An article recently published in Parent Map, a parenting magazine local to the Seattle area suggested that when your child asks questions about sex, babies, or bodies, the best response is “Well, what do YOU think?” The article then went on to suggest that this gives parents time to figure out what their children are developmentally ready for and what they want their family’s narrative to be. With respect to narrative, the article went so far as to suggest that allowing children to believe the fantasy of the stork is no more problematic than allowing them to believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, if that narrative works for the family.
I disagree. Responding with “what do you think?” when asked a difficult question may seem convenient and easy, as it successfully helps a parent delay a conversation they are uncomfortable having, but stopping there and allowing a child’s beliefs to dictate the narrative is missing the mark—and a valuable opportunity.
In the United States, we are historically very uncomfortable with the topic of sex and sexuality—it stems from our puritanical roots. Despite a plethora of evidence that not talking about sex with our children results in significantly worse outcomes for our them (higher teen pregnancy rates, higher numbers of abortions, and higher rates of STIs and HIV), we seem to persist in this approach—we are like ostriches burying our heads in the sand (which they don’t actually do, but go with me here…). Most of us prefer to avoid the subject altogether in the hopes that it will “go away.”
Here’s the problem: it won’t go away. Sexuality is a normal, healthy, and fun part of life. Don’t we want our children to know and understand that so that they can make safe choices for themselves and others? Waiting for our children to ask us or putting them off by asking “what do you think” and then not following up with solid science-based information and values, is inherently making them responsible for their own sexual health. To paraphrase the words of my friend and sexual health educator Amy Lang, I don’t think we have the right as parents to decide we are too uncomfortable to parent around this issue. We rarely hesitate to discuss our children’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health with them. So why do we leave sexual health off that list?
As you consider this, here are some additional things to think about:
• If we wait for our children to ask (something the article in question seems to advocate), we may lose the opportunity to discuss this with our children at all. Why? Because some children will never ask! It is our job to start these conversations and to make sure our children understand the information and our values.
• Children are developmentally ready to understand the basics of sexuality by the time they reach age 5. Most of us need to be having these conversations far earlier than we think. Books are a great way to help you with these conversations.
• Failing to have these conversations or allowing them to think babies come by way of stork delivery communicates to our children that there is something inherently shameful about that part of their development and life. What a sad way for a child to start their understanding of sexuality!
• The article commented “Just because a child asks how babies are born doesn’t mean they want all the facts.” Well, most of our children probably don’t want to know that candy is bad for them, or that limits on screen time are healthy but we don’t hesitate to share those facts! Since when do we only tell our children things they want to hear…puh-lease! Children should not be responsible for their own sexual health. Period.
• As our children age, they will get their questions answered—I promise. The question is, do you want them getting the answers from you? Or from Google? I vote for you.
• If nothing else convinces you, perhaps this will: children of all ages are sexually victimized every day. Talking to them about sex, making sure they know the proper anatomical names for ALL body part of both sexes, helping them understand healthy boundaries, and establishing open lines of communication around these issues is protective against child sexual abuse. Predators do not like children who are knowledgeable and who have an open relationship with their parents to discuss these things. They’d far prefer to prey upon a child who believes that babies come from storks, or a child who won’t report to mom and dad because they’ve learned that anything to do with their private parts is shameful, than a fully informed, self-confident child who knows what’s up.
If you are lucky enough to have a child that asks where babies come from, dive in! Tell him! Help her understand how amazing her body is! Teach him what the parts of his body are and explain to her what sex is. If you are asked a question unexpectedly and need a moment to gather your thoughts, sure, go ahead and ask, “Well, what do YOU think?” But leaving it there is missing the opportunity to connect with your child and educate them about this incredibly important part of life. So get ready, prepare yourself, and then go for it—this is just another part of parenting that it’s time to embrace!
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