Every October, Answer joins colleagues across the country to mark Let’s Talk Month—a time to acknowledge the important role parents and caregivers play in nurturing their children’s sexual health by encouraging open, honest communication about sexuality, dating and relationships. Young people consistently cite their parents as the biggest influence on their decisions about sex, and they report wanting to hear more from their parents on these important topics. The data are also clear about the impact of these conversations. Young people who report having positive conversations with their parents about sex and sexuality are more likely to wait to have sex and to use condoms and contraception when they do become sexually active.
As I prepared for Let’s Talk Month this year, I spent some time reflecting on my own parents and all the things they did right in addressing sex and sexuality as I grew up. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who fostered open communication on a range of topics, cultivated a close and trusting relationship between us and set clear expectations around healthy behaviors. I have vivid memories of conversations with my mom and dad that helped me develop boundaries and personal values to support healthy decision-making. Here are a few things I recall my parents doing especially well.
They took advantage of teachable moments.
I’ll never forget one particular car ride with my mom, on our way to the swimming pool, when Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” came on the radio. (I’ll pause here to allow readers of my generation to collect themselves.) As I began to hum along, my mom slowly turned down the volume and asked, “What do you think they’re singing about?” I’m sure my face quickly flushed to match the red of my cheerleading skirt, but my mom pressed on. She recognized an opening to have an important conversation and she took advantage of it.
Popular media—music, television, movies and the like—presents endless opportunities to address topics ranging from love and affection to consent and abuse. Rather than fast-forwarding through a steamy scene or ignoring unhealthy behaviors modeled by some of our favorite fictional characters, parents and caregivers can use these moments as a springboard for meaningful conversations. Once my mom had my attention that day, she shared what she thought was important for me to know about sex and relationships, illustrating the next skill my parents mastered.
They communicated a clear set of values around sex, dating and relationships.
As we pulled into the parking lot outside the swimming pool, my mom recited a message she would reiterate throughout my adolescence: “Sex is a beautiful, special thing, and it’s best when shared between two people who love and are committed to each other.” What’s important here is not the content of what she said, but the fact that she articulated a clear set of values my parents believed in and wanted to instill in me. My parents viewed sexuality as a positive aspect of life, and they placed a high value on expressing love in the context of a relationship.
Every family will develop their own unique values around sex and sexuality. An important task for caregivers is to get clear on what values they hold and to seek opportunities to express those values to their children. Being proactive about initiating such conversations demonstrates a critical value in its own right: that communicating about sex is a priority. Ideally, these conversations should be ongoing, forming the basis for a dialogue that evolves as young people grow up. Had my mom simply let that song play and not spoken up, I might have absorbed a very different message about sexual relationships and been left thinking that my mom viewed the topic as inappropriate or that she would not be open to answering my questions. But my parents didn’t stop at communicating their values.
They made sure I had access to the health services I needed.
As I got older and began to have my first relationships, my parents talked to me in more detail about how to determine if I was ready for sex and how to prevent pregnancy and STDs. They let me know they would love and support me no matter what decisions I made, and they emphasized that I had control over my body. They made sure I knew about the available options for birth control and told me they would take me to see a doctor if and when I wanted. I knew I had the right to access health services on my own, without my parents’ knowledge or consent, but I chose to involve them when the time came because they had built a foundation of trust and I wanted their support.
Many parents and caregivers fear they won’t have the knowledge to answer all their children’s questions about sex and sexuality and some worry that talking openly about sex will encourage young people to become sexually active. In reality, parents don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. Children just need to know they can come to their parents who will help them find the information they need. Young people want to hear their parents’ views on dating, relationships and sex, and communicating clear values on these topics has been shown to help them make healthy decisions. Parents don’t need to have all the answers in order support their children in navigating the transitions and milestones of adolescence. They do need a clear set of values and expectations and a willingness to initiate the conversation. So Let’s Talk!