex, because they believe if they talk about it, they are condoning the act. Moreover, they may believe that discussing it is inappropriate or goes against their moral beliefs.
Fear: Or, if I talk to my kid about the birds and the bees, they’re gonna go out and DO IT! This one is classic, due to its hypocritical nature. We tend to enjoy teaching our children life lessons and expressing what not to do, but once it comes to sex, we feel terrified. terrified. We think that just talking about sex, we are essentially planting the notion into their minds.
So, casting all these fears and boundaries aside, why should parents tough it out and talk about sex?
For one, despite parents thinking their child is too young, innocent, or naive, sexuality is already planted in their minds. Instead of pointing fingers at parents, we can thank the child’s peers, favorite television shows and books, pornography, music and the Internet for that.
Furthermore, studies indicate that when parents talk about sex, both they and their children benefit. The maintenance of an ongoing, “open-door” dialogue policy encourages increased communication and comfort. Children report feeling more at ease in confiding with their parents about their questions, fears, and experiences, and parents feel more connected and assured in their child’s decisions.
Children who interact with their parents about sex tend to wait longer to lose their virginity, and if and when they do engage in sexual activity, are more likely to use protection and avoid unwanted pregnancies and transmitted diseases. Moreover, compared to children who never discussed it with their parents, children who do talk about sex with their families are less likely to regret their first experiences.
It is primal human instinct to desire feeling understood by others. When teenagers no longer feeling judged or afraid of how their parents might react to discussing sex, they will feel more comfortable and confident when the time to start making big decisions arises.
Wilson, E. K., Dalberth, B. T., Koo, H. P., & Gard, J. C. (2010). Parents’ perspectives on talking to preteenage children about sex. Perspectives On Sexual And Reproductive Health, 42(1), 56-63. doi:10.1363/4205610