At the end of my evening sessions, parents often approach me privately to ask questions they “wouldn’t dare” ask in front of the group. Most of these have to do with questions their children have asked, but they have no idea how to answer. And who can blame them? Our kids throw us some real doozies from time to time! Here are a few tips to keep in your back pocket.
When your child asks you a tough question, don’t freak out. Or at least, try not to. Remind yourself that they’re giving you a huge compliment. Your child trusts you as a credible and approachable source of sexual health information. Take a deep breath and keep your voice neutral. The goal is to stay as calm as a cucumber without getting angry or sounding shocked. If you can’t think of an answer right away (which is both understandable and completely acceptable), tell your child, “I’m glad you asked me that question and you deserve a scientific answer. But let me think about how best to answer you and we’ll talk about it before bed (or when our guests leave, or when we walk the dog later, or when we get out of the grocery store…).” Be honest about your discomfort, but don’t let it get in the way of taking advantage of this great opportunity to give information.
When you answer the question, you might want to start by asking your child where they heard that word or why they are wondering about the question. This can give you some useful context. Then, give some basic scientific information and watch for their reaction. Are they looking at you expectantly, needing more information? Or are they on to their next question about something totally different? If so, enough said.
Here are some tips on how to answer the question that parents dread the most:
Do you and Mom (Dad) have sex?
Personally, I think we need to do a better job of celebrating sexual activity in any healthy, adult, consenting relationship. There really is no reason that parents should hide the fact that they have sex. Kids need to know that parents who love each other usually have sex too.
The fact that their parents have sex isn’t really a surprise to most children. I meet so many kids who have a pretty good idea what happens when they go to bed, or on Saturday mornings (isn’t that what iPads and cartoons are for?). But they often feel anxiety around their parents having sex. Parents who have had the misfortune of a little one walking in on them tell me that their child’s main concern is that someone is getting hurt. We can’t blame them; it would be pretty scary to see one parent on top of the other…or worse!
When students disclose to me that their parents have sex, I’m always careful to tell them how lucky they are to have parents who love each other. Any anxiety or sense of being grossed-out they may have displayed in the disclosure is quickly replaced with relief. Of course, I also say, “Some kids have parents who aren’t in a relationship so they may not be having sex right now. But most parents hope that one day they’ll have someone else have to sex with, because they think that having sex is a great thing.” That comforts children with single parents who may or may not be in a new relationship.
Parents have different comfort levels in terms of how much of their sex life they’re willing to share with their kids, and there’s no right or wrong way to answer personal questions. Just make sure you don’t lie. You may feel okay talking about the value of sex in your relationship. And when your child asks if they can watch you and your partner do it, an appropriate answer is, “No, it’s private.” Other parents may explain to their child that their curiosity is normal, but that having sex is private so they don’t want to talk about their personal experiences. The deal, of course, is that they need to promise their child they won’t ask details about their sex life when they are adults either!
The good news is that young children are usually quite blasé about the whole sex thing, like my friend’s six-year-old son. After visiting his Grade 1 class, a friend called to tell me about their conversation on the way home from school. Soon after getting in the car, her son shared that I had taught them how babies are usually made through sex. He then asked her, “So do you and Dad still do that?” My friend took a deep breath and simply said, “Yes,” to which he replied, “Okay, that’s fine, but just don’t do it on my bed!”