Why does it matter?
Every parent wants their child or children to be safe. Beyond safety, parents wish for their children to grow up healthy and thrive. What does that have to do with talking to our kids about sex, sexuality, gender, and relationships? A whole lot, in fact!
Some of the many purposes of being a sex positive parent is to protect our kids, equip them with the information they need to thrive, and then nurture their resiliency and promote positive self-image.
There is a lot of evidence on the urgent need for quality sexuality education (“sex-ed”) in the home (and in schools) and its positive impacts. Becoming a trusted source of information and support to our children matters a whole lot.
Sets the stage for our children to make healthy decisions about their bodies, their relationships, and later, their sexual lives.
Studies have shown that when parents talk openly with their children and teenagers about sexuality it leads to less risky behaviours, less conformity to what they think others are doing (in other words, making decisions that make sense for them instead of copying the decisions of those around them), and helps them to view their parents as good sources of information. These conclusions are part of the large body of international evidence that shows the positive impacts of comprehensive sexuality education. Click here to consult the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) research on sex-ed.
Every child benefit from information, support, and space to be who they truly are. Between 4% and 10% of the population identify themselves as something other than heterosexual and/or cisgender. This rate continues to rise as younger generations become more comfortable with a more fluid understanding of gender and sexuality and as more space is opened in our society for people to be their authentic selves.
Most children will have a sense of their gender identity as young as 2 or 3 years old! Considering only these numbers, many of us are raising children who already or will eventually identify themselves as 2SLGBTQ+ (Two-spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans, Queer, and more). Strong family support and connectedness is crucial for the health and overall wellbeing of 2SLGBTQ+ youth. It is a predictor of better mental and physical health outcomes for the rest of their lives. Children who are cisgender and/or heterosexual also benefit so much from the space we can create for them to discover how they wish to express their gender and to learn what they are passionate about, free from rules about what boys or what girls “should” be like. In schools that have 2SLGBTQ+ inclusive policies and GSAs (Gay-straight Alliances), risks of suicide and overall risk-taking behaviours are reduced for all students, not just for sexual and gender minorities. That is true in our homes, too—when we make space for all children to grow into their own authentic selves surrounded by our unconditional love and active support, they thrive.
Gender roles are social roles that include a range of behaviours and attitudes that are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for someone based on that person's biological or perceived sex. This include things like girls being expected to be quiet and nurturing, wear pink and love dolls and boys being expected to be aggressive, not cry, wear blue, and love sports. The issue is not when our kids’ temperaments or what they like match traditional ideas of what they should be like because of their gender. The problem is when it is made compulsory in all sorts of obvious and less obvious ways. Strictly enforced gender roles harm children and young people. Supporting our children in figuring themselves out includes helping them to understand and challenge strict norms tied to their gender. What we think of as rigid gender traits are more often societal expectations about how we think men and women should act and not fixed concepts rooted in biology. Studies on the impacts of these cultural gender roles on young children of all genders are clear: rigid gender expectations can lead to mental and physical health problems. Having conversations with our children on gender norms can help them throughout their lives as they come across harmful stories about “how they should be.”
Sexism is the systemic oppression of girls, women, non-binary people, trans people and people who do not conform to gender norms. It’s when a gender hierarchy is being enforced by institutions like schools, workplaces, and governments. Individuals can also oppress through prejudice and acts of discrimination. Many of our kids come up against sexism and do not necessarily have the words or the support of trusted adults to make sense of their experiences. In 2018, Girl Scouts Canada released the results of a Canadian survey that found that by the age of 10, more than half of all girls reported having noticed gender inequality and having had experiences of it. Reading the “Girls Attitude Survey” helps to better understand the long-term impacts of sexism and discrimination against girls and young women, ranging from anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, abuse, and declining intentions to pursue careers in science, technology, law and politics, etc.
Sexism does not just affect girls. The idea that the masculine is superior to the feminine also limits the gender expression of boys who are punished by society if they show traits or interests that are thought of as feminine. This can include expressing emotions like sadness, fear and tenderness, caring for others, or even simply loving pink or wanting to take a ballet class. The same goes for trans, gender non-conforming, and gender-creative kids who are also greatly impacted by sexism and who need our support and guidance to separate their experiences of discrimination from their sense of self. Sex positive parenting is a way to nurture the resiliency of kids in the face of adversity and to help foster a sense of community and pride about who they are.
Educating ourselves about sexual abuse and educating our children about their bodies and body safety are important measures that we can put in place to prevent harm. By making sure that our children learn about their bodies–including the correct names of their genitals- – and about human reproduction and sexuality, we can help raise them to understand their bodies, feel comfortable and confident, and hopefully feel comfortable discussing their bodies and sexuality with parents and guardians that love and support them. It’s important to teaching our little ones the names of their body parts and about safe and unsafe touch matters, even if it feels uncomfortable or sad to have to think about sexual abuse. Having the correct names for their genitals and knowing about tricky people can help them recognize and resist assault.
By teaching our kids, we also give them the tools and vocabulary to tell trusted adults and healthcare professionals when they need help and they are much more likely to receive the help they need. Talking about consent and safe/unsafe touch also means raising children who understand that sexual abuse is wrong with the ability to better empathize and respect the rights and feelings of others. Beyond just countering scary possibilities, teaching proper names for all body parts also helps children develop a healthy, positive body image and feel more respect towards themselves and sexuality in general. It helps counter the sense of shame and taboo that can be built around our genitals, desire, sexual pleasure, and sexuality generally.
