I am frequently asked by parents how they should talk to their child about pornography or sexting after it has been discovered that the child has been looking at online pornography or sending sexual images to another teen. Though I commend these parents for talking to a professional in an attempt to get the best advice, that horse is already out of the stable. When I ask these caring parents why they have not already talked to their child about sex and digital sexuality, a number of reasons come to light. These reasons normally have nothing to do with the child, but are all related to the parent’s “stuff.”
So why don’t parents talk to their children about sex?
1. Parents don’t know enough about sex themselves.
If you are a parent, obviously, you know enough about sex to have created a child. Even though we may be having sex, we might not know enough about it to teach healthy sexuality to a child. Most parents know the basic biology of human sexuality. We know the names of male and female anatomical parts. We know the basics of conception—the fertilization of the egg by the sperm. After these basics, there is a huge lack of knowledge. Many parents do not have adequate knowledge of sexually transmitted infections or HIV. Discussing disease transmission is a big part of discussing healthy sexuality with a child that moves beyond the biological mechanics of sex.
Another aspect of teaching healthy sexuality is teaching about healthy relationships. Teaching children about consent, healthy communication, partnership, intimacy, etc. are all part of teaching healthy sexuality. We also teach children through modeling of behavior. If parents are not talking about healthy relationships with their children and are modeling dysfunction (i.e., emotional or physical abuse, disconnection, avoidance, etc.), they are actually teaching unhealthy sexuality to their children.
2. Parents think their children will learn about healthy sexuality in school.
Many parents do not talk to their children about sex and sexuality because they think that the topic is taught to their children in school. While some schools may teach human sexuality, how and what they teach is highly variable and depends on the school district in which the family lives. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, only 22 states in the United States mandate teaching at least some sexual education in schools. Even if you live in a state where sex education is mandated, do you know what they are teaching? Only 19 states require that the information taught in sex education classes is medically accurate. This fact was mind blowing to me when I read it.
Many parents also do not get involved or ask about the information being taught to their children in sex education to find out, first, what is being taught and, second, if the information is accurate. Many schools that do provide curriculum on sex education do not teach about healthy relationships nor do they teach about sex in the digital age, skipping topics such as online pornography and sexting. If you are relying on the school to teach your children about sex, they may be getting no information, misinformation, or minimal information.
3. Parents are in denial
Denial is one of the biggest issues that I come across preventing parents from talking to their children. If a parent is in denial about what their child is doing sexually or what they have seen online, they are not going to even be thinking about my first two points. If you think that your 15-year-old child has not seen pornography online, you are quite simply wrong. The average age of first exposure to online pornography is between 10 and 11 years old. This means that if you have not had proactive talks with your child by this age, you have missed the boat.
Thinking that your sweet Johnny has never seen online pornography is denial in its truest form. Your child’s exposure to online pornography is not a judgment of them or a statement of character. It is not a reflection of your parenting skills either. It is likely a statement of fact. This does not mean that your child is actively seeking out the imagery or is a frequent user of pornography, but simply that he or she has seen it. If they have seen it, they may have questions about it or they may have confused feelings which a discussion with their parent might help them sort out.
What can parents do?
What we do know from the research is that kids do want more education about sex and relationships. They even want that information to come from their parents. So what can parents do?
- Get your head out of the sand. If you are reading this, you have children who are digital natives and likely a part of the “Generation App.” Come to grips with the fact that your kids are exposed to digital sexuality on a daily basis. Get educated about what apps they use and how they are exposed to sexuality on each of these apps. Is it imagery, chatting, social networks, pornography sites? The best way to find out what your child is doing in the digital world is to actually talk to them about their digital life. Get interested and get involved.
- Get some education yourself. Head to the bookstore and peruse the selection of books on sex education. There are great resources out there to refresh your knowledge of human sexuality. Read up on healthy relationships. Talk to your child from the get-go about healthy concepts such as communication, consent, and intimacy. Most of all, do your best to model a healthy relationship in your own behavior. I also highly recommend talking to the educators in your child’s school system about their sex education program. Know what your child is being taught in school as well as what they are not being taught. It is up to you to supplement and improve that education.
- Talk to your child. Talk to them often. Accept that these conversations are going to be awkward at first. They will get easier. Talk to them about what they have seen online without judgment or instilling shame. Gather data about your child’s experiences and talk to them about how they feel about it. In this, too, you are modeling healthy relationships. Talk to your child both about the mechanics of sex as well as the relational aspect of sexuality. Talk to them about disease prevention. Talk to them about your family’s values about pornography. Talk to them about pornography itself and how that does or does not reflect actual sex in relationships.