How to Talk to your Children about Sex:

How to Talk to your Children about Sex:

An Interview with Sexual Development expert Anna Marah Jansen.

Written by Paula Brečak for Self Studies

Do you recall having the talk with your parents, the one where they sat you down and explained something about the birds and the bees? Or perhaps nothing like this ever happened for you and you were left to figure out all there is about sex, sexuality, and relationships on your own? Sexual education of children is an awkward topic for many parents and adults. For most, this is because they themselves never got the right comprehensive sexuality education when growing up. To help you flip that script and offer you some insight into how to communicate with your children about sex and sexuality, we talked with Anna Marah Jansen - a sexual development expert and founder of a sex positive platform 'De Sekswijzer'.

Anna strives for gender equality in sexuality and grounds her work in positive and scientific perspectives. She educates professionals working in health care, education, and childcare on comprehensive sexuality education. She is also a board member of the Seksueel Welzijn Nederland, the Dutch foundation for sexual well-being. In this interview, Anna helps parents get ready to equip their children with the necessary knowledge, communication skills, understanding, and empathy around sexuality. So that the talk becomes just another conversation.

How and where are children and adolescents being educated on sexuality and sex today?

Children are getting their sexual education partly in schools, partly at home, but nowadays also through social media and the internet. In an ideal world, they would get comprehensive sexuality education from a young age both in school and at home. They would learn how to talk about sexuality in a broader sense, not just about ‘sex’ as in sexual activity and penetrative sexual intercourse.

In The Netherlands, sex education has been mandatory since 2012 in primary schools. High schools typically provide sex education in Biology classes and are so still very much focused on the anatomy and on ‘what not to do’ - don’t get pregnantdon’t get STD’s, and say ‘no’. We see a shift towards more comprehensive and positive sexuality education, but that change is not happening fast enough. What and how schools integrate sexual and relational development and education is up to individual institutions, so it really differs from school to school what sexual education they offer and how they teach it.

Sexuality education is sometimes misunderstood and the common resistance to offering sexuality education to children and adolescents comes from not fully understanding what (comprehensive) sexuality education really is. Could you clarify what (comprehensive) sexuality education is and what it includes?

Comprehensive sexuality education is about communication, knowledge, and skills that include how to talk about sexuality and intimacy, and how to set and respect boundaries. Most importantly: it is not only a moment of transferring information, it is about self-image, self-esteem, friendships, love, communication, skills, knowledge, and so much more. Everything that we, as adults, do around the wide topic of sexuality, transfers a message to the children, teenagers, and adolescents. Not talking about sex and sexuality only says: “It’s a taboo. You can’t ask any questions. If you want to know anything, go and find out for yourself.”

Gen Z is the internet generation, so I believe it is safe to say that they also rely on the internet when it comes to sexuality. What kind of information can they find online on sexuality and sex? How relevant or accurate is that information? And what is your stance on children educating themselves on these topics through social media and the internet?

Lots of children and teenagers do not know where to find accurate information around sexuality. Actually, a lot of adults do not know it either. That’s why it is so important we teach them about healthy sexuality and what ‘sex’ in real life means and can be. Especially for the time we are living in, with such easy access to everything online, it is extra important to give young people a chance to talk about realistic bodies, sexualities, and our differences. (Most) porn is not a realistic representation of sex and sexuality, and gives (young) people very unrealistic ideas about how they should look, act, and react. It doesn’t help them in their healthy sexual development. The easy access to porn online makes comprehensive sexuality education in schools and at home that much more important!

What should the role of the parents be in their children’s sexuality education? How do you think parents are fulfilling that role today?

The role of parents is easier than one would think: answer questions honestly and give your children information as if you were talking about food, sports, or any other subject. For children, sexuality doesn’t have any burden, it is just another topic. The moment it gets difficult is when we as adults, parents, and teachers start to think: “oh no, we can’t talk about these things!”. At that point, children won’t come to you with questions, thoughts, or doubts. Instead, they will go looking for information elsewhere, on the internet or through their peers, and they will find some information but usually not accurate nor complete.

The key is to simply integrate these topics in daily parenting and be aware that you are their example - how you treat yourself, your partner(s), how and if you talk about sexuality… The children see how you act and that gives them a lot of information on how to cope with topics around sexuality. Not talking about it tells children sexuality is a taboo - which of course, it is in our society - but that doesn’t help young people in their development.

For some parents providing sexuality education to their children can be stressful or confusing, they might not know where to start, how to transfer necessary information, and they probably haven’t gotten comprehensive sexuality education themselves. So how and when should parents start educating their children on sexuality?

Sexual development starts from birth, so parents should start right away. People tend to think that it means giving ‘the talk’ and explaining ‘sex’ to young children, but that is actually hardly a part of it. Guiding them though life and integrating the topic of sexuality and relationships in daily life is what sexuality education through parenting means.

Sexual development and what to talk about differs per age and level of development. Starting that conversation with your children can be extremely easy: just listen to them, ask how they think and feel about it, and provide honest and accurate information. Be conscious of the fact that the uncomfortable feeling is yours, not theirs. They are just curious and are exploring the world and everything in it. You are in a fortunate role to give the right and healthy information in order to help them develop in a healthy and happy way.

How and where can parents educate themselves and fill in their own gaps in knowledge on sexuality?

Parents can read books about sexual development, listen to podcasts, and follow Instagram accounts on sexuality educationRutgers provides summaries around different topics and gives tips and advice for parents. They can attend school meetings about this topic, ask their children’s school about comprehensive sexuality education and how they can work together. They can organize parent meetings and invite a professional (like me) to explain and answer questions about healthy sexual development and parenting.

If the adults today approach the children in their lives with educational and positive attitudes on sexuality, how do you think that might influence this and the next generations’ relationship with sexuality and sex?

This approach to sexuality will help children greatly with standing up for themselves, communicating in a way that is helpful for their partner(s) and themselves, experiencing less sexual violence, and gaining more sexual pleasure when the time comes. It will give young people the freedom to make up their own minds and do what feels good for them. Sexuality can be so many different things, it is time we steer away from the narrow perspective on ‘sex’ we still use.

Sexuality education should be integrated throughout life and will require educating yourself as well as your children, but here are a few helpful tips for parents to keep as a guidance:

  • Answer questions honestly and don’t be afraid of saying too much: if it doesn’t match the child’s level of knowledge or their stage of development, they won’t remember it.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, promise to come back to it. And then make sure you do that, otherwise they will not ask again.
  • When talking about topics around sexuality, give yourself something to do like the dishes, errands, sports, walking, you name it. Make sure it won’t be a moment at the kitchen table where you look each other in the eyes and have ‘the talk’, which will be uncomfortable for everyone.
  • Use books. You can read them together, they can help you as a parent find the right words, and they will give your child the opportunity to have a private moment to read in their own time and at their own pace.
  • Listen. This might be the most important one. Listen and take your child seriously. That’s how they internalize that their thoughts, opinions, and questions matter and it will help them to stand up for themselves later in life.  
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