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Posts Tagged ‘Sexuality’

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.

Talking With Your Kids About Sexuality: Not an Olympic Feat!

August 2, 2012

I have worked with thousands of parents over the years, many of whom try to find any excuse they can to not talk with their children about sexuality. As a sexuality educator who is also a parent, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum, finding teachable moments everywhere, relentlessly reinforcing information and values with my child.

So I was a little embarrassed to admit that it took me until the third day of the Olympic Games to realize how many teachable moments relating to sexuality there have been within both the Games and the accompanying media coverage. When you consider that sexuality is about far more than sexual behaviors-that it is about gender and gender roles, body image and self-esteem, sexual orientation and identity, and much more-opportunities for discussing sexuality are all over the Olympics. So I thought I’d offer a few examples and suggestions of how you  can take advantage of the many teachable moments that are sure to arise while watching the remainder of the Games:


My soon-to-be-ten-year-old son is obsessed with puberty. He couldn’t be more excited, so anything he can link to what’s going to happen during puberty he will. As we watch the Games, he’s full of questions:

During synchronized diving: “Why does the one on the left have hair on his legs and the other doesn’t? Is he older than the other one? Does the other one shave his legs? Will I have to shave my legs in puberty?”

During women’s gymnastics: “She’s 15? She looks like she’s 12. She doesn’t have any, you know… OK… breasts….”

Behind all his questions is “What’s normal?” I didn’t need to know anything about these individual athletes to be able to respond; I didn’t need to know their true ages or shaving habits.  What he needed to hear was this: young people go through puberty at different rates; bodies can look totally different on people of the same age; and all of this is entirely normal.

Gender Roles

Already there have been gender role stereotypical moments, and moments that have decimated those stereotypes. They are all opportunities to talk with your child about perceptions they may have (or have heard expressed) about what boys or girls can do solely based on their gender. This is the first year that every single country represented has a female athlete, and that is worth highlighting. Perhaps you’d want to discuss why it took so long for that to happen, why it happened this year and why some people are not celebrating.

You may wish to discuss how, even in the Olympic Games, girls and women are still expected to pay attention to their overall appearance while boys and men are not. I purchased a magazine for my son that provided in-depth interviews with some of the athletes. Part of the coverage discussed the female athletes’ makeup tips, while coverage of the male athletes described their workout routines. The fact that female athletes are judged on appearance as well as ability is something that can and should be discussed with young people.

Body Image

Young people receive messages from their earliest ages about beauty, and research consistently shows that people who do not feel good about their bodies are much more likely to make poor sexual decisions. Olympic athletes would give regular runners who are in great shape inferiority complexes, never mind how we as civilians might respond! So here are a few things you can point out if your child comments on the athletes’ bodies:

  • Olympic athletes spend most of their days exercising and working on strengthening their bodies.
  • They need to eat really healthy and take care of themselves.
  • There are lots of different body types in the world. Most people do not look like these athletes, and that’s OK. Some other athletes don’t look like these athletes. Everyone is different, and it’s normal to be different.

Sexual Orientation and Relationships

The opening ceremony was a huge demonstration of pageantry and mixed media, including a part that combined live-action and video in which a broad array of couples were shown kissing. These went very quickly, but once your kids got beyond squealing “Lady and the Tramp!” and “Shrek and Fiona!” they may have also noticed interracial and interethnic couples, adults older than their 20s, as well as-for a few brief seconds-a kiss between two women. All of these are potential teachable moments.

The vast majority of relationships young people see in popular media are still people from the same racial/ethnic backgrounds. They are also between people of two different sexes in their 20s-to-30s. This video and performance represented the diversity that can be found in love relationships. Talk about it!

With a week and a half left in the Olympics, who knows what other opportunities for discussion will present themselves? But consider the values and lessons you’ve been imparting to your child(ren) already, and see whether you can find ways of using an event that has captured the attention of so many of our children as an excuse for starting new conversations and keeping them going well beyond the closing ceremonies.

Check out these additional resources for talking with your children about sexuality.

You Want Me to Say WHAT? Talking About Sex With Your Kids

November 30, 2011

If you’re a parent, you know well that you have many jobs when it comes to your children’s well-being. But did you know that one of these is being your child’s sexuality educator?

Teaching your child about sexuality, in the context of your own family values, is one of the most important jobs you have-yet it is the job parents usually get the least amount of training to do.

The very idea of talking about sexuality tends to raise a myriad of questions for parents: What’s appropriate to say at which ages? Shouldn’t I wait for my child to bring it up? What if I don’t know how to answer my child’s questions?

Relax! There are some basic ways that you can let your children know that you are a safe, “askable” adult-no matter what they might have questions about.

