Did you have a birds-and-the-bees talk when you were a kid? Mine occurred in fourth grade the night before they showed the puberty video at school. My dad came up to my room, pulled out a legal pad, drew a very simple drawing of . . . Minnie Mouse . . . and then drew ovaries, a uterus, and fallopian tubes in Minnie’s triangle body. [I don’t know why my dad got this responsibility. Maybe he drew the short straw? I also can’t explain Minnie Mouse’s appearance.] He explained menstruation, asked if I had any questions, I said no, and then he left. Of course I had a million questions, but wasn’t about to admit it. There was no discussion of sex, although I knew there were some books I could grab off the bookshelves outside my room when a question arose.
Brent’s parents gave him a book to read that explained everything about sex except for the part about where the sperm and the egg come from and how they get together. (Hello, that seems like a pretty big oversight, doesn’t it?)
Our experiences are fairly ordinary, according to Regnerus, who suggests that many highly religious parents are very reluctant to talk to their kids about sex. Roman Catholic (25.2%), Jewish (20.0%), and Mormon (29.1%) parents reported that it is “somewhat” or “very hard” to talk to their kids about sex. The more frequently a family attends church, the less frequently they communicate to their kids about sex and birth control. Mormon parents are more likely (21.4%) than other religious parents to never talk to their kids about birth control. And when religious parents do talk to their kids about sex, the messages are normative rather than informative. So kids—religious ones at least—are not getting good information about sex from their parents.
They’re not getting it at school, either—at least in the U.S. Abstinence-only sex ed programs are the primary approach used in 35% of American public schools. An additional 50% teach “abstinence plus,” which means some contraceptive methods are discussed, but abstinence remains the focus. That leaves only 15% of schools who offer more comprehensive sex education.
They’re not getting it at church (although I’m not sure I’d want them to). In the Mormon church, they’re likely to be told that they shouldn’t be “necking” or “petting.” [I remember cringing every time I heard that word when I was a teenager and thinking “What on earth is petting?”] Boys are warned that they shouldn’t masturbate—ever.
The end result is that kids don’t really know anything about sex. This strikes me as strange. We have laws that dictate minimum ages for driving and for purchasing alcohol and cigarettes. Some cities have curfews for teen drivers. Some states prohibit cell phone use while driving. These laws are intended to protect kids from harm. I’m certainly not suggesting that we try to legislate teenagers’ sexuality, but the ignore-it-and-hope-it-goes-away approach doesn’t seem very wise, either.
So what do we do about it? Well, my husband is determined to do a better job with our kids than what we experienced. (And if my parents ever read this—which they won’t—don’t feel bad about Minnie Mouse. It’s such a great story!) Brent seems to have settled on an ask-and-ye-shall-receive approach: if they ask, he tells them. This approach failed him once (that I know of). He picked our girls up from school and took them to get ice cream. Kennedy (age 10) was in the front and little Marin (age 7) was in the back. Kennedy heard the term “prison rape” on NPR and said: “But wait. Usually prisons are just all men or all women, right? So how could there be rape if there’s only men or only women?” So he dove right into an explanation about prison rape. Then all of the sudden, he heard Marin pipe up with a muffled “Huh?” from the backseat. He had forgotten she was in the back seat. So while Kennedy’s first (of many) “sex talks” was very carefully orchestrated and nuanced, Marin’s introduction to sex was prison rape. Oops. Parental fail number I-stopped-counting-a-long-time-ago.
Not all of our conversations have gone so poorly. I don’t love those conversations and still cringe whenever these topics crop up (although not as much as I used to). Luckily for me, Brent is the go-to person in our family for body-related questions. Our girls have even gone to him with questions about menstruation. He answers their questions and then suggests that they ask me for details since he’s never experienced it. I have sometimes felt bad that they ask him questions that seem obviously more appropriate for me, but I’ve let that sliver of guilt go and am just glad that they are comfortable talking to him.
How do you handle these kinds of questions? Have you talked to your kids about sex? Was it a one-shot deal or is it a more organic process? If your kids are young, do you dread the birds-and-the-bees talk? Do you feel like your religious beliefs are helpful to you as you navigate this issue as a parent, or do you feel like they are a hindrance? Does adding god to the equation help kids make better sense of their emerging sexuality, or does it just muddy the waters? Lastly, does anyone have any good or awful sex-talk-stories they’re willing to share? Can anyone top Brent’s prison-rape debacle?
Featured Image cartoon found at Princess of Procrastination.