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Posts Tagged ‘parents’

Let’s Talk: What My Parents Did Right

October 15, 2015

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!

The Best Holiday Gift for Your Kids: Talking About Gender and Sexuality

November 22, 2013

The most common reason I hear parents give for why they haven’t started talking with their children about sexuality is, “Because my kids haven’t brought it up yet.” These parents, who will confess sheepishly that they are looking for any excuse to put off “the talk” as long as possible, believe in their hearts that by not talking about sexuality they are keeping their children “innocent.” Yet they are actually doing the exact opposite. Children do not live in a bubble. And when parents fail to take the lead and proactively talk about sexuality, they are relinquishing control over the topic and allowing the culture at large to educate their children about it.

One reason why parents hesitate to talk with their children about sexuality is the misunderstanding that doing so means talking about sexual behaviors. It actually doesn’t—particularly for younger children. What children are bombarded with from birth and what parents need to talk with them about from the earliest ages has to do with gender: what society says it means to be a girl or a boy and the consequences of either fulfilling or going against those expectations.

Gendering Children

There is no greater cultural example of this in the U.S. than Halloween costumes. Costumes, separated by what are considered “girls’ costumes” and “boys’ costumes,” communicate that girls should be sexy, while boys can celebrate a range of their boyness, from strength to humor to scariness. Boys are told to “Be fearless!” and girls to “Be sassy!” Because nothing says scary like a sassy 12-year-old girl.

Halloween costumes are far from the only offender. Most toy stores separate their inventory by gender; greeting card sellers do the same. Boys’ toys enable a boy to “be like dad” (because, why would he want to emulate his mother?), while toys for girls represent “everything nice.”  When a baby is born, we learn that “B is for Boy…and balls and bats… and bikes… and banged up knees…”and that “G is for Girl…and giggles and grins/games and glitter….”

“Inoculating” Against Homosexuality

Why is our culture so set on gendering how we act? The egregious examples above come from the land of capitalism. But the real root of this worldwide cultural investment in raising boys to be masculine and girls to be feminine is homophobia—the irrational fear of or discomfort with people who are or are perceived to be lesbian or gay.

With so much progress recently relating to same-sex marriage, this admonishment of homophobia may seem misplaced—but believe me, it isn’t. The general public still confounds sexual orientation and gender, assuming that a boy or man who has stereotypically feminine traits or interests is gay, and that a girl or woman who has stereotypically male traits or interests is lesbian. And because this remains a distressing thought to far too many parents, our culture tries to “inoculate” children from the get-go, convinced that swathing a baby boy in blue and a baby girl in pink will ensure their heterosexuality.

There is more flexibility for girls than for boys. A girl who plays with stereotypically boy games and toys is being strong, improving herself by being more “male.” Conversely, if boys play with stereotypically girl toys, they are weak. And although we tolerate some ambiguity the younger a child is, a gender line is usually drawn by the elementary school years, when children are told, “Isn’t it time you started playing with…?”

Now, I am not saying that parents of boys need to go through their homes and throw out their footballs and action figures or that parents of girls need to push their daughters away from playing dress-up or having tea parties. What we need to do, however, is be very aware of how we respond to kids who fulfill the cultural stereotypes and those who don’t and why we are responding as we do. Parents need to remember:

  1. The types or colors of clothes, toys, books and hobbies a child chooses do not necessarily indicate anything about that child’s future sexual orientation.
  2. Parents cannot change their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
  3. Gender stereotypes and the accompanying messages can limit young people and lower their self-esteem– e.g., “Boys don’t cry; therefore if you express your emotions you are gay” or “Girls don’t run around like that; therefore if you do you will never have a boyfriend and people will think you are a lesbian.”

The Gift of Acceptance

The single most common question we hear from young people is, “Am I normal?” If children get the feeling from their parents that how they behave, dress or speak is not OK, they will learn to play a part in order to make their parents happy. And while this gender conformity may comfort the adults in their lives, children who limit themselves rather than being true to who they are are much more likely to have lower self-esteem. If we communicate instead that we accept our children—whether a son is a football player or loves to play the violin; whether a daughter is a ballerina or fascinated by how cars work—our children will be more likely to grow up to be strong and sure of themselves. And that means they are much more likely to be strong, sure and happy adults.

We survived Halloween and are already seeing ads for the upcoming winter holidays. This holiday season, the best gift we can give the young people in our lives is to talk with them about gender and sexuality, share accurate information and impart our values and remind them that they are important, valued and loved, no matter what.

