Let’s Talk: How should we teach kids about sex and feelings?
By Lisa Twang, Aug 03, 2020
As a mum of a four-year-old girl, I don’t always feel equipped to handle sex ed. Having conversations about sex with our kids can be awkward and uncomfortable. And it’s much easier to talk about the biology of sex, than its emotional complexities: how sex affects our relationships and mental health.
How sex makes us feel is a fundamental part of sex ed, but it’s often missed out because it’s tricky to explain. What are our values on sex? How do our kids know when they are ready for it? Are they able to give or ask for consent?
In our series on how we can more effectively teach youth about sexual matters, our first story focused on whether schools are entirely to blame for poor sex education. In this second part, I want to explore how parents can give kids a more complete understanding of sex, and how we can explain its emotional aspects to our children.
My parents were always very open about talking to us about sex. When I was 11, they had ‘the talk’ with me, and explained reproduction and contraception. Beyond that, they were also very clear on how sex is an emotional experience. They didn’t want us to associate sex with fear or guilt, but with love and intimacy.
Once, when I was 16, my family was watching a TV drama about a teen girl who’d gotten pregnant. She was freaking out about her parents finding out about it. She felt helpless, scared, and was even considering an abortion so she could keep her pregnancy a secret.
My mother said: “Kids, if this ever happens to you, please don’t be afraid to tell us. We don’t want you to be pregnant out of wedlock, but we love you and always want to help you.”
While my parents believed in abstinence before marriage, they also acknowledged that we might make our own decisions on sexuality some day. And they wanted us to be aware of both the physical and emotional consequences of sex, and also remember that we could always come to them for advice and support.
So much of sex education focuses on how babies are made, and how to have safe sex. But kids also need to know how sex affects our relationships and personal feelings.
The emotional part of sex can be complicated, and hard to teach. The dizzying highs of sexual intimacy, and the different levels of hurt from broken relationships, is often left out of sex ed.
“A lot of sex ed focuses on how to avoid rape, unplanned pregnancy, and STDs,” says Joo Hymn, a facilitator and creator of sex ed workshop Birds & Bees, by AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research). "But sex ed is also about the importance of asking for consent, and respecting the answer especially when it is 'no'. It is also about sharing your own attitudes about sex, and having non-judgmental conversations about emotional literacy, intimacy and desire, so that your child can develop their sexual identity."
I feel it’s important to separate positive sex talk from the dangers of sex, because children may confuse the two.
Every family has different values on sex. Like my parents, I believe sex should be saved for marriage. Other parents may feel their kids should be free to explore their sexuality while dating or hooking up, as long as they stay safe. We’re all entitled to our own beliefs, and we can share them with our kids and empower them to make wise choices about their sexuality.
I feel that teaching kids about the beauty of sex is very important, so they value its intimacy. There’s a tendency to only discuss the scary consequences of sex with kids, because we want to protect them. But our children aren’t getting a balanced view if they only hear about sex as something to be avoided. If we spend more time talking about the positives, our children will be more likely to have good attitudes about sex.
Not knowing the physical and emotional consequences of sex can cause youth a lot of pain and anguish, if their relationships go wrong.
There’s a lot of confusion among youth over what sexual consent means, and as parents, we need to help them understand. In a survey conducted by AWARE*, 39 per cent of youth were neutral, or disagreed that there was consent, when a couple engaged in sex under coercion.
The survey also show a lack of understanding over underage sex and statutory rape, where it is illegal to have sex in Singapore with someone below 16, with or without consent. 44 per cent of youth thought sex was consensual if a 15-year-old agreed to have sex with an older teacher.
As a parent, it’s frightening to think that my daughter may not know how to give sexual consent in future. I think of my friend Nina Lestari, who wasn’t taught any sex ed and experienced sexual assault. “When I was 14, I got pregnant because my boyfriend penetrated me without my consent. I also didn’t know it was against the law because I was a minor,” she said.
"I thought that if I didn't agree to get physical with my boyfriend, he would leave me and find other girls," she said. "I didn't understand that I could say no, that I was too young to have sex, and that no one should be forced into sex."
Nina says she still bears emotional scars from her pregnancy and abortion, though she’s healed a lot since. Her case is extreme, but it's an example of what can go wrong when kids don't understand consent. Now a parent herself, Nina believes very strongly in teaching her three-year-old son respect and consent as part of his sex ed.
"I’m teaching him that he should always respect others, and that includes how we talk to people, and respect their bodies,” she says. “It’s equally important for boys and girls to know about boundaries, and not to give into peer pressure when it comes to sex.”
Nina’s story is a reminder to me how we can’t take sex ed for granted, even when our kids are very young. And like her, I want to start teaching my child early, before it becomes too late.
Schools tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach to sex ed. But as parents, we know our children better than their teachers, and are in a better position to teach them.
Another survey by AWARE** showed that only half of parents in Singapore were comfortable talking to their kids about sex, even though 70 per cent of them thought parents were the best persons to give sex education. We know it’s important, but we’re often reluctant to have those conversations because we’re afraid to embarrass ourselves, or our children.
When I spoke to Yiwen, a mum of three kids aged 9, 15 and 18, I was surprised to learn she hasn’t talked to them about sex ed at all. “I’m worried that I might not be able to bring up this very important topic correctly or positively,” she says. “I might misinform them, or say things the wrong way. That’s why I hope they can learn about sex through experts, like their teachers or doctors.”
