My mother says I don’t write enough about positive things in this blog, and she’s right. So I’ve decided to start a book review section where I’ll tell you about books I think help to create a healthy and open sexual environment. This is a great moment to begin, because I just read a fantastic book about kids and sex.
The book is called Everything you never wanted your kids to know about sex (but were afraid they’d ask: The secrets to surviving your child’s sexual development from birth to the teens by Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster, published by Three Rivers Press (2004) and I think the title says a lot, but not enough. For one thing, the book is clearly intended to not only to help parents survive their child’s sexual development, but to help the child survive the parents’ anxiety about his or her sexual development. In that way it teaches parents how to help shape their children’s sexuality in healthy ways. For another thing, it acknowledges the fear that parents often have about dealing with their kids and sex, and yet I think for many parents the issue is the “afraid they’ll ask” not the “never wanted them to know” part. I think a lot of parents want their kids to figure it out without having to talk about “it.” This book helps parents figure out how to talk about “it.”
One reason I like the book so much is that it starts out with an important-but-difficult-to-accept reality: talking to kids about sex isn’t going to make them sexual. Kids are already sexual. They lead into this with a short bit about observing a male fetus on an ultrasound and pointing out that it has an erection: sexual arousal occurs even before birth. Sexual response is biological. It is shaped, structured, and channeled by culture and socialization, but it is at its base a biological reality and it exists in babies just as it exists in adults.
Richardson and Schuster, both doctors with very down-to-earth attitudes (a psychiatrist and a pediatrician/public health specialist both with very impressive resumes), take on subjects like childhood sexual development, kids and sex play, masturbation, the Internet, discussions about abstinence, safer sex practices. And in all these areas their main focus is on open discussion, accurate information, and remaining calm. They explain that their approach to sexual development is based on putting children’s health first and they define health in a very comprehensive way:
Our definition of health includes physical health, by which we mean the absence of sexually transmitted disease and unintended pregnancy, and safety from sexual abuse and violence; and emotional health, by which we mean the ability to take pleasure in sex, the freedom of mind to make choices about love and sex, the possession of a meaningful value system to guide those choices, and the presence of strong self esteem. (p. 9-10)
They do all this with great humor and an sensitivity to the real strain, concern, and fear that parents really feel around these matters. I discovered this book while browsing for parenting section of Books-a-Million with my sister, a mother of two young boys. We were so engaged by the book that we sat on the floor in the aisle and read out loud to each other. We read the section about what to do when your kid walks in on you when you’re having sex. One reason I’m telling you about this book: one real life scenario used as a model by the authors involved a same-sex couple — two men — and the authors presented this without comment on the sexual orientation of the couple. Instead, their focus was on the quality of the reaction that “Jack and Simon” had in the moment:
We still marvel at the composure of Jack and Simon. When their four-year-old boy walked in on them having sex, Jack managed calmly to say, “Oh, you found us doing the special thing that people in love do when they want to make each other feel good; now, which of us do you want to put you back to bed?” (p. 103)
They point out that the most important thing is not to hide, not to ignore it, to try an explanation that is simple and clear, like “When you came in we were having sex. It’s a way that grown ups like us show that they love each othe. Do you understand?” They recommend answering any questions that the child has, and then reminding the child to knock if the door is closed. In other words, they recommend treating it without alarm, as an everyday act, and moving on. (An example of the humor they bring to the book. They end that section with the remark, “You can now tuck your little one into bed, go back to your room, and perform CPR on your partner.”
Another reason I’d encourage you to take a look at this book is because of its strength in addressing questions about kids, sex, and the Internet. First, they point out that if your child or your teen is online in any interactive forum, there is a chance that she will be approached for sex. You can’t prevent this. What you can do is prepare your kid for it when it does happen. Richardson and Schuster recommend telling young Internet users that they’re safe as long as they don’t respond to such requests and don’t give out any personal information about themselves to people they don’t know. Teach them how to block senders of unwanted IMs and to let you know about the incident. (Then, when they do talk to you, don’t freak out, but calmly discuss it with them to get the details, and, I’d presume, to support them for having done the right things!) Second, Richardson and Schuster talk about the near-inevitable event that your child surfs to a porn site or some other site containing explicitly sexual content. They discuss the benefits and drawbacks of web browser filters and again focus on being open with your kids about sex so that they’re willing to talk to you about what they see.
There are lots of good reasons to check out this book. I can’t mention them all now but I’m sure I’ll be referring back to the book in future posts.
It takes guts to talk to kids about sex. In this time of moral panic about kids and sex, though, it is as important as ever that adults step up to the plate early and create a healthy environment for their kids’ developing sexualities. This is truly the best way to protect them from harm.