So, I don’t know if this is an odd thing to do or not, but I was wondering if I could suggest a topic I would be so curious to hear your thoughts on.
I was wondering how you talked to your kids about sex/ how you framed your families expectations of sexual propriety. Much like you, I grew up in a very religious household and had the strong “no sex before marriage because Jesus says so” training. But now I’m not religious and so my values have changed on that topic but I find I sort of miss (weirdly) the clear line of “no sex before marriage” to tell my kids…even though I am okay with sex before marriage but I don’t think they’ll buy my real feeling of “no sex until I think you are ready”.
I’m not sure if this makes sense…but, basically, how did you approach this topic with your bigger kids?
One thing I’ve done when talking especially to my older two (they’re now 15 and 13) is to mention ahead of time that my own upbringing was religious and that all my own decisions/experiences at that stage of life were influenced by my own religious beliefs at the time, and to be frank that that means I’m not always sure what to tell them or what the rules should be. There are things that still freak me out just because they freaked me out at the time and in that context, and it’s hard to know which things are still good things to freak out about (“FEAR/PREVENT THE STD”) and which things could use a little adjustment (“PREMARITAL SEX CAUSES ALL FUTURE MARITAL SEX TO FOREVER FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD”).
It helps, I think, to know that people who were taught about sexuality from a non-religious standpoint ALSO have to figure some things out before teaching their own kids: what’s considered normal and proper changes with time, and with inventions/discoveries, and with changes in the way the culture thinks of things.
And people continuing on with a religious structure have to do a fair amount of interpretation: the Bible, for example, goes into a lot of detail about clean/unclean foods, but is a little skimpy on the sort of thing a parent might need for the Where Did I Come From? talk. I remember being very surprised to learn in college (from the boyfriend of my roommate: it’s uncanny how studious a young man can be when properly motivated) how unclear the Bible is on the topic, and seriously out of date at this point: women in our culture, for example, are no longer stoned for failing to bleed on their wedding night, nor do most religious people follow the extremely strict rules about dealing with menstruation and childbirth (UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN! UNCLEEEEEEEEEEEEANNNNNNNN!!!). Most of the sexuality teachings associated with Christianity (and I assume with other religions as well, but I only have experience with Christianity) are church teachings rather than biblical teachings: i.e., ways the people who follow that version of Christianity tend to believe people should behave based on their own understanding of God and the Bible, rather than anything specifically discussed by God himself. Which is fine, but means that even religious families have to do this kind of figuring things out before they start passing that information on to the next generation.
In general, my method with kid questions on difficult/unclear topics (afterlife, politics, ethics, religion, etc.) is to start with something like, “Well, different people think different things,” and then go on from there. This is good for stalling, and also for filling up a long car ride with a chatty child. So, like, when Rob was little and liked to talk about things Very Thoroughly, and he asked what happened after people died, I said something like, “Well, nobody really knows for sure. Some people think….” and we went through reincarnation, heaven/hell, heaven without the hell, limbo/purgatory, ghosts/spirits, anything else I could think of, and the “nothing at all” theory. I also mentioned that there were a lot of other theories I didn’t know about from other cultures/religions.
With sex questions/lectures, I do pretty much the same thing: I say that different people think different things. Some people believe in abstinence before marriage, some people believe in abstinence in theory but not in their own specific situation; some people think sex is dirty/bad, some people think sex is natural/good, some people think it depends on the situation; some people think sex is for fun, some people think it’s only for when you’re in love, some people think it’s only for creating babies, some people think it can be for different things in different situations; and so on. Which leads naturally to listing a lot of different reasons, too: because of believing that God (or someone else in the Bible) said so or thinks so, because of health reasons, because of safety reasons, because of emotional reasons, because of pregnancy hopes/fears, because of ancient and recent beliefs about sex and morality and romance, and so on. I don’t always know what I’m talking about, and I try to make that clear as the discussion goes along—like, “I don’t know all the details, but as I understand it…”
Sometimes I talk to them about it from a parental point of view: “Some of my friends think kids shouldn’t even be taught about sex and birth control, while some of my other friends take their daughters to get on the pill,” etc. (I don’t say which of my friends are which, for general privacy and because sometimes my kids are friends with my friends’ kids.) They seem to like that kind of talk, and will often be very strongly opinionated about other parents’ decisions. I think it’s easier for them to argue with Theoretical Unnamed Parent than it is to argue with an actual parent—and it’s easier for me to present the point of view fairly when it belongs to someone I know and like.