This means talking about consent from the beginning to teach children that they are the bosses of their bodies. While parents and guardians have a responsibility to keep them healthy and safe, they can decide when, for example, they feel up for a hug or a kiss. This also means they get to say “stop” or “no” and should expect to be respected. A key part of teaching our children about consent can be setting limits about your own body with them and demonstrating how you expect they will respect them.
When young people are asked about what they wish to see in their sex-ed, one of the most common answers is that they want to learn the skills to initiate and nurture healthy, loving, satisfying, mutually respectful relationships. The Making Caring Common Project is a multi-year research study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that surveyed young people over the past several years about what they learned, did not learn, or wish they had learned from their parents and from their school-based sex-ed. The findings reveal that large numbers of teens and young adults feel unprepared for caring and lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them. They report that parents, educators, and other trusted adults provide young people with little or no guidance in developing these relationships.
The good news is that an overwhelming majority of young people surveyed want this guidance. Healthy relationships and social support networks are so important. They have a direct impact on our wellbeing and even on our life expectancy. Strong, healthy relationships help us to manage stress effectively, problem -solve, and overcome life’s challenges. Learning how to have healthy friendships early in life can set our kids up to have some of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences life has to offer. Talk about what being a good friend looks like. Model good relationship behaviours and talk about how we support others in our lives and how you know you can trust those around you. Having conversations early about boundaries, trust, healthy communication, and consent sets the stage for becoming a trusted resource for our kids as they figure out how to navigate their social world.
Sex positive parenting helps our children grow up with a sense of sexuality as a natural, normal, healthy, pleasurable part of being alive. One essential message of sex positivity is that any sexual activity and any touching of body parts should be consensual. When we take the shame out of sexuality, we can provide a strong foundation for awareness of consent. If we raise our children to not be ashamed of their sexuality and desire, then they can develop a keener sense of what they want and don’t want. They can also better develop the skills to communicate about sexual consent, boundaries, and desire, and to give a true yes or a true no to partners. Research comparing the first sexual experiences of American teenage girls versus Dutch teenage girls show how the former report earlier and riskier sexual experiences that were initiated because of ‘peer pressure’ and ‘to please their male partners’, while the Dutch teens delayed their first sexual relationships and that they entered sexual relationships because of love. The difference is comprehensive sexual education in schools and at home.
Sex positive parenting creates space to ask questions and seek out information if the topic isn’t steeped in shame and secrecy. It means as our children grow older, they can seek out support and ask us questions if they need guidance. Learning to navigate romantic relationships and partnered sex is of course far off in the distance if you have toddlers. But raising kids in a sex positive household is something that begins at the onset of parenthood. Our work starts even before children can talk because, from the moment we start caring for our babies, they learn from us about their bodies, gender, respect, and consent.
We can start talking about sex as soon as a child starts asking about it. While the goal is to remove any negativity and evasiveness from sexuality, it’s important to be intentional about our lessons and avoid giving our children more than they are ready to handle. This means our conversations about sex should be age-appropriate, keeping in mind what young brains need. For instance, young kids need short-sentenced explanations that simply answer the questions they asked, not more, not less. If they want to know how babies are made, no need for a lecture. It can be a simple explanation about what makes a baby: a sperm and an egg need to meet and then the baby grows in someone’s uterus until it’s ready to come out.
Even with our simplest answers we can make sure to expand the lens of sexuality, be inclusive, and go beyond limited cultural norms or biases. We can talk of diverse ways to make families. We can talk of love in expansive ways. We can make sure to talk of gender in inclusive and open ways. We can answer questions as they come up and answer them in simple true language, calling a vulva a vulva and a penis a penis. We can also nurture a sense of bodily autonomy by respecting our children’s boundaries, asking before we touch them (when it’s not an urgent matter of health or safety, of course), stopping tickling when they say no, and supporting them in situations like when a relative asks for a hug and they don’t feel like one. It is through these actions that we can show children, from an early age, that even in the naming of body parts, there’s no need to hide and that we are fierce advocates for their sense of agency and body autonomy.
As children grow older and their questions become more sophisticated, we can start to introduce the notion of pleasure and talk about it in a plain and open way. Taking a balanced approach to talking about sexual health with our children means including the positive aspects of sexuality, such as the pleasure it can bring, and this can have profound impacts. This can set the stage for our children to have meaningful and pleasurable relationships of all kinds in their lives as they grow.
Making sure we include discussions of pleasure, intimacy, and other positive aspects of sexuality in our conversations can also be key in preventing sexual violence and harassment, which disproportionately affects girls, women, trans, and young gender non-binary folks.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with over 70 young women from 15 to 25 years old and a wide range of experts, renowned journalist Peggy Orenstein published the book Girls and Sex, which explores how new media, including porn and social media, profoundly impact young people’s sexuality. She found that young people rarely acknowledge the importance and value of female sexuality and pleasure and this has a deep impact on fueling an epidemic of sexual violence.
Talking about pleasure and intimacy with our kids as they mature can make them aware of what they want, what they are entitled to, and what sexuality should be about. Mentioning that “this is something people can do together to give each other pleasure and feel close” or “this is something people do because it makes their bodies feel good” when answering questions about sexuality can open some important doors and make some important connections.
Feeling nervous? Our own sex negative upbringings can make many of us squeamish at the idea of even mentioning sexual pleasure to our children. For some of us, it means overcoming sexual trauma or abuse in our own pasts so we can talk about sexuality in ways that are not fear-based. To raise sex positive kids requires some work from parents. Reading about sex positive parenting, finding resources in the community to learn about how to have those talks, practicing with trusted people around us or even in front of a mirror, going to therapy, reading books to prompt conversations – these are just some of the ways to get us going. Practice is what makes it easier as time goes on!