By Bill Nolan
Access Wellness Group
“So tell me, son, what do you think sex is?”
I don’t know what I was prepared for, but I wasn’t expecting his answer: “I know what sex is Dad. Sex is kissing with lipstick on!”
So what do you say to your young child after that?
I don’t remember exactly what had transpired prior to this comment, but something had prompted the conversation with my son and it clearly became one of those “teachable moments.”
How many times have you found yourself in such moments? When I was a young father, I had to learn to talk openly about such things as sex because in the family I grew up in, you just didn’t go there. This was new, unchartered territory for me.
Over the years I’ve learned the value of being able to be open with your kids, and I would like to share a little insight based on my experience not just as a therapist but also as a father of three sons. My hope is that this will be helpful for the parents who struggle with the same hesitancy I faced within myself.
Start early and seize the moment. Have you ever heard people referring to “the talk”? Or wonder when is the right time to have “the talk” with children? I encourage people to use everyday moments that life presents as opportunities to teach children. There are no doubt those awkward moments when your young child will ask a certain question and you’re tempted to say something like, “We’ll talk about that later.” Or my favorite, “ask your mother!” What is needed instead is a level of comfort on the parent’s part to go ahead and answer the question. By the way, if you do need to delay the conversation due to a need for a more private setting, then offer your child a specific time to talk about this later, such as when you get home after work or after dinner. Just be sure you follow through and have the conversation.
Children need parents who can be at ease talking about matters such as sex, even when the questions begin at an early age. If you wait until you think they are old enough, it’ll be too late. Often, they will have already heard about it from countless other sources, including their peers. Of course, how you talk about such matters will be different with your young child than with your older pre-adolescent. But you still need to talk about it.
Seizing the moment doesn’t mean long, drawn-out speeches, either. Sometimes the teachable moment will last a minute or less. In fact, those are often prime times in which a parent can effectively help a child to understand information in a manner that is consistent with what he or she is able to comprehend.
And it isn’t just sexual issues that parents need to be prepared to talk about. Children need to hear from parents about all kinds of matters, including finances, trust, integrity, spirituality, illness and death, just to name a few. If we don’t talk about these matters with our children, they will find answers to their questions elsewhere and it won’t always be accurate or helpful.
Talking about these things early in life makes it far more comfortable to talk about them in the midst of a crisis. I think a mistake parents sometimes make is trying to “keep things” from their children when they are younger, thinking they are protecting them; for example, when someone in the family is gravely ill or has died and the child is aware of the circumstances. Often, children are reluctant to discuss how they are dealing with their feelings because they are afraid of upsetting the parents if they bring it up. A parent’s silence at such times can send an unhealthy message.
Be clear and call it what it is. Too often we end up confusing our children more by giving them vague, ambiguous answers to their questions. Avoiding this confusion requires the parent to start early and become comfortable with the language needed to talk openly and honestly about specific issues. Doing so gives your children the tools they will need to understand more completely the things that they will undoubtedly experience in life. Later they will understand and appreciate that you gave them honest, straight information that was helpful to them.
Brace yourself for the tough questions. If you have worked on having honest and open communication with your children, then be prepared for tough questions. Once they know you can handle straight talk, they are going to ask even tougher questions as they grow older. And believe me, they can see through any attempt to evade or avoid the issues. Best advice: Answer the question even when it means disclosing a bit about yourself or your own experiences. Of course, this includes being age-appropriate, but remember, as they grow older and are much more aware, age appropriate responses needs to change as well.
Parenting is hard work and often challenges us to grow and stretch beyond what is comfortable. Effective parenting requires a commitment to build an open relationship with our children, modeling for them a willingness to listen and to respond to their questions about the world around them. By demonstrating honest, straightforward conversations at an early age, parents will find that they have built credibility with their children. In the process, parents can feel more confident that their children will be better equipped as they learn to make decisions for themselves.
Bill Nolan is a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices at Access Wellness Group, a Lexington-based group providing counseling and addiction treatment services to individuals, families and Employee Assistance Program client companies. He works with individuals and families, focusing much of his work helping clients deal with problems related to addictions and recovery. In addition, his background and experience has led him in developing a passion for helping people who at times have been spiritually wounded.