Or I’ll tell them about parents/kids I knew when I was a kid. My parents took the religious/abstinence view of sex but my mom was extremely big on giving us information, so I ended up having to pass on that information to a fair number of friends whose parents thought they didn’t need to know. “Oh my gosh,” Never-Had-a-Boyfriend Swistle would say, “No, it is not going to work to rinse out afterward with diet Coke, you are going to need something that works better than that. Let me tell you the stats on condoms vs. the pill” or “YES you absolutely CAN get pregnant that way and he is either a JERK or STUPID for saying you can’t.” And they explained to ME what French-kissing was and what “69” and “third base” and “feeling someone up” meant, and gave me a dog-eared copy of Forever, so really it was a well-rounded education for all of us and gives me some comfort whenever I hear talk of taking sex education out of schools.
Here are the things I like about this “let’s talk about all the different opinions and ideas, with lots of anecdotes” method:
1. It makes it clear that I don’t necessarily know the right answer
2. It makes it clear that there isn’t only one way to think about it
3. I find that kind of conversation fun
Plus, it forces the children to take some responsibility for their own decisions, which takes some of that responsibility OFF of ME. And it IS off of me: I DON’T have to make the decisions for them, and in fact I CAN’T: THEY are going to make all the decisions. I can set some boundaries and/or make things difficult for them (“No, you can’t lose your virginity here at home, so it will have to be in a car I guess” or “No, you can’t date, so I guess you’ll have to lie and tell me you’re going to a friend’s house”), but that’s it: the actual decisions are in their hands whether I like it or not. So rather than telling them what The Right Way is, or even what our family expects, I tend to tell them what I hope: that they will wait until they’re ready, that they won’t be pressured into it, that they will be safe, that they will be kind and respectful and careful with other people’s feelings, that they will remember that sex is about sex but it is also about the people involved, that they will not accidentally ruin their lives, that I will never have to catch them at it, and so on.
Another method I use is the Making Books Available method. As a child/teenager, I really really really really did NOT want to ask my mom questions—not because she was unavailable or wouldn’t answer, but for the OPPOSITE reason: she would get twinkly-eyed and LOVED to use Embarrassing Words and discuss Embarrassing Concepts. I was very glad to have the books Where Did I Come From? and What’s Happening to Me? for reference (though less thrilled to receive the latter for a pre-teen birthday (11? 12?) and have my mom start leafing through it laughing and pointing out the “perky boobs”).
Even more helpful was a book I found at the library; I don’t remember the title of it, but I remember it was written by someone who sounded young and cool but was also an Experienced Adult Woman. I think it was in a Q&A format—maybe an essay on a topic, followed by questions submitted by young girls? something like that. It had lots of stuff about sex and periods and kissing and boys and pregnancy and STDs and birth control, and lots of embarrassing stories from the author’s own experience (I remember one story about the time she and her boyfriend tried to have sex for their first time and COULDN’T FIGURE IT OUT). Here’s a list of the books I’ve bought so far for the kids:
Where Did I Come From?: The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense
What’s Happening to Me?: An Illustrated Guide to Puberty
What’s Going on Down There?: Answers to Questions Boys Find Hard to Ask
The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls (this has since been republished in two volumes, one for younger girls and one for older girls)
It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families
It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health
I read Where Did I Come From? and It’s So Amazing! to them as littler children—different ages for each depending on when they started asking questions and showing more than a passing interest, but basically very early school age (kindergarten/1st). The other books, I’ve handed over with a brief official statement about having access to information they might not want to ask me about, but of course they SHOULD ask me if they want to, and they can also ask me if they don’t understand something in the book. The rest of the talking is done forcefully, usually in the car with one or two children at a time, at my initiation (Swistle: “Today we are going to talk about various methods of birth control!” Children: *groaning*). I like to talk in the car because there’s so much less eye-contact involved, and because they’re trapped. I’m glad to know too that their schools are covering some of the material, to reinforce points or in case I forget something.
But I think it’s important to add that at this point I don’t have any children who are clearly sexually active. (That is, my impression is that none of them are involved with it at all, but I’m aware that I could be completely unaware of it. I remember as a teenager noticing the wiiiiiide gap between what parents knew and what was true.) At that point I may become significantly less chill about the whole thing: right now it’s theoretical and interesting to discuss, but how will I be when it’s “Can he or can’t he have a girlfriend/boyfriend in his bedroom?” and “Will I or won’t I ask her doctor to put her / let her be on birth control?” WE SHALL HAVE TO WAIT AND SEE.