Dear readers, have you wondered how to approach ‘the talk’ with children? Have you panicked about what you would say to your inquisitive children on matters of sex? Perhaps you have already been asked what you felt was an embarrassing question and you felt tongue-tied, unable to respond?
Well, this article is for you – the parent, auntie, uncle, grandparent, teacher or other caregiver. My hope is that today’s article will act as a good beginning for the sex talk, and perhaps even as a catalyst for it.
1. Start early
Seriously, don’t wait until you think it’s time to talk to your little one(s) about sex. The truth is that adults underestimate the exposure children have to sex and sexuality. So how do you know when to begin? Pay attention to the cues that they are giving you. If you find your little one touching their genitals, that is not the moment to get angry because their relationship with their genitals is not the same as yours with your genitals. Children don’t know how to lie or pretend about certain things so if they’re touching themselves, it’s because it feels good or comforting (similar to sucking their thumb as a self-soothing mechanism).
Instead, address it. If it’s happening in public, that’s your opportunity to teach privacy and the necessity for it – to teach them about private parts and how they should be handled (with care, in private and by no one else except the identified trusted adults for specific purposes such as bathing or medical examination).
Remember: No shaming is allowed. Your children deserve to receive information minus the shame often attached to anything sex-related.
2. Rinse and repeat
In other words, get used to repeating yourself because the sex talk never really ends. Children are not adults; they can only retain so much, because they have a limited attention span and because they don’t have a sense of context. That means you have to be the one who gives them the necessary information often enough that they internalise it.
If they’re going for a sleepover, remind them to keep their private parts covered. Remind them that they can always tell you anything and everything that they want to share. Go over any family protocols and procedures e.g. if you feel unhappy or unsafe at any time, please call me and I will come and get you.
If they will be hosting friends or family, go over the things that are important to you so that you are all on the same page. Eliminate secrecy by identifying body parts for what they are or answering questions simply and honestly, thus satiating their curiosity.
Remember: Safety first, and this applies to matters of sexuality as well as other matters. It is important that your child knows they can count on you to handle whatever is too much for them to handle. Children will rarely disclose sex-related matters e.g. inappropriate touch if they think that you cannot handle non-sex-related matters so you need to be both aware and careful about how to respond to information that you don’t necessarily like.
3. Identify your village
In traditional African cultures, the sex talk was not actually the exclusive role of the parent. Parents were considered too close to the child to handle such a hot topic. This is where aunties, uncles, grandparents and others came in to help. Their role was to have the sensitive conversations that the parents may have felt like they could not have.
Even though the African family structure and set up is ever-evolving, it is still important that you identify your village – your inner circle. Just as important – or even more important – it is in the best interest of your child that they know who your relatives are.
What do I mean? Pay attention to the aunties, uncles and others who seem to have a naturally loving, nurturing, friendly and easy relationship with your child. Talk to your child about these people and see what they really think. If you feel you and your child are on the same page, approach and ask them if they could be an official member of ‘your tribe’. Is this really necessary? Yes! It solidifies a relationship that you need to create safety around your child.
Remember: No matter how much you love your child and vice versa, they may not always be willing or able to share sensitive information with you. Your next best option is to have identified people around them who can honour your values while providing safety, a listening ear and an open heart to your child.
4. Consider these questions
If you died, who would you want to raise your children? If your 16-year-old got (another) pregnant and they couldn’t tell you, who would you want them to tell? Which of your friends, siblings or other relationships more closely share your values and those that you would want your child to have?
These are just a few questions that I hope will act as a catalyst towards a safer, more aware world for your child, so that they can know what they need to know, increasing their own safety from predators in the process.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: K.I.S.S: Keep It Short and Sweet. Yes, that acronym means many things to many people. However, for our purposes, I’m saying that you can keep your sex talk simple, short and sweet. There’s no need to complicate your life or that of your child. Look for the truest, simplest way to explain things so that they have a chance of retaining the information and you have a chance of having the sex talk with kindness and dignity for you all.
We will revisit this again, because as we said, ‘the sex talk does not end’, but don’t wait. If you have any questions, you can e-mail them and we will address them in subsequent columns. Until then, I wish you a simple yet effective sex talk!
Maggie Gitu is a Marriage, Family & Sex Therapist (MAMFT) and can be reached at [email protected] or at @MaggieTheTherapist on Instagram