OK, there is no actual recipe and it’s certainly not always “easy”, but here are some good principles to think about, grow into, and integrate into everyday family life.
Assess your values and understand where you own beliefs and attitudes about sex, gender, anatomy, and relationships come from. This is a step that does not happen only once, it’s a constant scan.
If we skip this step, it means we might not become aware of why we feel uncomfortable or dismissive during some important conversations or we might present certain topics from a narrow or judgmental point of view. Taking the time to get curious about our own assumptions creates space to inform and support our children with an open mind.
Talking to our kids about gender, sex, reproduction, and sexuality should not be a one-time thing that happens on a specific schedule. Make it an ongoing discussion and keep that line of communication open. Talking to our kids about sexuality, health, gender, identity, relationships, and consent is a lifelong process where we answer questions, help them make sense of their experiences, and frame information as our children grow up. These are important opportunities to affirm our values and help children build the skills they need to be healthy, thrive, and nurture healthy relationships.
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to sex positive parenting. Honesty is key when we talk to our kids about gender, sex, or their anatomy. This is an area where we want to avoid confusion and we want to make sure we normalize having those conversations. This is important health information so answers should be straight forward and given in true and simple language. This means teaching the correct names for all body parts, including genitals. It means answering questions about masturbation, how babies are made, or about erections without resorting to metaphors, cutesy words, or fear-based myths that skirt the issues. Help your kids find the information they need to make good choices for themselves. If this is hard, it’s on us to find the information in books or to seek out people in online spaces or in our communities who can support us to find the right words.
Communication is only partially about the words we use. People heavily rely on our body language, tone, and inflection to get a sense of what we are “really” saying. While the content of our answers might not include anything shaming, the way we answer our children’s questions about sex may communicate fear or that they should be embarrassed about what they brought up. Responding to their questions in a matter-of-fact way communicates invaluable information to them, both in words and in body language.
Our kids see and hear the way we treat our own bodies and they internalize that important information. The way they will see and treat their own bodies is informed by our own ways. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being overly critical of our bodies and let out some less than flattering comments about ourselves. In the same vein, for the most part, we should refrain from commenting on our kids’ bodies. Instead, let’s speak about ourselves in ways we want our kids to speak about themselves. If we model comfort with ourselves (even if we have to fake it until we make it) as well as love and respect for our own bodies and what they can do, our kids will know what they deserve and can demand that, too.
Sex -positivity is all about respect – and that includes respect people’s rights, including their right to information, privacy, meaningful choice, agency, and autonomy. As parents, we should show serious respect for our children so they get a feel for it and know to expect respect from us when asking questions. This doesn’t mean stepping away from our responsibility to keep our children healthy and safe but there are many opportunities where we can be mindful about respecting their privacy, especially around their bodies and their private thoughts and feelings, by doing things like knocking before entering their room if they want to have the door closed. Kids are full individuals, not just adults in training. What makes us cringe and feel exposed is likely to make them feel the same way. We can show our kids that they deserve to be treated with respect and to set their own boundaries around what and when to share with others, including their parents.
Teaching our kids how to understand and regulate their emotions is a lifelong gift to our children. Mastering this important life skill is linked to increases in self-confidence, greater mental and physical health, and healthier social relationships. If we want our children to know how to strike and nurture healthy relationships, we have to offer them the skills needed to do that. This means being aware of our children’s emotions, recognizing them as opportunities for connection even when they are unpleasant to us. Emotions are always valid and are a way to communicate with us. This doesn’t mean that a kid punching another person is OKok! Anger is OK and we can teach ways to deal with it and act on it in productive and ethical ways. Listening to our kids empathetically and validating their feelings, helping them label the feelings they have and those of people around them, and supporting them to discover appropriate ways to solve problems and deal with upsets are all ways to coach our kids. Kids and teenagers actually want to hear from us about healthy relationships and part of that learning is to nurture emotional intelligence in children of all genders.
It’s never too early to teach our kids about consent. It can be done in simple and meaningful ways from infancy onwards like explaining why we are touching their bodies (e.g., it might be to keep them safe and healthy: “I’m going to insert this thermometer in your anus now because it is important for me to know if you have a fever so I can make sure you get medicine if you need it”) or by asking them if they want a hug or a kiss before going for it. As they get the feel of what consent is about, it is also helpful for us, to look at how we can sometimes undermine consent with our own children.
For instance, when we don’t stop to tickle them even if they ask us to, when we force a hug or a kiss when they are mad and brush them off if they try to swat us away, or when we make them sit on a relative’s lap even though they said they didn’t want to, we undermine the consent of our children by teaching them that their consent only matters in certain circumstances.
On top of being more mindful of our own habits, we must speak up for children and support them if they do put our teachings into practice by refusing to give grandma a kiss.
What messages are we sending to children if we prioritize social norms and other people’s feelings over them deciding who touches them and when? We can lovingly explain to relatives and loved ones how our child doesn’t feel like a hug right now but perhaps a high five will do?
Teaching about consent is also about teaching communication skills and the many ways people use to let us know “yes” and “no” (newsflash: it’s not always just by saying no), how to assert and respect people’s bodily autonomy and boundaries, how to react to rejection, etc. If we hope to create a safer world for all children, where rape culture is a thing of the past, we certainly have a role to play as trusted adults.
