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Using Your Grown-Up Brain To Deal With Your Child’s Growing Sexuality

Photo: Flickr / J.Elliot

Photo: Flickr / J.Elliot

I have a lot of fears about the fact that my daughter is going to be having sex sometime soon. I don’t mean today, though I suppose that’s possible. But in the next year or two, someone (I think a guy, but I don’t really know, maybe a girl, maybe both) will inspire something in her that results in them having sex. Of some sort.

As a sex-educator and sexuality advocate, I would love to spout for you the party line, the one which says that it’s exciting and empowering and a glorious journey. I could even say it convincingly, because I believe it. But let’s be honest, I believe it more for other people, in theory, than I do for my own daughter, in my gut. My gut is all like “aaaaccccckkkkkkk” when I think about it.

Fortunately, my brain takes over quickly. And my brain is good.

Look, I spend a lot of time helping parents talk to their children about sex and sexuality and gender. I can do it in my sleep. But, my own daughter? It’s not what you’d think.

We mostly talk around it. Because I know good and well that the last thing any teen wants to do is talk to their parents about sex. Even mine. So we talk around it. We talk in theories and ideas. For the most part, that’s what I teach other parents to do also, for a couple reasons.

1. The abstract is the point. Your job as a parent isn’t to teach your kids how to have sex like an instruction manual. First of all, there is no “right way” to have sex, and they need to know that both literally and metaphorically.  They need to know it so that they will stay open to exploring their sexual response in the moment, as well as that of their partners. They also need to know it so that they will NEVER address someone else’s sexuality with a “you’re doing it wrong” attitude that is the foundation of bigotry.

But also, that magic trick you figured out probably won’t work for them or whoever they’re with. Teach them the big ideas behind sex: Pleasure. Consent. Communication. Safety. (We’ll get back to those.) Talk about how sex should make your heart feel, and to a large degree, leave the sensations of sexual response out of the conversation. After all, can you describe what cilantro tastes like such that someone else will identify with it in the same way? No. Sex is the same thing.

2. The specifics are none of your business. Nobody’s sex life is any of your business, actually. Not even your kid’s. If they ask you a question, you get to answer it. If they want to tell you something, you get to know it. But their body, and what they do with it is THEIRS and only theirs. You get to ask if they are sexually active, sure. And you get to follow that up with asking if they feel safe, physically and emotionally. You can remind them that you have been around in this big sexual world longer than them and that if they have questions, they can ask. That’s about it.

It’s going to happen. And that’s okay. Because hopefully you’ve done all the work you need to do, leading up to this moment to model safe and happy sexuality for your kid.

  1. No purity myths to fill them with shame and fear – which will, in turn, make it possible for them to seek out information and make informed and healthy decisions.

  2. No teaching them that sex is a tool or commercial device to get what they want from someone – which will, in turn, teach them to stay tuned into to how they feel, and their partners feel.

  3. No telling them that someone else will let them know if they are sexy, or hot or –  which will, in turn, teach them that empowered sexuality comes from within them, it is not a way to get validated by the outside world.

And whether you like it or not, they’re going to have sex.

They’re going to do it just like every generation before them did. They’re going to do it in cars, in the woods, in bed, on couches, at parties, at prom, while you’re out to dinner even though they’ll just be on the couch watching a movie when you get home. They’re going to do it like the horny teenagers they are. And how you deal with it will shape your relationship with your child, and your child’s relationship with sex, forever.


Freaking out about the fact that your kid is going to have sex is like freaking out about the fact that the sun is going to set this evening. There’s NOTHING you can do about it. And it’s actually a good thing, it means the world is working exactly the way it is intended to.

But there’s a lot you can do before it happens. Namely, teach them the basics of healthy sexuality. Pleasure. Consent. Communication. Safety.

1.  Pleasure. Sex is really about pleasure. It’s about feeling good physically and emotionally. Both are equally important.  And both matter, for everyone involved.  When your kids – of any age – ask you why people have sex, that’s your answer.  “People have sex  because it feels good.” (If they want to know more, they’ll ask, I promise.)

Hopefully, you have spent their whole lifetime teaching them to identify things that make them feel good physically and emotionally.  When they giggle on the Merry-Go-Round, you point out that they feel happy. When someone is mean to them, you talk about feeling sad. Believe it or not, that is laying the groundwork for healthy sexuality, because you are teaching them to identify how things make them feel. The next step is to teach them how to identify how other people are feeling and responding.  The next step is to teach them to use their words to discuss feelings with their peers, in real time, as situations arise.

But, back to sex. Sex is about pleasure. As a parent, you want your kid to be happy, right? You want that giggling joy of the Merry-Go-Round, right? Well, some other horny teen is going to give your kid that feeling. And it’s good. But you want to be sure they know that if some horny teen makes them feel sad and bad, they get to walk away. Because it’s about pleasure, and if it feels bad, it’s not pleasure. They get to walk away.

By the same token, if you make them feel bad, they’ll walk away from you. So watch it.

2. Communication. In order for sex to be mutually pleasurable, it’s going to involve communication. It involves up front communication, to make sure that everyone is in agreement about what will happen, and what it means after the fact. Then at each turn, it means communication (which is also kinda hot dirty-talk when done right) about what feels good and what they will do with each other that will, you guessed it, be pleasurable.

