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WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH ITTalking with Your Kids about Sex
By JOHN T. CHIRBAN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 John T. Chirban
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCleaning Up the Dirty Little Secret
We do not even in the least know the final cause of sexuality. The whole subject is in darkness. -Charles Darwin
First-grader Johnny wanders into the living room, where his father intently reads a business magazine. "Daddy, where did I come from?" the boy asks. The anxious father-caught off guard, not expecting such a question for years-hastily answers, "Uhh ... Bloomingdale's." "Then where did you come from, Daddy?" The father, taken aback yet again, remembers a childhood fable. "From a stork!" he says. Johnny, still fixed on his inquiry, continues, "How about Grandpa? Where did he come from?" Johnny's father now desperately tries to think back to the stories he was told as a kid and, as if he has landed on the perfect answer, blurts out, "From under a cabbage patch!" Johnny's father breathes a sigh of relief as Johnny wanders off to the kitchen. The next day Johnny returns to school, armed with his completed homework assignment. "Well, Johnny, did you find out how your life began?" the teacher asks. "Not really, but I figured out why I've been so confused," he says. "I don't think my family's had sex in three generations!"
If you want to talk with your kids about sex, you'll need a sense of humor. When we're anxious about something, humor can help us through an uncomfortable silence. But be careful. Don't let humor become a way of avoiding some of the most complex and serious issues regarding sex. Dealing only or mainly in jokes can give our kids the impression that we've adequately addressed something when really we haven't.
Imagine a parent telling a funny joke about sex to his or her child-no harm done, right? But, just like with Johnny, questions will keep coming from your child. We need to consider who really answers our kids' questions. Did Johnny's dad feel he had answered his son's questions adequately-or was he just relieved to be done talking about it? More importantly, which path will you follow when your kid comes asking the tough questions?
Sometimes our kids know a lot more about sex than we think they do. With this in mind, we as parents need to prepare to answer questions like Johnny's both accurately and completely while avoiding turning them off with what kids often call "TMI"-too much information. So some joking is fine. It can help keep things comfortable and buy us some time to get our bearings. But in the end, we should take our children's questions seriously. Every exchange is important for building a trusting relationship with them. We'll get into how to strengthen the relationship with our kids in more detail later on in this book, but for now let's look at some basic pointers.
Answering Unexpected Questions
If you're reading this book, you're preparing yourself for good conversations with your kids about sex. But that doesn't mean they'll wait till you're ready; kids always have surprises in store, and maybe they've already sprung a sex talk on you. When you get hit with the unexpected from your kid, it's always best to put as many cards on the table as possible. A good starting place for a parent would be to reassure "Johnny" that you're interested and will help him find answers.
To help you move forward, you may want to ask your child a few questions. Start by asking what led him to the question. Ask him if he has any ideas about the answer. You want to avoid answering a question that's not actually being asked, thereby overwhelming or misleading your child as Johnny's dad did. Even if it means having to explain your initial reaction to the questions-maybe surprise or discomfort-your child will benefit from the message that even if you seem taken aback at first, deep down you're ready to help and really glad he asked.
Now, on to the most basic question: what is sex?
Ask kids, and you'll hear everything!
"It's about privates!" (a 5-year-old girl)
"It has to do with making babies and grown-up stuff." (a 7-year-old boy)
"It's wild." (a 16-year-old boy)
So how about you? What is sex to you?
Sex means so many things to different people that it can be hard to nail it down, especially for someone a fifth your age. You may recall President Clinton telling the press, "I did not have sex with that woman," then admitting to having had oral sex with her. People have become insistent about defining sex in their own ways. This book presents the broadest definition of sex: all that concerns sexual health and activity and their wider implications for well-being.
What Is Sex?
The World Health Organization defines sexual health as involving the integration of "physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being." Sexual health is not just the absence of disease or sexual problems but also requires "a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence."
That's a valuable and meaningful definition for parents because it can help us talk about a whole range of factors that bear on sexual health-not just the sex act itself. Sex, then, is far more than body parts and raging hormones-it is also an emotional act that requires proper understanding in order to become part of a healthy expression of love and intimacy.
