Have you had moments where you wanted to talk with your kid about safe sex practices, but opted not to?
Maybe it was because you don’t feel confident in your sexual health knowledge, are unsure of what to say, or perhaps you’re worried the young person in your life doesn’t want to hear from you.
Sara C. Flowers, DrPH and Planned Parenthood Vice President of Education and Training, spoke with us about Let’s Talk Month — an awareness campaign that uplifts the importance of those very conversations.
Let’s Talk Month is about encouraging adults to take advantage of the opportunity to model open dialogue, and to have conversations without the shame and stigma often associated with our bodies and sexuality.
We talked about it all with Planned Parenthood, including how encouraging an open pathway for dialogue about safe sex practices can strengthen the relationship between the adult and the youth, leaving room to discuss:
- healthy relationships
- consent and boundaries
- gender and sexuality
- the varied ways that bodies and families can look.
Read on to see what tips Flowers had to share.
Care comes in many forms
Flowers says there’s no better resource for young people than having a trusted, supportive, and caring adult in their lives.
That can look a lot of different ways —. “For some young people that’s their parents. For other people, that might be like an auntie or a godmother, an older cousin. Or, maybe a teacher or a coach,” she says.
“When you think about trust, connectedness, and chosen family, [those relationships] may look different because we vibe with who we vibe with.”
Flowers talks about how important it is during your formative years to know that there are people close by who really care about what you’re going through.
According to the Planned Parenthood vice president, sex education isn’t just for young children — it’s vital all the way into your young adulthood.
When is the right time?
Sometimes there’s hesitation when it comes to sex education and children, centered around the children being too young for the content. For some, these negative feelings are connected to fear that talking about sex with youth will encourage them to engage in it.
In reality, this is the opposite of true — educational conversation around sex has been linked to adolescents not only having sex later, but making safer choices when they do, ultimately leading to lessened cases of STI transmission.
“They’re more likely to use condoms and other birth control methods to become sexually active, and there’s this piece where we’re really seeing that this dialogue equips young people with information so that they can make a decision,” says Flowers.
While curiosity and interest in our bodies and sexuality is natural, the components of fact-based and comprehensive sex education is not isolated to sex. Flowers reminds us that there are ways to broach the topic with age-appropriate content.
She gave examples for both how you can introduce the topic early and what should be touched on in their teen years.
Flowers says education around sex starts with building blocks, beginning at a very young age.
“Just like math starts with counting and builds over many years. We don’t start with calculus in kindergarten, right?” she says.
You Don’t Have to Call it a “Hoo-Hoo”
For very young children, the beginnings of these conversations can start with simply naming body parts and their functions correctly.
“We don’t shy away from an elbow or nose — we shouldn’t shy away from vulva, or penis, or anus. Children knowing that helps them to understand the world,” Flowers says.
Introduction Into Boundaries
Setting the foundation for boundaries and consent is also a great place to start with little kids.
Flowers gives the analogy of being a child playing at a playground and expectations around being ‘polite.’
“Everyone expects them to share. When you go to the playground, there’s a lot of kids that you don’t know. But you have a truck and some kid you’ve never seen before wants to play with your truck,” she begins.
“I equate that in adulthood to being at Starbucks, and somebody just walks over and wants to use my laptop. That’s not a thing that you would do.”
Starting young with the understanding that no one has a right to things that are yours (and vice versa) lays the foundation for an overall understanding of consent and boundaries.
If sharing isn’t something that your little one wants at that time, there are ways to teach and practice kindly saying no to others, or a “not right now,” while reassuring them that the decision is ultimately theirs to make.
When it comes to modeling behavior, Flowers shares how she always asks the children in her life if she can give them a hug before doing so, regardless of their relationship, citing her goddaughter as an example.
“You never know with her — you might get a hug from her or you might just get a ‘peace out.’ But I respect her choice. It’s her body,” she says.
“I want her to know that she should expect to have people respect her choice.”
Adolescents and Teens
Flowers says that around middle school age, it’s common for kids to have questions about their bodies, and suggests having open dialogue about them and the normalcy of change.
“This is an ongoing conversation,” Flowers says.
“Bodies are gonna continue to change. This isn’t something where you hit 20, and then you’re perfect. We’re moving, changing beings, and that’s part of our humanity.”
Data shows that older adolescents and teens are actively thinking about and have questions around sex and relationships.
Talk to the youth in your life about thoughtful decision making. Be intentional and specific, and tie it to sex and intimate relationships.
This makes having clear conversations important, particularly about STI prevention, birth control and contraception options, understanding what abortion is, and all of the choices available if there is an unintended pregnancy.
By those teen years, conversations may evolve to what healthy relationships look like, whether they’re platonic, romantic, or sexual in nature.
“We’re demonstrating and modeling dialogue about issues so that adults are able to support young people as they learn to make healthy decisions, foster satisfying friendships and intimate relationships throughout their lives,” Flowers says.
They could also include subjects like how you can explore yourself and others, and build upon the topics of consent and boundaries. This layer is important, as students with exposure to inclusive sex education can experience lower rates of intimate partner violence.
Embracing of different communities
Normalizing different family structures, relationship types, gender identities and sexualities are a major benefit to inclusive sex education and open dialogue.
“[When we engage in] education that’s really reflective of the communities’ lived experience — racial or cultural identity, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation — we really learn to be inclusive and community-minded,” Flowers says.
According to the expert, incorporating examples of different family structures (i.e.: Two mommies, a mom and a grandma, a foster family) when talking to your little ones can start early, ultimately lessening stigma around what’s considered “unconventional.”
The same is true as youth age, as student groups who experience inclusive education, there are
One of the major outcomes of Let’s Talk Month lies in the trust built around conversations between youth and a trusted adult.
Questions pertaining to bodies, relationships, and identity are bound to occur. Even though it can be hard to do, there’s exceptional value in opening and maintaining those lines of communication.
“You are demonstrating that you aren’t there to be a judge of your kid and you are demonstrating that you’re going to be there for them when things are tough, not only when they’re perfect,” Flowers says.
Flowers also says being genuine about your feelings and potential lack of answers throughout the learning process is beneficial.
“It demonstrates to a kid that they don’t have to know everything. I think for beyond high school, thinking about young adults and beyond — into adulthood, middle age and even older adult — sex and relationships are lifelong journeys,” she says.
“It can really be helpful, even if you have a grown child, to continue to engage with them and talk about their dating life, their health, their identity because complex relationships are still complex in adulthood.”
If you’ve been looking for a springboard into the sex conversation with your young ones, Let’s Talk Month could be great start.
Flowers says that when fact-based and inclusive, sex education includes various topics applicable to our lives that may not be taught formally in another space.
“When really thinking about all of these elements and recognizing that these are a part of humanity and growing up… we didn’t each just show up on this planet with a clear understanding,” Flowers says.
“We all learned these things. We all learned about ourselves, and our community helped us to evolve our sense of self.”