It’s Never Too Early to Start. It’s important to remember that sexuality has to do with far more than “sex.” “Sexuality” is a far-reaching, comprehensive term that encompasses everything from physical anatomy to understanding how to treat people with respect to learning how pregnancy happens and much, much more.

When you understand this, you know that children are receiving messages about sexuality from the day they are born-from the words people use around them to describe their body parts to messages they get from family, peers and the media about how they are supposed to behave based on their assigned gender. The longer you wait to talk with your child, the more you are competing with what they’re hearing all around them.

The important phrase here is “age-appropriate”-what your child needs to know as a kindergartener is much different from what she or he needs to know in high school. Start early, start slowly-and if you’re unsure, reach out for some guidance.

It’s Never Too Late to Start. If you are the parent of an adolescent and you haven’t yet started talking with your child, you didn’t miss the proverbial boat. Start now and keep talking.

As your children get older, they will need to know new information with each passing year and be faced with making decisions about relationships and shared sexual behaviors. Your guidance will be imperative throughout their adolescent years.

Try to put the idea of having “the” talk out of your mind. You need to talk early and often!

Take Small Bites. You don’t need to cover absolutely everything in one conversation with your child. It will overwhelm you as much as it will your child!

Look for teachable moments: watch television with your child and mute the television during commercials to discuss something you’ve just seen.

Take advantage of car rides to and from school and other activities. This is a non-threatening place to have discussions about sexuality and other important topics.

Talk With Your Partner or Spouse About Your Values. If you are married or in a relationship, make sure that you and your spouse or partner talk about your values and beliefs relating to sexuality so that if you have individual conversations with your child, the messages you are giving are consistent.

Be sure to deal with any differences you may have in your opinions and values away from your child. For example, if one of you believes it’s OK for 13-year-olds to date but the other thinks that that’s too young, you need to have that conversation independent of your child and figure out together how to respond in ways that provide information without undermining either one of you or your beliefs.

If You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know.” There is a strong pressure on parents to know everything. Although we may love it when our kids are younger and think we do, we can’t possibly. The good news is there are tons of Web sites, books and other resources for parents.

If you’re stumped, be honest with your child, saying something like, “That’s a really great question. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. Let’s go look it up online together.” You won’t lose validity in your child’s eyes. In fact, he or she will appreciate your honesty.

There’s nothing about becoming a parent that makes us instant experts in sexuality-or in any other topic for that matter. But the good news is you’re not alone.

You can get support from trained sexuality educators, learn from fellow parents and get guidance from folks in your faith community, if you are a member of one. Talking about sexuality isn’t always easy, but it is always important.

You Want Me to Say WHAT? Talking About Sex With Your Kids” was originally published by

Why Can’t More Americans…?

March 25, 2009

In the hit Broadway musical and movie My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins sings plaintively, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The lyrics came to mind recently as I found myself vexed by several national media stories that reveal our negative attitudes about sex. Yet my plaintive question is: “Why can’t Americans be more accepting of their sexuality?”

Story 1: Anna Quindlen on Abstinence-Only

If Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen might never have had to write these sentences in her March 16th column:

“Texas leads the nation in spending for abstinence-only programs. It also has one of the highest teen birthrates in the country. Those two sentences together sound like the basis for a logic question on the SAT, but a really easy one.”

Quindlen writes a brilliant, perceptive analysis of Congress’ blindness to the failure of abstinence-only programs. If we, as a country, were more accepting of our sexuality and more willing to follow sound program evaluation, we’d have decided years ago that all young people deserve comprehensive sexuality education and be done with it.

Story 2: Obama’s Budget and Abstinence-Only

Sexuality educators learned that the new administration hasn’t removed funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Sure, it may have cut some of the money, but the Department of Health and Human Services section devoted to Preventing Teen Pregnancy states:

“The Budget supports State, community-based, and faith-based efforts to reduce teen pregnancy using evidence-based models. The program will fund models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically-accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have already become sexually active.”

I call this budgetary decision a big waffle that divides kids into two groups: the sheep (the “good” kids who don’t have sex while in high school), and the goats (the “bad” kids who do). It denies young people equal opportunity to learn in advance of having sex about important ways to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Isn’t it useful for kids who decide to remain abstinent in high school to have knowledge about contraception, which they might put to use when they are in college or, as adults, ready to get married or commit to long-term partnerships?

If only Americans were more accepting of their sexuality, the DHHS would fund programs that offer balanced information about abstinence and contraception before most kids become sexually active. And it would support distribution of condoms and birth control pills to those who ask for them, as is done in many European countries with far lower teen pregnancy rates than ours.