Can you remember how you learnt about sex? Was it a VHS describing what happens using euphemistic fruit images? Was it whispers in the playground? Was it graphic content seen online?
How you choose to talk about sex and relationships with your family is your right as a parent or carer, but we must be aware that we will never be the only ones our children learn from. Talking about this stuff can be awkward, however rather than being on the defensive back foot we spoke to three parents about how they are tackling the sex conversation head on.
I want my son to make his own decisions
Keeth Bandara is the father of three children and lead pastor at City of Lights in Bushey. He founded Candyshop, a conference for young people, which provides an open and safe place to talk about sex and relationships.
Spirituality starts at home. I believe it’s not the responsibility of the Church to bring up our kids, but to equip them to navigate through life in community with like-minded thinkers. Youth and children’s workers only get a limited time each week with their groups, so one of my biggest passions has been equipping parents to deal with issues youth and children’s leaders don’t have enough time to cover.
Conversations about sex should be part of our schools and youth groups, but it’s more powerful coming from mummy and daddy. Pre-primary school, my son said to me: “The teacher talked about having two daddies.” I didn’t say my answer straight out. I asked him what they were saying and how he felt about it. He said: “Well, I think I need a mummy and a daddy.” We agreed that was important to him but that some families are different. I wanted it to come from him. I didn’t want him to go into school and say: “Daddy says that’s not right!” and I wanted him to learn how to make his own decisions.
The new sex and relationships education curriculum is coming in and a lot of people are making noise about removing their children. I don’t think its something we, as parents, should panic about if our line of communication with our children is healthy regarding sex and relationships. However, it can pose a problem if you’re not having that conversation. I feel parents need to have that conversation. They need to not be afraid about how their schools might teach it, because if we have healthy conversations our children are well informed. If your children don’t learn about sex and relationships from you first, supplemented by the Church, they’ll probably learn about it from other much less helpful sources, like porn.
I look at it as a ‘Daniel season’. Daniel was forced into a strange place and made to do things that went against his beliefs, yet he kept his integrity. The Bible says that under the rule of four different kings Daniel remained exceptional. He did not compromise. I believe that as Christians we can also be exceptional in an arena that does not celebrate our beliefs. Pray that your kids have a spirit like Daniel. When we look at Daniel’s life there was a lot ofinput from his parents, mentors and temple leaders. When he got to a place that did not celebrate what he believed he was able to hold fast to his learnt pattern of living.
In terms of when you talk about sex, that depends on the child, but I think it helps to coincide with the school. We might feel the school starts a little earlier than we might like, but that’s the world we’re in and they only want the best for our children. It was important for me that our children knew certain things even before they started school: the correct anatomical names for body parts, for instance. I wanted them to know the names and not be embarrassed about them.
We have some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe. The countries that have the lowest rates, such as those in Scandinavia, are not embarrassed about being naked; it’s not a taboo. If boys are used to nakedness growing up, it’s no big deal when others talk about boobs because their mums have them! My 9-year-old is already asking questions and I don’t hide from it, but I answer with age-appropriate information. Statistically, kids are seeing porn from the age of 9. I want my kids to know that they can ask me a question and they’ll get a straight answer. I’m so strict – my kids aren’t allowed a phone and they can’t watch the tablet on their own – but if other parents haven’t got the same boundaries they are going to be informed by their friends, so I’d better be talking about it.
I think shame is a big issue in the Church. At Candyshop we get teenagers opening up about porn addiction, masturbation and underage sex. I read a book that described shame as the new sin. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden they covered their shame, and I see the same thing happening today. We want to create an atmosphere where Jesus is walking around the garden, saying: “Where are you? Where are you?” just as God did in Eden. I want our kids to know that when they feel ashamed or guilty they can call out to God so that healing can take place.
We haven’t talked about sex yet but we’re not far off
Annie Willmot is a mother of two small children. She is a funeral pastor, speaker and writer. She blogs at honestconversation.co.uk.