A fear of getting sex ed wrong is understandable, but I’ve always felt strongly that Tully needs to learn about sex from me. As her mother, I feel responsible for shaping her beliefs on such an important issue. When parents teach sex ed, we can talk to our kids on a more personal level than schools, and meet them at their level of maturity.
To give our kids better sex ed, we can start by learning how to have open, two-way conversations with our kids.
Since I didn’t know how to tackle sex ed at Tully’s age, and what exactly to teach her as she grew older, I signed up for the Birds and Bees workshop. It’s designed to help parents start and sustain conversations with their children about sex in a non-judgemental way.
In the workshop, we learned how to be ‘askable’ parents: encouraging our kids to come to us with their questions. Building trust with our kids sometimes means listening to them more than we talk, respecting their opinions, and allowing them to disagree with us. If our kids feel comfortable approaching us with everyday matters, like worrying about a test, they're much more likely to ask us about trickier matters like sex.
At the same time, we can’t just rely on kids coming to us, because sometimes they might be too shy. So we can be proactive in starting conversations with our children on sex.
We can text kids videos or articles, or look at them together, to start a discussion on awkward topics. One good resource is Amaze.org, which has animated videos for parents and kids aged 3+ to 13+. They discuss complex issues like consent, how to tell when you’re ready for sex, and sexual orientation, in a light-hearted, engaging way.
Some parents have more conservative views about sex because of their personal or religious beliefs, but it’s still possible have these open discussions on sex ed.
Nina wasn’t taught about sex as a child, because her mother was a strict Muslim and sex was considered taboo before marriage. But she still thinks it’s important to talk about sex as a fact of life, regardless of your personal beliefs. “Even in religious settings, sex education can be discussed in an open and shame-free environment,” she says. “While religion is a way of life that teaches faith, morals and ethics, it is equally important to also teach our young ones body anatomy, boundaries, consent, and sex education.”
We can teach kids more about their bodies and sexuality in age-appropriate ways, getting into deeper conversations about sex as they grow older.
In Birds and Bees, I learned how when kids are about three, they can start learning about their bodies, and how to practise consent. Children should know how to name their genitals without using euphemisms. They can also learn about ‘good touch’ (touches that help you, like a loving hug, and ‘bad touch’, which makes you feel scared and want it to stop). I’ve taught Tully to have autonomy over her body: she can say no if someone wants to hug or tickle her, even if it’s a family member.
At primary school age, children can learn more about love and relationships, and resisting peer pressure. My friend Stacy who has three kids aged 7, 12 and 13, has a very close relationship with her kids, and believes they’re more likely to come to her when they have questions. She’s talked to them about both sex, and how to resist peer pressure if your friends are already experimenting with sex and you’re not ready yet.
“My boys have older friends who joke about sex, and from what I’ve heard, some have probably tried it,” she says. “But my kids know not to do something just because their friends are doing it: they have a sense of what’s right and wrong.”
With teenage kids, we can have even more nuanced discussions about sex. My friend Marie and her husband have agreed that he’ll have father-son talks with their teen boys about sex and relationships when they start dating. For now, she’s talking to them in a more subtle way, by discussing news articles and TV shows mentioning sex.
“Because they’re boys, I’m sure my sons are embarassed to talk to me about sex, but I chip in whenever I can. For example, when we read about rape cases on the news, we talk about consensual sex, and not feeling entitled to sex. I want them to treat girls with respect, and be mature and responsible in their relationships.”
Helen hopes her kids will wait until they are adults to be sexually active, but respects that they might choose to do so earlier, and wants them to be safe. “If my son is having sex, I’d rather that it happens under my own roof, which is safer than if he has to sneak around outside. We’ll ask our kids to come to their dad when they’re ready to take that step, so they can have deeper discussions about it.”
If giving our kids good sex education sounds like a lot of work, it definitely is. But we can tackle it bit by bit, and it’s well worth the effort.
I remind myself that I don’t have to do it all at once. The great thing about starting sex ed while Tully is still young is that I have time to teach her. Through little conversations with Tully, I’ll slowly get the right messages across. By giving her a good foundation for sex ed, I’ll be much less worried about her safety in future, as she develops positive attitudes about sex that make her a more well-rounded person.
Taking the Birds and Bees course has boosted my confidence in tackling sex ed. I’ve also found comfort in talking to other mum friends and swapping tips on how we’re teaching our kids, so we don’t feel so alone. We encourage one another to keep having these little conversations with our kids, which will gradually help them understand sex, intimacy, and feelings.
As a mum, I’ve opened myself to the idea that when Tully grows up, she’ll be her own person, and make her own decisions on sex. Whether or not she shares my values on abstinence, I’ll respect her choices, knowing I’ve taught her to be aware of the consequences. It’ll be tough on me if she chooses a different path, but I want to keep an open mind and give her the freedom to disagree with me.
Sex ed is as much about relationships and emotional maturity as it is about the birds and bees. I’ve learned that it’s okay for me not to have all the answers about sex. What matters most is to keep helping our kids grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality, which will enrich their lives.
Part one of our series on how we can more effectively teach youth about sexual matters can be read here.
My name is Lisa, and you can find me on @lisatwang on the Dayre app. I’ve written about teaching my daughter more about her body, and the awkwardness of having sex while living with your parents.
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* This survey was conducted by AWARE in collaboration with Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Diploma in Psychology Studies programme. 539 respondents between 17-25 years old were surveyed in 2019-2020.
** This survey was conducted by independent research agency Blackbox and AWARE, aimed at exploring parents’ views on sex education in Singapore. 564 respondents were surveyed between January and February in 2020.
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