Ahhh, ‘the talk’. It’s the bane of both a parent and a child’s existence, making us squirm in discomfort and our cheeks burn with embarrassment at the very thought of having it. Yet, it has to be done.
We spoke to Kristy Innes, Program Director at Interrelate, a not-for-profit relationship services provider with a centre near Byron Bay, about how to tackle the talk – and why it’s so important that you do it right.
Is there a ‘right age’ to do it?
“From the time children are born we start talking to them,” says Kristy. “We talk to them about their body parts like hands and feet normally and without awkwardness, and this also needs to happen when we talk to them about their private parts.”
It might be cute and funny to have little nicknames for private parts, but it isn’t great if something should happen to the child, Kristy says. An important rule to have is to talk about a topic before the child experiences it, like talking to girls about menstruation before they start menstruating.
“There is no right or wrong way to talk to children about these topics, but there are a few guidelines to help them go smoothly,” says Kristy.
Is there a ‘right person’ to do it?
Definitely try to involve both parents. The age-old theory that mothers talk to daughters and fathers to sons is outdated, and parents of the opposite sex can add real and valuable information.
“In some cases, with older children, the child may be dating people of the opposite sex so why wouldn’t the parent of the opposite sex be involved?” Kristy says.
Talk about males and females – teaching children only about their gender is restrictive and usually raises more questions, especially when they start going to school, Kristy says. It’s important to understand the opposite sex so that the child is able to develop acceptance of others, and it will also help with any future partners they may have – and, even further down the track, will mean that they can educate their own children when they become a parent, regardless of their child’s gender.
Is there a ‘right time’ to do it?
There is no ‘one’ talk – and there shouldn’t be. Having a series of casual, relaxed talks and using teachable moments to start discussions or reinforce points you are trying to make is the best way to allow your children to adjust to the information they are receiving.
“Having just one talk and thinking the job is done isn’t realistic,” says Kristy. “Children who are given small amounts of information and time to process it have a greater understanding of the topic.”
What is discussed with a 10-year-old is very different to what is discussed with a 14-year-old, so there will need to be many conversations as the child grows and develops.
Is there a ‘right way’ to do it?
While there isn’t really a ‘right way’, Kristy says that being open, honest and matter of fact is certainly the best way.
“Using correct terminology when discussing body parts is very important to the child’s safety,” says Kristy. “if something happens to a child and they report it to a teacher using a family nickname for a body part, the teacher won’t understand what the child is saying. However, if the child reports it to a teacher using correct terminology the teacher will understand immediately.”
Using correct terminology will also mean that, if your child goes to the doctor, they will understand what the doctor is saying when they use the correct terms.
“By being honest, your child understands that you will answer questions they have truthfully,” says Kristy. “If you make up an answer your child will know you are lying, just as you know when your child is lying. They will see that the topic has made you uncomfortable, which will make them less likely to come to you in the future.”
Don’t be afraid to use examples from when you were their age. You might get some eye rolls, but your child really will take it on board and listen to what you are saying.
And, if you’re not sure what your child is asking or is using a word you have never heard before, don’t be afraid to say so and look it up yourself – this will show your child that not everyone knows everything, and it’s ok to say so.
All in all?
“As a parent, you can shape a positive approach to sex by having regular, open and honest conversations with your kids,” says Kristy. “This sets the tone for what is expected when discussing these topics, which will be emulated in their other relationships as they grow, and will also allow your child to have a greater understanding of bodies in general and an ability to feel positively about their body while making well-informed decisions.”
Interrelate offers a number of resources, such as books that are written in a language that children of different ages can relate to, as well as in-school programs, so definitely use other resources to follow up your discussions.