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While the goal is to remove any negativity and evasiveness from sexuality, it's important not to take the message too far and give your child more than he or she is ready to handle. Talk about sex should be age-appropriate, keeping in mind what young brains need. "Little kids need short-sentence explanations rather than long lectures," says Muñoz. "For a four-year-old who asks where babies come from, a short answer might be that babies are created by a man and a woman giving each other a special kind of hug." Yet with sex positivity, the aim is to always expand the lens of sexuality and give a sense of inclusiveness beyond limited cultural norms or biases. So, parents might want to add that some babies are created by a man's seed that's put with the help of a doctor into a woman, and then that baby might be raised by two men, or it might be raised by two women. Then no matter which path the child takes later in terms of sexual preference or gender identity, the stage is set for a sense of normalcy and acceptance from the outset.
Following Your Child's LeadWith so much buzz about sexual harassment and assault in the news and popular culture, parents may wonder how to talk about such heavy issues with their children—and how to protect them from the bullying and power imbalances that start as early as elementary school. "Most kids don't pay attention to what happens in the news, so in terms of discussing something disturbing with your child, it's best to wait until the child raises up the issue themselves," says Stanley Goldstein, PhD, a child clinical psychologist based in Middletown and the author of several books including Troubled Children/Troubled Parents: The Way Out 2nd edition (Wyston Books, 2011). The idea is to follow the child's lead; equally important is to speak with them rather than to them, even when you're laying down guidelines designed to keep them safe—such as explaining to your teenage daughter why you don't want her to walk alone at night.
"It's crucially important not to say to a child or teenager, 'Do this because I say so.' If you do that, then you repress the capacity for abstract thinking. Instead, say, 'Do it because...' and express your concerns. Explain that the world is generally a safe place, but you have to be cautious. If you feel that they're not ready to do certain things, tell them no and tell them why." While many parents believe that the major influence for teenagers is their peer group, Goldstein posits that the major influence for healthy teenagers remains the parents. "They might say, 'Joey does this, so why can't I do it?' They might give you a hard time, but they'll appreciate it. There's nothing worse for a child than feeling like their parent doesn't care."
In the same spirit, parents are modeling behaviors to their children all the time, without speaking. Empathy is not something that you can inculcate into a child, but they'll develop the capacity for it through osmosis, says Goldstein. "If the child sees a healthy interaction between the parents, sees them supporting each other and talking about their feelings, they'll grow up with these kinds of capacities. Empathy is something that really derives from the family experience." Yet some things do need to be put into words, and in a world where sexual misconduct is rampant, therapists tend to agree about one thing to tell your kids unequivocally: "The hard and fast rule is that you don't have the right to put your hands on someone else, period. And no one should put their hands on you. Period."
The Power of Speaking OutParents are not the only influencers; cultural messaging is very powerful as well. Terrence Real, a psychotherapist who wrote I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (Scribner, 1998) and other books, says that boys lose their hearts when they're five or six, and girls lose their voices when they're 11 or 12. "Five or six is when the socialization process starts to really impact boys as they get shamed for doing things they were allowed to do when they were younger," says Muñoz. "They might be called weak or girly. So, when you have a boy, how do you keep him connected to his heart yet still have him belong in his circle of peers? How do you keep your girls raising their hands in class rather than becoming wallflowers? How do you keep them speaking up when the society says that if you speak up you're a bitch, or you're not as attractive?"