Does it suck to think of your kid engaged in hot dirty talk? Yes, it does. Get used to it. And instead of being squicked, pat yourself on the back for teaching good communication skills. And then do whatever you need to do to get it out of your head. You’re an adult, deal with it.

3. CONSENT. CONSENT. CONSENT.  (Got it?)  This is hard to teach at the last-minute, so hopefully you’ve spent their whole life teaching them that they are in charge of their body. You didn’t make them kiss Creepy Aunt Agnes when she wanted a kiss, and, instead, let them blow her a kiss. I could write a whole book about consent (and really want to) but in the mean time, read this awesome post that I co-wrote about consent with some other awesome people.

4. Safety. Sex, like all things, can have dangerous and unintended consequences. Teach them about those. Not in a “scared stiff” (or really, scared limp) sort of way, but in a “here’s how you get to have mutually pleasurable fun together and mitigate risk” sort of way.

Hooray, condoms! Condoms are awesome because they mean you get to have pleasure and reduce the risk of harm. It’s like wearing a helmet so that you can go cycling. (And now, try to get that image of penises riding bikes down the street out of your head. Or is that just me?) It’s like wearing a rain coat in a storm, a seat belt in the car…..

And, sadly, teach them that, sometimes, bad things happen. And that we can deal with those too. Whether it’s an STI (which, let’s be honest, most of us have gotten at some point,) an unintended pregnancy, a broken heart, a sexual assault….  Sometimes the best laid plans go awry, and sometimes things happen that hurt us, both physically and emotionally.

Know what we do then? We get through it. Know what we do NOT do? Catastrophize it.

Statistically speaking, it is 100% likely that someone is going to break my daughter’s heart. Probably more than one, probably more than once. Sometimes it’ll be “innocent,” sometimes the result of asshattery. And it’s going to suck at the time, but we’ll get through it. We’ll learn what behaviors we won’t accept in future relationships and that’s what’ll get her ready for a lifetime of good relationships. We’ll learn that she’s more than the sum total of attention that people give her, and that’s what’ll form the sense of self she needs to become the best version of her that she can be.

Statistically speaking, she’ll get some form of STI, most of us do. We’ll (or maybe she’ll figure this out without me) go to the doctor, hopefully get better, and then make better decisions next time.

Statistically speaking, either she or one of her best friends will be a victim of some form of sexual assault. And while that will make me want to vomit and cry and scream and exact wildly-creative revenge, they won’t need to know all that. Because I will not catastrophize it for them. I will never say anything even close to “that asshole ruined your life,” because they will not be ruined.

Because all of this is about THEM, not me. And your child’s sexual journey is about THEM not YOU.

My daughter is almost 16. She is gorgeous – though I may be biased. Every day, I am faced with her amazing body as I watch her work out in the gym that my husband and I own. Sometimes, I can’t help but look at her through the eyes of a horny teenager, and I know the thoughts that are running through horny teenage brains. I shudder a little, and then I sigh and smile.

I watch her deadlift 150% of her body weight. She is strong. But it’s the work that it took to get there that makes her really strong.

I have never really even joked about meeting her dates at the door with a shot-gun. We do joke that they will have to come to the gym, and meet us, and watch her in action. I want them to see how strong she is when she is doing this thing that she loves. I want them to know the focus and dedication and strength and joy. Because that’s what I want for her in all of her endeavors.  Even in romance. And sex.

And yes, if they are in any way put-off by a girl who can squat more than her body weight, they are not a good fit for her.

But I think she knows that. She knows how to think through things. She knows what makes her happy. She knows how to protect herself, physically and emotionally.

She knows how her body works, she listens to it. She treats it well and sometimes changes course in the middle of her plans, because her body told her to. This makes me happy. It means she’s paying attention, and thinking on her feet.

Having watched her work through the excitement and fear and anxiety and challenges of competition, I am pretty sure she has the tools to navigate this next stage of her life that is so rapidly approaching. She’s ready for it, even if I’m not.

And I’m not. Fortunately, I know that’s my problem, not hers.

I watch her in the gym every day. I watch her with her friends whenever I get the chance. I see a girl who was raised to accept and share joy, to learn how her body works and what it needs to be both strong and safe, I see a girl who can communicate, and who has a deep understanding of how other people feel.

I have raised her to be a fully fleshed-out human who is in control of her body. And sometime soon, that’s going to mean having sex. (Which I really hope she enjoys, and that I never really have to talk to her about. Really.)

My work here is pretty much done. I will stand on call just in case she needs something more from me.

By far, the hardest part of parenting is knowing when to step back. When to let go. When to accept that they don’t need us for “that” any more. We get little bits of practice along the way. They feed themselves, they don’t need us for that. They do their own laundry, don’t need us for that. Hang out with their friends instead of family movie night. Really, it’s all about trusting that we’ve taught them well, so that we can let go, safely.

Ultimately, we let go of the idea that they are babies. Children. Our children. And remember that they are humans. They have all the same needs and desires that we have.

All of them. In their own way.

And our job as parents is to help them figure out how to make their dreams come true, even if some of those hopes and dreams are forever unknown to us.

When we are pregnant, we think about having babies. But really, what we’re doing is raising adults.

And you know what adults do, right?


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