Talking to Your Child About Sex
A number of years ago, our neighbor’s 16-year-old daughter made the common assumption that her boyfriend was serious about her and that the relationship was destined for marriage. She certainly was serious about him and thought that she loved him. When she got pregnant, and quickly discovered he was not going to marry her, she lamented: “I just wanted him to love me.”
We listened in dismay to the raw pain as she repeated the phrase again and again, like a mantra. And, of course, adding insult to injury, the boy’s mother – not wanting her teenage son (and the family) to be saddled with the responsibilities of a wife and child – caustically suggested (in the pre-DNA era) that the child might not even be her son’s.
Not a single element of this sad, tawdry story surprises any adult over 30. It is an old and totally predictable tale.
Today, it bears repeating, though, because heartbroken responses like our young neighbor’s appear to surprise folks when the same thing happens in current circumstances, despite all the sex-ed in school and despite all the supposed sexual equality and freedom.
Today’s teens talk breezily and brazenly about sexual matters. They claim that “sex is no big deal.” They have their own vocabulary to describe the cavalier intimacy. “Hooking up” . . . “scoring” – there seem to be plenty of convenient euphemisms for sexual experimentation. The latest lingo is a re-run: “fooling around.” It all sounds casual enough – blasé enough.
But, somebody needs to ask, “Who is fooling whom?”
Where have all the adults gone? Where are the grown-ups who know from experience that sex IS a big deal, that sexual intimacy is about mating and bonding, that sex, pregnancy and birth are the absolute BIGGEST deals in life. Where are the realists who will admit that, for all our culture’s “mainstreaming of gender equality,” women are still left rocking the baby and paying the rent . . . on their own. This heartbreak and difficulty are compounded by the fact that literally millions are left with physical, emotional and psychological damage from sexually transmitted diseases or the aftermath of abortion.
It is not surprising that an immature, inexperienced teenage girl might be misled into thinking that sexual experimentation, “fooling around,” is relatively harmless. The attention it brings from the boys can be intoxicating . . . at first. In addition, the inherent excitement of first infatuation is super-charged by sexual intimacy.
It is not surprising that many young men, breathing the air of an MTV-permeated culture, believe that they can and must establish their manhood with sexual initiation.
But where are the parents? Where is the father? Where is the mother?
Sadly, too many aren’t around, are otherwise engaged or are themselves products of a culture forged in the experimentation of the 1960s Woodstock Generation. Raised in an era awash in feminist efforts to promote the androgyny myth, many have bought into the ideology of male and female sexual equality. Others have bought into the credo that enshrines the negative consequences of sexual experimentation as an inescapable rite of passage. Still others flounder in guilt and confusion, unable to sort through what to say to their children; too many end up saying nothing. Many want their children to do as they say – what they know to be right – even if it is not what they did. Often, these parents know the price they paid and they don’t want to think about it, much less talk with their children about it.
Ironically, these same adults feel no discomfort in giving young people very direct messages about other issues: what to eat, not to smoke and how to vote. We even have public service announcements encouraging families to have an evening meal together. But we flinch before the prospect of teaching them about sexuality within a moral context.
Perhaps the social sciences have outpaced our moral understanding and convictions. We may not have learned anything from the pain and heartbreak brought on by sexual promiscuity, but as a society surely we should learn from the vast amount of data amassed from the last 50 to 60 years of cultural change.
We know now that living together or having sex together does not usually end in marriage. During the 1970s, about 60 percent of cohabiting couples married each other within three years, but this proportion has since declined to less than 40 percent. Numerous studies of college students have found that women typically expect that “living together” will lead to marriage. Men, on the other hand, typically cohabit because it is . . . ah, “convenient.” Right!
Sex without commitment conflicts with our human nature; it is likely to have negative consequences such as uncertainty and insecurity. Live-in sexual arrangements carry with them innate instability (as noted above) and lack community acceptance and support.
For years those with a special agenda have tried to say that sexual relationships are symmetrical: that males and females are equal in their emotional or physical responses.
Yet both common sense and research tell a completely different story.
There is a fundamental asymmetry, both physiologically and emotionally, that makes the female far more vulnerable in sexual relations than the male.
Marriage balances out the female’s disadvantage by involving family and community. Families in enlightened societies said, historically, to unattached males: “You must agree to be faithful, to fulfill the obligations of fatherhood and make those commitments publicly before you have sex with our daughters.” The marriage contract, then, was a public statement that protected not just women and children but the community, as well.