Answer Talks to The New York Times About Parents, Kids & Porn

May 11, 2012

pornI recently spoke with New York Times writer Amy O’Leary about parents, kids and porn. Porn is easily accessible online, and I’ve blogged in the past (”My Child Viewed Porn: Now What?”) about why a child might seek out porn and what parents or guardians can do when this happens. Porn isn’t going away, so it was great to see that the New York Times chose to cover this issue as well! Check out the articles below to find out more, including some additional advice I shared on five different scenarios in which parents spoke with their children who had stumbled upon online porn.

“How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography”

“Can Your Child Find Porn on Your Phone?”

“So How Do We Talk About This?”

My Child Viewed Porn: Now What?

February 17, 2012

pornThere are few more dramatic, clutch-the-pearls parenting moments than discovering that your child was viewing pornography. It doesn’t matter what your child’s gender is or how shy or outgoing your child is. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve put parental restrictions on your Internet access. Porn is easily accessible today in a variety of formats, and it is very likely that this will happen in your family at some point.

Why might your child have checked out porn? The most common reasons are…

Curiosity - Cultural references to porn are all around us. They are made by teens and adults, on the radio, by recording artists, in sitcoms and in movies. So sometimes kids check out porn because they want to know what it is and what the big deal is about.

Hormones - It’s hard for us to admit, but our children are sexual beings. Once they enter puberty, they are RAGING sexual beings. It’s exactly what’s supposed to be happening, biologically and developmentally. So sometimes, kids go online to check out porn because it turns them on. Sorry. Truth.

Confusion - Adolescents are concrete thinkers who need specific examples. If you describe what a condom is, your adolescent will understand something. If you show your adolescent a condom, allow her or him to actually touch it, your concrete adolescent will understand far more. For some young people, hearing “oral sex is when someone puts their mouth on another person’s genitals for pleasure” isn’t enough. How does that actually happen? Why do people do it? Adolescents go online, see someone performing oral sex and say, “Oh, I get it.”

Parents often ask, “What impact does viewing porn have on children?” There are different viewpoints and a range of research relating to this. Generally speaking, porn does not harm young people. It can, however, misinform and confuse them. Porn is made for adults, not adolescents. It is designed to be a fantasy-and adolescents don’t always get that, because, again, they’re concrete thinkers. What they see is what they get.

So, what do you do if your child has been checking out porn?

Decide who’s going to bring it up. If you are partnered or married, strategize together first for consistency. Then one of you should speak with your child so she or he does not feel ganged up on. Believe me, your child is going to feel embarrassed and defensive, so you need to approach this gently.

Be ready to explain how you know she or he was accessing porn. When it comes to technology, parents are all over the place about whether it’s OK to check their children’s e-mails, texts, etc. If you are a parent who does spot checks, I suggest you let your child know that in advance. Otherwise, while you’re trying to talk with your child about why it’s not OK for her or him to look at porn, she or he will be focused on how and why you violated her or his privacy.

Be ready to have several short conversations. Again, your child is likely to be mortified that you discovered she or he was watching porn. That means you have a limited window in which to talk about it. This also means that you may need to come back to it several times to reinforce what you said the first time, since all they will be able to hear is their own voice in their head saying, “Please let this be over….”

Set boundaries. Remember you are the parent, and as the parent, you are responsible for setting and maintaining rules in your home. After you’ve spoken about why adolescents shouldn’t be viewing porn, you need to clearly explain your expectations moving forward and that, like with any other rules, there will be consequences for breaking them. Effective consequences should happen right after the offense and be related to the offense (e.g., no non-homework computer access for a period of time).

Watch for these warning signs that indicate a problem needing professional help:

Subject matter. If you were to discover that the only images your child was viewing were particularly violent or degrading, you’d need to talk about what she or he saw and to explain clearly that that is not the way people should behave in a sexual relationship. How that conversation goes will determine whether you might want to bring your child to see a therapist to explore the source of their curiosity.

Frequency of viewing. A parent asked me, “If my son says he can’t stop watching porn, is that a problem?” Absolutely. If viewing porn feels like a compulsion, professional intervention is necessary to direct your child away from a behavior that is not healthy to one that is.

Changes in language or behavior. Any dramatic changes in your child’s language or behavior should be noted. (For example, if your previously outgoing child becomes quieter, more secretive, or you hear him or her using more sexualized language with friends or with you). These changes may not necessarily indicate that your child has been viewing porn, but they can. When in doubt, check it out.

Above all, stay calm. Talk with other parents about how they’ve handled this situation with their children. Speak with professionals who have expertise working with children. You are not alone in figuring out how to address this!

My Child Viewed Porn: Now What? was originally published by MOMeoMagazine.com.