Talking to Kids about Sex

Note: On on January 11, 2009 I began facilitating a parenting class for DaySpring, the church I attend in Waco.  I’m going to be offering some of what I’m doing there in this space over the Spring.

Its early Sunday morning, and the most magnificent storm has just passed through Waco America.  I’m smiling at the thought of kids all over McLennan county having scrambled to find comfort snuggled next to a warm parent…

This morning the parenting class will be discussing sex.  I’ve asked them to read Even Evangelical Teens Do It: How religious beliefs do, and don’t, influence sexual behavior. This article is a reflection on the work of Mark Regnerus and his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.

I’ve not had a chance to read the book myself, but I’ve been reading reviews, along with interviews with Regnerus, and it would seem that the reader’s summary of salient points (see previous post) is right on the mark.

This leads me to conclude that there are two key elements involved in positive sex education.  Parents can control one of these elements, but can only influence the other.

  1. The behavior of the parents.
  2. Involvement in a peer group.

The Behavior of Parents

The first element, and this one will shock you, Kids are actually learning about sex by watching how their parents behave! I know… the idea that kids learn more about life by watching what their parents actually do, rather than by what they say, is a rather odd and scary concept, but it seems to be true.  And this is especially important where sex is concerned because sex is the only behavior in our culture that a child is not allowed to learn through modeling! Think about it.  A little boy gets to learn how to use a toilet by standing next to his dad and watching how his dad uses the toilet.  (Of course, since a portion of this education involves the ancient male art of stream “sword fighting,” women still often end up frustrated, but I digress.)

Since kids don’t get to watch what actually goes on behind closed doors, they are especially influenced by what they are seeing in front of those doors.  If kids watch loving and affectionate parents flirt and connect in appropriate ways, and hear those parents talking about sex in playful and respectful ways, then they are more likely to internalize a positive view of their own sexuality.

Parents get to control this aspect of sex education.  You, as a spouse and parent, get to decide what your kids will see.  I spent the first few weeks of the course asking parents to look at themselves and their experiences and attitudes regarding parenting in general.  I’d say that this inner reflection is especially important when it comes to sex.  Most of us have to admit that we’ve brought some pretty screwy ideas about sex in to adulthood.  If we don’t take some time to get conscious of these ideas, then we’ll simply pass them on to our children.

So, the question is, what are your kids learning about sex by watching you?

The Peer Group

This one can be more frustrating.  Although you can certainly influence what groups your child will connect with, you cannot force it.  You can influence what sort of youth group is available at your place of worship, and you can make sure your child attends the activities of that group.  However, you cannot insure that your child will connect to that youth group in a way that influences his or her behavior.  Also, as someone with ten years of experience as a youth minister, I can assure you that there is no magic formula for getting kids to connect.  I just know that some decide that the youth group will be their core group, and others don’t.  I watched this as a youth minister, and as a parent.

One Basic Principal: First messages are more powerful than correct messages.

A friend of mine in advertising once told me, “Its more important to be first than to be best.” This has important implications for talking with our kids about sex.  Ideally, we would offer our kids information about sex in age-appropriate doses.  However, whether we like it or not, once our kids hit school, they are going to get all sorts of distorted messages about sex from their peers.  Because of this, I think its important that, by the age of four, a child understands what a penis is and what a vagina is.  Not only that, a child needs to understand how these two interesting organs interact geographically to produce babies (and STDs).

I expect some folks to disagree with me on this approach, but I’m going to stand by it until someone offers me a compelling reason to rethink it.  Besides, talking to my son when he was quite young led to a couple of the most precious comments I’ve ever heard.  At the end of one of our talks I asked my very young son if he had any questions, to which he responded, “Yes… why does Wayne get to have the fan pointed at his bed?”  At the end of another of our conversations he offered, “Oh…. So you and mom have done that three times?”  You’ll be glad to know that I resisted responding, “Son, you are closer to right than you can possibly understand at your tender age.”




About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
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