Research shows that cohabiting relationships in the United States tend to be fragile and relatively short in duration; less than half last five or more years. Typically, they last about 18 months.
Let me offer a simple, effective lesson in how parents can talk with their children about sex. Here is a “sex pyramid” similar to the familiar “food pyramid,” which gives a hierarchy of balanced nutrition. The “sex pyramid” provides a “roadmap” for parents to talk about the hierarchy of elements in sexuality.
Instead of “THE TALK,” which is sometimes stilted to the parent and irrelevant for the child, parents should find and manufacture opportunities to talk about the elements of the pyramid as observed in everyday situations. Such conversations can begin in early childhood and continue through older adolescence.
For instance, when viewing a movie where a couple goes to bed right after being introduced, comment in an age-appropriate manner about how they couldn’t possibly be ready to trust each other and build a relationship. Comment about the woman’s foolishness in thinking the guy is serious about her, how the guy is taking advantage of the woman, and the consequences of such inappropriate sexual activity. You can contrast that behavior with the positive consequences of a sexual relationship within a loving marriage between a man and a woman committed for a lifetime. Each of the pyramid’s elements can be covered in a casual, conversational manner that communicates the family’s values, how sex impacts relationships and emotions, and the circumstances that produce positive or negative consequences.
Let’s consider each of the five elements:
The foundation is “Values.” Parents must communicate their values clearly, unequivocally, often and effectively. They should be confident in the knowledge that Biblical values do not go “out of style” or become out-dated. All truth is God’s truth and regardless of cultural trends, Biblical values remain true and reliable compasses to guide believers through all the situations of life. Judeo-Christian values of respect, dignity and honor are universal values that need to be applied specifically to sexual behavior so that our boys learn to respect and honor girls, and girls learn dignity and self-respect so that they can effectively say “no.”
The second step is “Relationships.” Parents must communicate the importance of establishing a relationship of trust and respect before intimacy develops. Parents need to communicate basic principles about character development, honor and individual responsibility. Young people need to know that they are not victims of their hormones and that they need to develop discernment in assessing a potential mate’s worthiness and ability to behave honorably and respectfully.
The third step is “Emotions.” Young people are seldom aware of just how extensive is the emotional aspect of relationships – especially when sex is part of the mix. Parents can help their children develop emotional control and teach them to analyze their feelings. Parents need to focus on helping their children separate their emotions from their judgments and to be careful in getting emotionally involved before laying a foundation of trust and respect. Our children need to learn not to commit beyond the level of trust. They also need to trust, but verify.
The fourth step is “Consequences.” It is vitally important that parents cover both positive and negative consequences. Young people today rarely understand the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and even those who are aware of them think that they won’t get one. In a similar manner, most young people think that they are “mature” and they believe that their relationships will “last forever.” Likewise, today’s generation hasn’t heard much about the “sacred covenant” of marriage and the importance of abstinence until marriage and fidelity afterwards. Parental expectations play an extremely important role in a child’s behavior, and parents need to realize how much impact they have on their children’s attitudes toward sex and marriage. When fair and loving parents hold high standards, generally, the children will live up to them. There are no guarantees, of course, but parents never err in expecting the best behavior from their children.
At the top of the sex pyramid is the mechanics of the sexual act — the “birds and bees” aspect. This actually should receive the least attention because it is the easiest part of sexual interaction to explain and understand, though, ironically, comprehensive sex education tends to focus on the biology of sexuality rather than the foundation on which sex is built. Ideally, though in our sex-saturated culture it gets harder and harder, each couple needs to “discover” sex on their own. Wise parents will focus on the foundational aspects of the sex pyramid throughout their offspring’s childhood and, at the appropriate time, give accurate and complete biological information. During the dating years, parents should be available for counsel, as requested.
It is past time that responsible adults in our culture, as parents, teachers, community and religious teachers, leaders and pastors, prepare young people to make wise and informed decisions by telling them the full and moral truth. These adults need to plainly say, “The best choice for you is to remain abstinent until marriage and to be faithful within marriage.” Those choices lead to the greatest well-being in life – as well as the greatest sexual happiness. The hand of Divine Providence has ordained it thus. The “Sex Pyramid” provides a framework to help parents and other influential adults communicate these messages effectively to the young people in their care.
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