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Sex Ed at Home Doesn’t Have to Feel Awkward

By , 17, Staff Writer Originally Published: May 17, 2021 Revised: May 17, 2021

On September 21, 2003, a 19-year-old woman gave birth. She was surrounded by loved ones, all encouraging and aiding her as she pushed her child into the world. This woman had dropped out of college, worked countless jobs and changed her life’s plan, all for her son.

This woman is my mother. Since then, she has become an English teacher and had three other children. She has taught all of us many things, including sex education. I remember getting “the talk” and learning about how babies are made and that when two people love each other they will do something called “sex.” (I later learned that you didn’t need to be in love to have sex, but I was young, and my mom was sharing what she felt was appropriate for me at that age.)

As I got older, how my mom taught me sex ed changed. First, the talks were about how babies are made, later they moved to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and forms of protection. Recently, my mother has been talking to me about consent, boundaries and making sure that not only am I comfortable with sexual situations, but that my partner is as well.

Recently, my mother has been talking to me about consent, boundaries and making sure that not only am I comfortable with sexual situations, but that my partner is as well.

I was fortunate enough to have a good sex education at home, but many people aren’t. Wondering why this was the case, I spoke with two friends about their experiences. Then I spoke with Deborah Roffman, a sex educator and expert on parent-child communication, who shed some light on the situation.

Avoiding the “Cringe” Factor

“I really only learned about sex and stuff from the internet,” says Elliot, 17, of Maplewood, NJ. “My parents taught me, like, the basic stuff. That’s about it, though.” Elliot tells me that the only time something related to sex was brought up at home was when there was a public incident such as the Harvey Weinstein case, which fueled the #MeToo movement, or if he or his brother directly asked a question. “The first time I heard about sex wasn’t even from my parents,” Elliot explains. “It was from my classmate in elementary school. I went home and asked my parents about it, and then they gave me ‘the talk.’”

I ask Elliot if he wished that his sex education at home had been different. “I’m going to college soon, and I still don’t really know that much about sex,” he says. “I don’t blame my parents for that.” Then, he says something interesting. “It’s also kinda weird to talk to my parents about sex. We have a good relationship, but it’d get all cringey if we were talking about penises and stuff.”

That made me wonder. Is sex education at home sometimes lacking because families are uneasy talking about sex? With sex ed at school, it can feel awkward, but you’re sitting in a classroom and don’t have much choice. But at home, who’s listening to their parents when they’re uncomfortable and only thinking about how to get out of the situation? Yet you eat with these people. You live with them. Why is it so hard to talk to them about sex?

Not a Frequent Topic

Like Elliot, Susan, 18, also of Maplewood, says she got most of her sex education from the internet. “I’m an only child and was adopted by my two mothers,” she says. “We talk about things like sex sometimes, but it’s not a frequent topic.” I ask Susan how she feels about this. “It’s just awkward,” she says. “My parents are cool about intimate topics like that; they helped me understand that I liked both boys and girls. But it’s just that I feel more comfortable learning about things on the internet, or just away from my parents.”

I ask Susan if she would be comfortable giving her own future children sex education. “I think I would,” she says. “I would want my kids to come to me with any problems they had.” So why is it that parents and children aren’t able to do this more? I was curious, so I went to an expert.

Talking Honestly With Kids

Deborah Roffman, MA, CSE, has taught sexuality education at the Park School of Baltimore since 1975 and has also worked with hundreds of schools across the country. She’s the author of three books for parents and teachers, most recently, Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go-To’ Person About Sex. If anyone can provide some insight on the subject of sex ed at home, it’s her!

Roffman sees the importance of adults talking honestly with kids about sex. “Children whose developmental needs are met intentionally by the immediate adults in their lives thrive,” she says. “Given the high rates of sexuality-related problems experienced by young people today, it couldn’t be clearer that schools and families are not meeting their needs.”

Roffman believes that sex education in homes should not just be about facts. “While learning helpful information from parents/caretakers at home is definitely a plus, even more important are the back-and-forth conversations that occur in the process,” she says. “Young people who have practice communicating with parents in these ways—regardless of the specific topic at hand—are continually learning how to think and how to talk about sensitive issues.” The ability to understand and discuss delicate topics is important. “Later on, these skills will support them in making healthy decisions for themselves and others,” Roffman adds.

Not Too Much, Too Soon

So what might get in the way of parents bringing up sex? “Parents of young children, especially, often postpone giving what is in fact truly age-appropriate information for fear of providing ‘too much, too soon,’” says Roffman. “While they think they are ‘protecting’ their children, what they may create instead is the opposite, since curious children will likely turn to much less reliable and often unhealthy sources.”

Just as my friends did, many kids will go to the internet when they have questions about sex, and not all of them will find the safest or most relevant information. Roffman points out that postponing talking about sex with kids may lead to it never being brought up. “When we adults put off these conversations, anxiety about bringing the topic up ‘later’ only grows for us and eventually our children,” she says. “Sometimes this means that conversations are put off indefinitely, making it even harder and harder to bring up as time passes.”

Breaking the Taboo

The hesitation to talk about sex is often rooted in the belief that it’s “taboo.” That’s not the case, according to Roffman. “The heart of my work with parents is helping them learn to treat sexuality just as they would any other part of their child’s development,” she says. “Children, preteens and teens need the same five things from the nurturers in their lives in all respects: affirmation and unconditional love for who they are, increasingly sophisticated information, clear expectations around values, respect for their own and others’ limits and boundaries and guidance in managing their growing independence. Sexuality is no different!” It’s crucial that sex is seen as a natural and important part of our lives.

Adults set the tone for how sex is talked about in families. “Parents often need practice saying the words and phrases connected to sexuality out loud, until they get that these are just words, like all others,” says Roffman. “And, since many parents grew up without the benefit of adults who showed them what a grown-up actually looks and sounds like when speaking to children or teens about sexuality, role play and role models are very helpful too.” Modeling these conversations for parents and caregivers increases their comfort in talking about sex and decreases the stigma often attached to these conversations.

Ultimately, it would be great for parents and caregivers to feel more comfortable talking about sex so that their kids are more comfortable asking about it. “As nurturers, we need to see our role as educating young people about the ingredients that support a happy, healthy, ethical, safe, pleasurable and satisfying sexual life,” says Roffman. As a young person, I couldn’t agree more!

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