In other words, sexuality is an outgrowth of our whole being and encompasses many spheres of our life. This is what I mean by taking a "holistic" approach to talking about sex. You may find it helpful to consider these aspects of life when you address your child's questions. She may be asking what part goes where, but your job is to help her integrate her sexuality into a healthy understanding of her life, as far as she's able. Let's look at those different pieces of the puzzle: the five aspects of our sexuality.
Physical. These are our physical drives, needs, and actions-the physical part of the sexual act that we can visualize and feel when we hear or see the word sex.
Emotional. This encompasses our inner feelings and their connections to intimacy and love. For example, powerful feelings such as tenderness, vulnerability, excitement, and love as well as hurt, shame, and fear can be stirred when we talk about sexuality.
Relational. Sex never takes place in a vacuum. Relationships with specific people, especially the person with whom you're having a sexually active relationship, are crucial. All relationships, including sexual ones, are characterized by a variety of factors, such as power, control, communication, and dependency. When these and other factors are in good balance, a healthy, respectful, and loving sexual relationship becomes possible.
Social. Culture influences our attitudes about sex as well as our behaviors. Culture gives to us, for example, our definitions of masculinity, femininity, and gender roles, through everything from our family upbringing and education to movies, music, TV, and the Internet.
Spiritual. Our faith and spirituality can have both positive and negative effects on how we view sexuality: on the one hand, religious teachings can create guilt, fear, and even the denial of sexuality; on the other hand, spirituality and religion can direct us to values that support a healthy understanding of how to relate sex and love. Sex can also take on spiritual aspects that are very personal and not tied to particular religious traditions.
Talking about sex requires sensitivity to all these aspects because sexuality comes from and affects our whole being. So talking about sex shouldn't stop at discussing pleasure and reproduction; we need to take into account all our attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.
What makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom? In sex, it's our unique ability to integrate these five aspects or spheres into one grand experience of sexual health. But that's easier said than done-we humans sometimes let one or more of those spheres fall by the wayside. You can help your kids move toward overall sexual health by always thinking of their questions and your advice in this broad context. The key is to not let the questions get disconnected from the big picture. And remember, also: sex is different for each person. Each of us makes these connections in unique ways.
It can be helpful to imagine the aspects of sexuality as spheres in our life (see Figure 1.1). Each of us integrates the physical, emotional, relational, social, and spiritual spheres in our own ways. They may be overlapping or disconnected, and some spheres may be larger than others or totally absent.
The interplay among these five spheres affects how we think about our sexuality. For example, if our spiritual sphere is small or neglected, spiritual concerns will not weigh into our sexual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Or if the social sphere is largest, social expectations and attitudes will largely direct our sexuality while other spheres won't weigh in as much. Understanding our own big picture-the size and connections of our spheres-is important if we are to guide our children in putting their own pictures together.
Purposes of Sex
If your child asks what sex is, the question "what's it for?" will probably not be far behind. You should be thinking of how to explain the various functions of sex in addition to explaining what it is. Sex serves several purposes: pleasure, stress relief, formation of our identity, intimate connection, and (of course) procreation.
But the goal of sex can be defined in one word: fulfillment (finally, you might be thinking, one word and not a list!). Certainly, orgasm is one of life's most pleasurable experiences, but true fulfillment in sex comes when such physical pleasure occurs within the context of an intimate and loving relationship. Fulfilling sex transforms what could be a pleasurable but merely mechanical event into an expression of intimacy and love that engages us emotionally, relationally, socially, spiritually, and also physically. It feels good because it connects with our core values and character.
Helping your kids understand sex will be infinitely easier when you are clearer in your own mind about what you expect from sex and what you're getting from it-in the terms of these five connected spheres. Complete Exercise 1.1 to see how you're doing.
Figure 1.2 presents a model of how a 29-year-old man might draw and describe the spheres of sexuality for Exercise 1.1. Note that the relative size of your spheres should reflect the significance of these aspects (physical, emotional, relational, social, and spiritual) as they factor in your sexuality. The spheres may be connected (if they connect in your life), disconnected, or absent. Identifying actual behaviors and activities will ground your responses.
How does your sexual wholeness look to you, now that you look at the big picture you've drawn? Is one area limited? Does another command all of your energy? This honest self-assessment is the first step in presenting to your kids your thoughts about something you've considered deeply, in all its aspects.
