On another late night in the kitchen, after their sports practice, my two teenage boys banter, crack jokes and guzzle a half carton of chocolate milk, while my weary eyes try to get peanut butter spread all the way to the corners of their raisin toast. As much as my middle-aged body would prefer to be tucked under the covers, I hang out in the kitchen to share in those precious moments when they are full of endorphins and their guard is down long enough for me to experience their funny, affectionate selves. While these evenings are filled with teachable moments, I try hard to listen, and refrain from preaching the dreaded, never-ending lectures.
Teen romance and sexual activity are particular topics that bubble up in these late nights. These topics almost hurl me into a full-blown panic attack…not literally…but my heart rate indicates as much. Teen romance tales start with blushes and laughter, but ultimately the details of courting rituals and dating habits make the air heavy and uncomfortable for me.
Parenting teenagers is difficult enough, but raising teenage boys in the midst of the #metoo movement can be overwhelming at best. Boundaries, consent, STI’S, birth control, hormones, etc. want to come spilling out of my mouth all at once. My husband who regularly joins these conversations feels just as flustered. Our intentions are well-meaning, but the looks in my boys eyes reveal that, in some way, we have shamed an important part of who they are.
As a health care provider working in reproductive health for 23 years, I am surprised at how difficult it is for me to discuss sexual health and sexuality with my boys. Even with access to current research, professional mentors, clinical practice and Google, I find myself floundering to adopt the right approach. Lacking in the health care community is one single resource that acknowledges sexuality as part of the whole human experience through the life span. Our sexuality begins at birth and extends into our golden years and beyond. Rarely, does current sexual health education embrace that we are all sexual beings, driven not only to procreate but to attach and form intimate relationships and partnerships. The very same hormones that drive libido are the same hormones that drive people to love and to form bonds. Currently much of our sexual health education covers the function of the reproductive system, focused on preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. On rare occasions intimacy and desire for human connection are drawn into the conversation of sexuality. Often it is not until adulthood that we reach for resources that teach about intimacy and the complexities of human relationships. It is no surprise, that young people would use social media and pornography as a way to fill the education and curiosity gap.
My desire to communicate a more comprehensive conversation with my children has lead me to some interesting discoveries of how sexuality and sexual health is taught in different parts of the world. Denmark starts sexual health as early as Kindergarten. These lessons do not start with sexual intercourse, but rather explore that sexuality is so much more than that. Its is also about self image, developing your own identity, and gender roles. This foundation in the early years prepares young people to express themselves, their wishes and their boundaries.
Perhaps my husband and I stumble when trying to discuss sexuality and sexual health with our boys because we have approached it backwards. Out of fear and concern we inject conversations with boundaries, safety, and consent, before sexual identity and human intimacy are thoroughly explored. “A 2008 United Nations report found that comprehensive sex ed, when taught effectively allows young people to explore their attitudes and values, and to practice the decision-making and other life skills they will need to be able to make informed choices about their sexual lives.” Sadly a frantic approach not starting until the late teen years could leave our young people with few skills to cope with their feelings and make decisions in sexual encounters that could begin as early as late elementary school.
I am humbly aware that our society encompasses a wide range of cultural, religious and personal beliefs making the topic of sexuality and sexual health difficult to navigate. However, our children are faced with technology, social pressures, mental health issues and consequences that make it more important than ever for our communities to share resources and explore meaningful ways to approach sexual health and sexual consent awareness.
In talking to other parents, I find that we all share the same desire to raise healthy adults. Helping them develop their own sexual identity and preparing them for intimate partnerships is an important milestone that could set the foundation for fulfilling relationships well into their adult years. As our three sons bridge to adulthood, my husband and I hope that our boys will be able see themselves as beautiful human beings capable of healthy friendships and intimate relationships.
By, Kelly Hendrickson, R.N. & Mom
Talking Tips and resources for parents from the Families Connected Project:
Kids have access to the world in the palm of their hand. Through their devices, an overwhelming amount of images and information come at them on a daily basis, and the culture around how they connect is completely different than what we experienced. Keeping that in mind, own what we don’t know. Consider starting with, “I’m curious about what it’s like in the dating world right now?”
About those images coming at them, a high percentage of teens are getting a lot of their sex education and concepts of relationships from online porn, even before they’ve had their first kiss, or first conversation with a parent or educator. This adds both a huge layer of complexity and urgency to the importance of these conversations. Unfortunately, our kids can’t “unsee” what they’ve been exposed to, but we can help them understand that what is depicted in porn does not represent heathy sexual relationships, or what either party actually wants.
Teens highly value their independence. Before sharing your insight/ knowledge with your child, ask permission. In practical terms, this might be saying, “Hey, I found this interesting video called “Tea Consent” (see videos below). Do you want to take a look at it?”
If your teen says “nope”, don’t press it, and don’t get discouraged. We often strengthen our connections with young people when we find ways to honor their autonomy.
Come from a place of compassion and remember that we are hard wired to seek romantic relationships and sex. Be sure to acknowledge that reality and not shame you kid. This will help open to the door to future conversations. Little conversations starting early are the way to go. This topic, like most, can’t be tackled in one BIG TALK, or the “Birds and the Bees” lecture. It’s a process.