How and when to talk to your kids about sex
A CNA Lifestyle contributor and new dad found out what it takes to get ready for that future talk with his baby girl at a recent event in Singapore. Pro tip: Don’t call it 'the birds and the bees'.
I recently became a father. Friends have warned me and my wife of how quickly they grow but the reality only hit us after L nearly doubled her birth weight in just six weeks. She had outgrown her diapers and her newborn clothes, and is now in danger of spilling out of her co-sleeper.
I can't help but think: Soon we’ll be camping out under the stars. Then she’ll be going to school. She'll have her first crush. And we'll have to have that sex talk dreaded by parents and children alike, which, as I found out at the recent SPARK (Sexual Pleasure And Relationship Konversations) Fest 2018, may actually take place earlier than expected.
SAYING IT AS IT IS
According to Dutch sexologist and youth sex education expert Dr Sanderijn Van Der Doef, positive sexuality education should start when the child is able to respond, or about three years old.
Speaking on Having The Talk: Dos And Don’ts When Talking About Sex With Your Children at Asia’s first sexual wellness festival, Dr Van Der Doef said her own children got the talk when a condom advertisement aired on television, she recounted.
“I have twins who were about three at the time and my older boy was five years old. They asked what was a condom and I told them it’s what adults used to prevent pregnancies. That’s it.
“The three-year-olds went back to what they were doing. The five-year-old had follow-up questions such as how do you use it, do you put it on your fingers, and such. So I explained to him it is a bag that catches the seed from daddy and prevents pregnancies. At that age, that’s about all they can process. I tell it like it is.
"The next day, his daddy told him how the engine on a car works. It is just information to him.”
Dr Van Der Doef also shared that the Netherlands today has the lowest percentage of teenage pregnancies in Europe, according to the Sex Under 25 report by Rutgers, an international agency on sexual and reproductive health and rights and SOA AIDS Nederland, an intervention specialist for STDs. She attributed this feat to an enlightened sexuality education programme, which begins from primary school.
As a child of the 70s in Singapore, my own sex education journey started when we sneaked into drive-in theatre for free movies – and the free shows in the cars.
When I came of age in the 80s, genitals were said to be “dirty”.
Only one teacher in my entire school life said our genitals are only dirty if we don't wash them. But even he stopped short of giving us “the talk”. I learned about sex through a friend whose open-minded parents told him and somehow didn’t scar him for life.
Dr Van Der Doef was quick to make the distinction between sex education and sexuality education, the former being about sexual intercourse and the latter about gender, body consciousness, permissiveness and cultural difference.
She assured me that children will not ask more than what they can understand. Use the right names – it’s okay to say “vagina” and “penis”. Don’t use euphemisms, she said, and don’t bring the birds and the bees into it.
When they can handle more, tell them sexuality is private and have conversations about their bodies: What feels right and what doesn’t.
And don’t say sex is dirty, she cautioned.
THE TALK DOESN'T NEED TO BE AWKWARD
Children in early education, between five and 10 years old, should be taught what privacy and nudity means and how to respect others in relationships, advised Dr Van Der Doef, who is a member of the WHO European expert group that developed the Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe.
Be prepared to talk about the changes to their bodies, she said, like the appearance of pubic hair and breasts and menstruation for girls, before it happens.
Tweens up to 18 – the most difficult age, I am assuming, for fathers of daughters – should know about safe sex and contraception, she said. Have conversations about positive relationships. Talk about how to start, maintain and end a healthy relationship, including communicating, being assertive, knowing their vulnerability, asking for help and making choices. They should also know the difference between lust and love.
Seeing the colour drain from my face, Dr Van Der Doef quickly assured me: “Positive sexuality education is like teaching your child to swim or ride a bike. You’re ecstatic when they get it but you want to equip them with all the right safety gear and tools along the way.”
Don’t make the talk awkward, advised Dr Van Der Doef.
“Definitely don’t make a date at a fancy restaurant and sit opposite your child, like my mother did with me," she said. "Do something else: Cook with them, take them to the park, sit next to them, then have the talk."
“You should also check what your child already knows. Ask how much he or she knows, then add on to it. He’d be more interested if you’re not just repeating something he already knows.”
As fast as L is growing, I know I still have a couple of years before I prep for the talk. But, as long as we start the conversations early, we’ll never be caught off-guard, assured Dr Van Der Doef.
Now that I’m prepped for the sex talk, I’ll be sure to include my better half in the conversation. L, we promise not to make this an embarrassing period in your life.
We’ll reserve that for birthdays and school proms.