We made a conscious decision while our kids were still babies to use the correct anatomical names for body parts. So when our oldest son started asking about his body and our bodies, we told him about penises and vulvas (the correct term for the outside parts of the female reproductive system. The vagina is the bit inside). I don’t think there are many 3-year-olds who know that ‘areola’ isn’t just the name of a French footballer! We’ve got some really good body books, which we have found helpful. Look Inside Yourself is great for younger kids and See Inside Yourself for older ones.
Our son is developing more of an understanding of relationships as well, which combines with the talk about body parts. We were watching Into the Woods and he started asking why Cinderella didn’t kiss her husband, Prince Charming. I ended up having to explain that he was choosing to kiss someone who wasn’t his wife instead. Try explaining fidelity to a 3-year-old! We ended up talking about how Daddy had chosen to marry and kiss me, and that if he kissed someone else that would be hurtful, as it would break the promise he made to me when we got married. This seemed to satisfy his questioning.
We haven’t yet talked about sex, but we’re not far off. Only a few days ago we had a conversation that went something like this:
Him: “Mummy, why do they have a baby?”
Me: “They wanted one, so they made one.”
Him: “No they didn’t. God made it.”
Me: “Well, yes. God made the baby using their bodies.”
Him: “Not the daddy’s body. Just the mummy’s.”
Me: “Well, actually, the daddy’s body was also important.”
Him: *Runs off into the soft play.*
Me: *Breathes a sigh of relief that we stopped there for now! *
I don’t think it will be long before he asks more questions and we end up having that conversation in full.
Children need to know their bodies belong to them
Natalie Collins is a gender justice specialist, author of Out of Control and the mother of two children aged 13 and 16.
I grew up in Christian culture and met a boy at 17. He said he was a Christian, so I thought God must have sent him. I was with him until I was 21, and it emerged that he wasn’t very Christian at all. I was really badly harmed by him, escaping after he assaulted me and my son was born prematurely. I met God for myself in a transformative way while we lived in hospital for five months after that.
How many people want to be thinking about the risk of abuse when their children are 5 or 6? But in reality, by putting appropriate boundaries in place and managing things like tech when they are little, they understand how we operate as a family and what is not OK once they get to their teenage years.
It starts by enabling children to know that their bodies belong to them. Some of the ways we talk about Christianity are unhelpful for this. I grew up being told that my body is a temple of the Lord. That’s not a bad thing, but when you bring an abuser into this situation it can be problematic. As much as that’s in the Bible, we need to equip our children to understand what it means in a healthy way.
My children always chose their own clothes. We never made them kiss or hug relatives. If they didn’t want to they could offer a high five or a wave. They get to choose who can touch them and who they touch. There are no negatives to enabling children to know that their bodies belong to them.
Another thing is having open conversations about sex and relationships. My rule is that if you don’t want to talk about, talk about it. We always use the correct anatomical names for their body parts. Research shows that if an abuser is going to harm a child they are less likely to do so if the correct names are used. It’s really unappealing. Also, having the proper names equips them to report any issues to a teacher or trusted adult. If they say, “My uncle touched my noo noo”, what does that even mean?
We also need to de-euphemise sex. I was talking to some young people whose youth worker had described sex as being like a slide. You climb up the rungs and you never know when you will slide down. I asked if they knew what the rungs were referring to and they didn’t. It had come across as if sex was something we have no control over; something that was inevitable. Obviously, anyone who has been in a sexual relationship knows we can have intense feelings, but at no point do we lose control of our bodies. If we’re doing that it’s not very safe.
If I’m speaking with teenagers I have a list of every sexual activity you can think of (and some you probably can’t). With the influence of pornography, things you didn’t need to talk about even ten years ago they’re learning about from graphic content. I talk about whether these are things you would ever want to do with a sexual partner and, if so, at what stage in the relationship you would want to do so. This is much safer than using a metaphor about a ladder and a slide.
My understanding is that Christian teenagers aren’t less likely to have sex. They’re just more likely to have unprotected sex because they have to pretend that they hadn’t planned to do it. That’s not safe. We need to be open about how difficult it is to not have sex before marriage. We need to be having these conversations, and earlier than we think, or they will learn about it from elsewhere.