Several months ago, my 8 year-old-daughter noticed the difference between her body and my 46-year-old-mother-of-four body and was asking questions. Throughout her life, my husband and I have used anatomically correct terms when talking about the human body, invited questions about birth and breastfeeding, talked about how babies are born, and have even gotten into a few specifics. We had been having discussions long enough that we had almost exhausted her questions.
Except for one.
“But wait, Mom. How on earth does the sperm get in there in the first place?” I explained to her what happens to our bodies when sexual attraction and physical arousal take place and how the sperm gets into the uterus. “Hmmmm, OK,” she replied, pondering my answer.
I saw this as an opportunity to expound upon these ideas and explain not just the how of sexual intimacy, but the why as well. So I continued.
“Sharing your heart and your body with someone in ways that feel really good allows you to continually create loving feelings in your relationship, and it’s part of what makes my relationship with your Dad so special and unique.” We talked about how sharing your heart and your body with another person is a way to create a bond, and that our Heavenly Parents really want us to share our body with someone only after we have fallen in love and gotten married and made a covenant to love that person forever.
Speaking to my tender 8-year-old, I felt it was important for her to understand that not everyone subscribes to the Christian idea of chastity, so I acknowledged that some people choose to do things in a different order than what I hope for her–marriage, then sexual intimacy, and then the potential of parenthood—and that doesn’t mean they are bad people. It means they have different values and beliefs and have made different choices in their lives. I also explained to her why I made the choices I did in my life and how living by our Heavenly Father’s counsel can protect us from potential heartache and help to build strong families.
As we spoke about these weighty, yet sacred topics, I could sense she was beginning to ponder the significance of the power of procreation and sexual expression.
It was a beautiful and surprisingly not awkward conversation. As a mom and therapist, I felt pleased and satisfied with how the conversation unfolded naturally, and how my daughter and I felt closer because of our discussion. I was really happy that I could be the one to teach her about her amazing body, her power to express love in physical ways, and her potential to create a body for another person.
The Danger of Silence
This experience made me reflect on when I was on the receiving end of the so-called “sex talk.” When my parents told me about sex, they gave very little context about the whole thing, and I remember feeling incredibly awkward and confused. Still, I commend them for bringing it up at all. They did their best, and I don’t fault them.
As Latter-day Saints, we know that we are commanded to “bring up our children in light and truth” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:40), and this certainly applies to how we teach them about sexuality. But even the most confident of parents may feel uncomfortable with the prospect of talking to kids about sex.
Most of us understand that if we fail to talk to our kids about this crucial topic, our children will learn about it from media and peers, which aren’t usually accurate sources of information. We know that it is our responsibility as parents to teach our kids gospel truths, including those related to sexual intimacy. But it’s still not an easy conversation to have! In fact, as Mormons, we face even more barriers when it comes to teaching our children about their bodies and sexuality. Because we value and teach abstinence before marriage, some parents may fear that talking about sexuality may foster curiosity and inspire early sexual experiences, so they avoid any conversations. Other parents may wait until their adult child’s impending wedding to bring up sexual issues because they are confident that their child hasn’t been sexually active. Still others may quickly shut down conversations and questions that might provide opportunities to discuss important issues surrounding body image and sexuality, and giving and receiving pleasure with their children because, well, that’s what their parents did.
From the perspective of a therapist who has worked with dozens of young LDS newlyweds, I want to assure you that these attitudes are not serving your children. In fact, they may even be detrimental to their potential relationships. I’ve worked with clients who experience so much shame about their body and sexual expression that they avoid sex. I’ve worked with couples so ill-prepared for intimacy that the first sexual experience they shared after marriage was physically and emotionally traumatic. It’s time to stop pretending that our children are not sexual beings that will magically become sexual once they get married.
So, as parents, how can we do better? Is it possible to teach our religious values without causing shame for having sexual feelings and desires, or for being attractive or attracted to others? How can we best help our kids not only know the facts about sexuality, but also to develop a healthy attitude toward their bodies and an acceptance that sexuality is a part of their identity? Here are some ideas to help you reframe the topic in a way that both affirms sexuality and emphasizes chastity:
1) Healthy sexuality begins at birth.
Many parents wonder what the appropriate age is to begin talking about sex with their kids. But the truth is that positive attitudes about our bodies and sexuality should start from the very beginning of life.