If you found that for you, one or two spheres is all that sex is, you're not alone-many of us experience sex this way. But this never does justice to the holistic nature of sex. A lack of balance in our approach to sex can destroy the fibers that connect sex with intimacy and love. So much of how we view sex is implicit in our language. Consider the expression, "I got a piece." This expression reveals a lot. When a partner is just an object for sexual pleasure, we have treated that person not only as a "piece" or object but also have experienced only a piece of what sex can be. In this kind of sex, the wholeness of both partners' sexuality has been shattered because the emotional, relational, social, and spiritual dimensions of sexuality have been diminished or even eliminated.
We may choose to approach sex by compartmentalizing it rather than appreciating its whole reality because we can (and often do) learn about sex in physical terms, either for pleasure or procreation, disconnected from the other spheres. Ironically, when some religious authorities insist that the purpose of sex is procreation alone, they further fragment the character of sexuality. By implying that pleasure in sex is bad, they may overemphasize their understanding of the spiritual sphere. Though such faith-based positions are intended to preserve the sanctity of sex, they actually create a disjunction between body and spirit, blurring the importance of healthy emotions and relationships-all equally important to sexual health.
As you explore and explain what sexual fulfillment means to you personally, you will be helping your kids understand the connections between sex, intimacy, and love. Then you can impart to them your family's values, rather than letting them accept what society hands them. Understanding how you want to define the sentence "Sex is fulfilling" is the key to making the ongoing talk with your kids about sex totally rewarding, and helps them to start building the bridge between sex and intimacy and love.
The A-B-Cs of Sex: Knowing What You're Talking About
It's amazing that we spend so much time thinking, dreaming, and fantasizing about (and even sometimes having!) sex. Yet when it comes to talking about it, we get tongue-tied. Getting the facts straight is a big step toward feeling confident about opening up that box of tightly guarded secrets with your child. So let's take an inventory to see where we're coming from. What do we know? How did we learn about sex? What values do we hold about it? And what kind of messages do we broadcast about sex?
Parents have several reasons for feeling uncomfortable talking with their kids about sex, but the biggest fear of all is being unsure of what is true. Exercise 1.2 will help you assess how much you need to get up to speed about the facts of sex.
If the results of Exercise 1.2 show that you need to catch up on a few details, don't worry! The most important ingredients for helping your child develop a positive understanding of sex are your motivation and care. These will lead you not to just talk about sex with your kids but to want to get the facts straight. Your natural desire to help your child will motivate you to do the research you need.
Your Sexual History
To help you get comfortable talking about sex, one additional important step is reconnecting with your own sexual history. The situations in your life that you found useful, as well as those that could have gone better, can all help you talk with your child about sex. It's good to bring our experiences to the forefront of our minds so they don't distract us from being present when we talk with our kids.
Discussing your sexual history with your spouse, partner, or a friend may help you recall struggles, uncertainties, and the sources of your underlying attitudes and values regarding sex. As you understand how your history guided the development of your sexuality, you will appreciate the significance of effective guidance regarding sex, intimacy, and love and "flesh out" (excuse the pun) issues and approaches for talking about them.
Hypocrisy and Being Judgmental
Because of how loaded the subject of "values" can get, it's no wonder that parents often shy away from talking about sex. The fact is that very little sex conforms perfectly with specific ideologies, whether conservative, liberal, or other. While some people talk about sex as something that should always and only reflect a connection of self, others, and God (a good description of the sex act in marriage), that position falls short when you consider something like masturbation. Where do we draw the line? How do we manage the gray areas?
Because parents know their own sexual activity doesn't always conform to their beliefs about sex, it's natural to feel like a hypocrite if you impose strict standards on your children. The unease about hypocrisy may be one of the main reasons we don't want to talk about sex. It's the old "Do as I say, don't do as I do." However, you can work it out if you see your role as someone who must weigh in with your children on all the various purposes of sex, not just lay down the law about behaviors they may not even be ready to learn about yet. Helping your children understand the various spheres of fulfilling sex takes time and care. Time and care are critical elements of love that this topic and your child require. You'll need many opportunities to get it right-which is why you have to start early with the ongoing discussion, not a one-time "talk."
Excerpted from WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT by JOHN T. CHIRBAN Copyright © 2007 by John T. Chirban. Excerpted by permission.
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