The same goes for gender and sexuality. Children have a sense of their gender from as early as 2 or 3 and they also start to develop a sense of who they are attracted to from early on. This means we must help them to understand their own experiences by giving them the words to do so, in age appropriate ways. If we have a child who wishes to express their gender in ways that are not typical or a child who expresses an attraction to peers of the same sex or gender, our job is to be their advocate and to create spaces where they can be themselves and celebrated as such. It also means extending those spaces by working with the other adults who care for them: daycare providers, teachers, and doctors.
Our kids act on a host of messages about gender and gender norms – some subtle, some not so subtle – that they receive since birth. Babies can read differences in gender presentation as early as their first year and they begin forming gender stereotypes almost as soon as they can categorize gender. Around 3 or 4, children begin to work out for themselves what gender feels like to them and they begin testing their understanding often by adopting (and in some cases, rejecting) stereotypical behaviours of what is normatively associated with masculinity and femininity. While it’s normal, it’s healthy and important to be mindful of how we may be reinforcing those stereotypes – (for example, by overly praising our daughters when they wear dresses or by showing discomfort if we see our sons play with dolls or wearing nail polish). Since this is a time when children are receiving so many messages – and often, rigid ideas – about gender, we can use these messages to encourage critical thinking. For example, we can use books and media as perfect conversation starters on gender norms, encourage friendships across genders, expand activities made available for all kids, vocally challenge generalizations ( when we hear, “pink is for girls,” we can certainly remind children that colours are for everybody and that there are no rules about how to be boy or a girl), and help our children learn the skills to challenge stereotypes (e.g. “Daddy feels like crying too sometimes, would you like a big hug?” or “Mama needs to repair the washing machine, would you like to help me carry those tools?”).
There are wonderful books that can make it into the bedtime story roster or can be strategically left lying around the house. Kids are curious and can really dig into topics like puberty, how babies are made, or what families can look like if you make the resources available to them. Some of these books can start some great conversations, while others can be perused in private. Figure out what are great online resources for tweens and teens that you and your older children can both rely on to seek out medically accurate, affirming, and inclusive information on sexual health. And then, do yourself the same favour and start equipping yourself with good resources around inclusive sexual health information.
Sex positive parenting can keep us on our toes! It’s great modeling to put a question aside if we don’t have an answer right away and then come back to it once we’ve done some homework. It shows children how we are all lifelong learners and how valued their questions are. Sometimes, keeping the lines of communication open about sexuality means we wade into unknown or scary waters. It’s OK to take the time to look things up, educate ourselves, find the appropriate resources, chat with friends, and seek expert advice from sexual health educators, online or in your community. It’s also a great journey for parents, as we get to be engaged in our children’s learning and enrich our own lives.
11. Become a community advocate for inclusive schools, more youth-friendly health care and better sex-ed
Despite the mountains of evidence showing the benefits of young people having access to comprehensive sex-ed, it’s still a hot topic in Canada. Media and political forces have framed sex-ed as something that is controversial and a matter of opinion or political affiliation, rather than something that is essential. From numerous polls and studies, we know that most parents and young people want sex-ed to be taught in schools and that having good quality, scientifically accurate, comprehensive sex-ed contributes to students’ overall health and wellbeing now and into the future. Unfortunately, scans of sex-ed curricula across Canada’s provinces and territories indicate that the quality of information taught to students is uneven and in some parts of the country, extremely outdated. Scans also indicate that sex-ed curricula across the country at best skim the surface of what would meet national and international standards and at worst, violate these standards, and lag far behind. Currently in Canada, there is no national strategy and no national accountability mechanisms to ensure that sex-ed curriculum content, delivery, and teacher training meet either international best-practices and standards or the Canadian Guidelines on Sexual Health Education.
Learn more about how #SexEdSavesLives.
This means slowing down and tuning into your child’s individual abilities, needs, and goals so that you can respond to their learning styles, interests, and developmental milestones. Many of us spent time daydreaming about who our children would be when we started thinking about being parents, while we were pregnant or early on our parenting journey. When children get here, we start getting to know them and sometimes, this means letting go of what we had pictured or expected.
As parents, our core mission is to nurture our children’s growth and to help them be who they truly are. Kids (and everyone really) thrive when they feel seen, heard, and respected. Some of our kids will have a different gender identity or sexual orientation than what we thought they would, or they will have ways to express their gender and individuality that surprise us. As parents, we may think that “toning down” kids’ authentic selves or discouraging the public expression of things we find risky (our little boy wearing a dress to school, our young girl cropping her hair short, our child’s identification as non-binary, etc.) will protect them in a world that is not always friendly. But what happens is that we become their first bullies and their home becomes the first place where they must hide. It is true, the world is not always a friendly place, but studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that a supportive and connected family is the most protective factor for 2SLGBTQ+ kids and that is fundamentally true for all kids. For our kids to shine in all their glory, let’s be their fiercest cheerleaders, advocates, and protectors! And let’s find our peers: seek out resources and groups in your community to support your parenting!