When children are young, don’t be afraid to verbally celebrate and affirm the importance of their bodies. For example, while changing a newborn’s diaper, you can choose to respond to the unpleasant smell and exclaim “Ewwwww!” or you can say something that affirms their body like, “Your body works really well!”
Likewise during toilet training, take the opportunity to help them notice how wonderful and useful their bodies can be. And remember, kids absorb the messages you send through not only your verbal responses but also by your tone of voice and facial expressions.
2) Make sex an unfolding discussion, not a one-time “talk.”
As kids grow older and are in need of an expanded vocabulary and education surrounding sex, some treat “the birds and the bees” talk as a grand affair that happens one time. But a better approach is to make it a continuous discussion, not a one-time event.
Imagine if we taught reading the way we often approach sexuality. When your child is between ages 8-13, you sit down together on the couch, open a book, and proceed to have an uncomfortable conversation that goes something like this: “These are called letters. You put letters together to make words. And someday, when you’re ready, you’ll be able to understand a lot of words, and you’ll be able to make sense of the words. That’s called reading. And it’s a beautiful and joyful experience. The end.”
Clearly that one conversation is not setting up your child for reading success. Sexual intimacy is just as nuanced and confusing as trying to read for the first time, if not more so. That is why we should set our children up for a successful and healthy sexual relationship by keeping the conversation open.
Lay the foundation early on with conversations about bodies, puberty, sexual feelings, masturbation, etc. For example, when a child is young, teach him/ her correct anatomical terms and talk about differences and similarities in relation to your own body. As children continue to grow, keep the conversation open. Speaking in a 2010 conference talk entitled “Mothers and Daughters,” Elder M. Russell Ballard expressed that we “need to have frequent, open discussion during which you teach your daughters the truth about these issues [sexuality, pornography, chastity, etc.].”
3) Increase your own sexual comfort level.
Because of the sensitive nature of the topic and also because we were raised in a different generation, many adults still feel awkward talking about sexual issues and body parts. No matter how hard you try to act calm when discussing sexual issues with your child, he/she will sense your underlying anxiety and discomfort. If you are uncomfortable with these kinds of conversations, practice communicating sexual ideas and correct terminology with your spouse or friend. Identify and learn more about your own sexuality. By doing so, you’ll be able to help children understand more about their own experiences and do so with more ease.
4) Normalize pleasure and avoid sexual shaming
One of the biggest mistakes parents make when it comes to this topic is shaming and overreacting when their young child isn’t fully clothed, expresses interest in sexuality, or is seeking pleasure. For example, if you’re in public and your three-year-old daughter puts her hand down her pants, it would be easy to get her to stop by making her feel embarrassed or like she’s done something wrong. But a better response would be to resist the temptation to make touching herself seem gross or dirty and instead respond calmly by validating her pleasure with a simple statement like, “That feels good, doesn’t it?” Then teach her about appropriate public behavior by responding with “It’s not appropriate to touch your genitals while we’re in the grocery store.” Avoid shaming your child into thinking sex, pleasure, or his/her body is inherently bad. Normalizing curiosity and bodily exploration (while still teaching your family’s ideals) will help your child develop a more balanced approach and view of sexuality.
5) Address “why,” not just “what.”
While it’s important to be open and honest about sex, providing a context for it can help your child understand the why. For example, saying something like, “This is a special gift you’ll one day be able to experience with someone you love,” or “You can create more love and you may be able to create another person someday through sex.” can instill in him/her a deeper understanding of the purposes of sexuality. By providing a relational and spiritual context for this sacred expression (instead of a constant stream of “don’ts”), your child will be more likely to develop into a sexually healthy adult who is able to embrace his/her body and sexuality, better understand and embrace the law of chastity, appreciate the ability to give and receive physical pleasure, share his/her body, mind, heart and spirit with a spouse, and find more joy in creating children and growing an eternal family.
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, LCSW is the owner/director of Wasatch Family Therapy, a popular blogger, an online mental health influencer, a local and national media contributor. Dr. Hanks’ first book The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women addresses common LDS cultural myths that leave women feeling “never good enough.” Julie and her husband are the parents of four children. Visit DrJulieHanks.com for more great tips on facing life's challenges, or get your invitation to join Dr. Hanks’ NEW Burnout Cure E-Course at drjuliehanks.com/ecourses. For therapy services in Utah visit WasatchFamilyTherapy.com. Connect with me on social media @DrJulieHanks.