When we talk about sexual health, we don’t often associate this topic with babies and kids, but we should. As a parent or caregiver, we want our children to grow up healthy and happy and this includes their sexual health and well-being. Sex-positive parenting can help us prioritize our children’s sexual health, a key part of health, and ensure we teach our kids about gender and sexuality.
Sex-Positive Parenting: What does it mean?
Some people may be worried about the “sex” part in “sex-positive.” What does it mean to be sex-positive as a parent? Does it mean encouraging children or teenagers to have sex? Or exposing them to inappropriate materials or topics? Fret not, because that’s not what it means!
Sex-positive parenting is teaching — in age and developmentally appropriate ways – that learning about sexuality is a natural, normal, and healthy part of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. It includes educating ourselves so we are able to bring important conversations into our homes about topics like consent, body safety, gender norms, gender identity, intimacy, and healthy relationships. It is answering questions when they come up (or prompting them when they don’t) and becoming a trusted go-to educator and resource for our children. It is offering them the opportunity to craft their boundary setting skills, communications skills, and positive body image.
We are all sexual beings from the moment we’re born. We know that sexual health and well-being are vital to living a full life. Being a sex-positive parent means knowing that our children will become autonomous adults with their own gender identities, gender expressions, and sexualities. It means wanting to prepare and support them as they learn how to stay healthy while they grow into who they are. Providing this support to our children is a lifelong process. Conversations start early and continue throughout the years with age-appropriate explanations and skills building opportunities
What’s Sex-Negativity? What’s Sex-Positivity?
To integrate the idea of sex-positivity in our parenting, it’s important that we have a good understanding of what it means. Sex-positivity was created as a response to a sex-negative understanding of sexuality. So, let’s first explain sex-negativity.
Sex-negativity is the idea that sex is harmful, shameful, disgusting, or sinful and this conception has been cultivated for centuries. While procreation or having sex within a marriage have usually been given a pass, the idea that pleasure, the body, and sex are (at best) necessary evils to having children has deep historical roots.
Those attitudes have shifted over time. But in many ways, all that we did was shift the boundaries of what kind of sex is allowed. We continue to paint perfectly common forms of sexual expression as being outside of our definitions of acceptable sex.
Sex-negativity devalues sex and experience. It makes us believe that any sexual expression that does not fit within what society has defined as normal is not valuable. Sex-negativity creates a hierarchy of sexualities that places monogamous heterosexual sex between two cisgender married partners at the top and masturbation and non-heterosexualities closer to the bottom. Historically, we have criminalized, marginalized, and stigmatized other expressions of sexuality, denied access to information and healthcare and tried to stifle their visibility in public. This erases honest expression of sexualities and authentic connection between people of all genders and often leads to people feeling shame and fear when it comes to sex.
In short, sex-negativity paints certain sexual acts like procreative, heterosexual sex within the confines of a marriage as acceptable, while other sexual acts – for instance, sex outside of marriage or queer sex – as bad or immoral. Sex-negativity places moral worth on the sex you are having, emphasizes only the risks or potential consequences of having sex, and typically leaves very little space for conversations around things like pleasure or consent. Sex-negativity also places fear at the center of conversations and attitudes on sex. For instance, fear of getting an STI or becoming pregnant unintentionally. This means that when we think about sex from a sex-negative framework or teach about sex from this perspective, we know all about what we should be afraid of but not about any of the potential pleasurable or enjoyable aspects of sex.
Sex-positivity considers sexuality as a natural, normal, healthy, and pleasurable part of being alive, of being human. Sex-positivity embraces sexuality. When it comes to a sexual act, practice or experience, the only relevant concerns are the consent, pleasure and well-being of the people engaged in it or the people affected by it.
Sex-positivity places no moral value on different sexualities or sex acts and it challenges hierarchies of genders and sexualities. It helps us set aside our judgments and make room for the diversity of human sexuality.
Many mistake sex-positivity with enthusiasm for sex, being sexually adventurous, or with the belief that sex is always a good/positive thing. Others feel that if you are sex-positive, “you’d say yes to doing this, or that” or that it excludes those of us who are asexual, not so keen on sex, or not into kinky sex, who have been abused, who have never had pleasurable sex, who are virgins, celibate, heterosexual, etc. That’s not what sex-positivity is about. Sex-positivity calls for true respect for our own and other people’s sexualities, in all their diversity.
What Does Sex-Positivity Have to Do with Raising Children?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines sexual health as a state of physical, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. For this to be possible, we need a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships and we need the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.
By talking to our kids about sexuality and everything that feeds into it – in age appropriate ways – we are laying crucial foundations to foster that well-being and we are nurturing a positive and respectful approach to sexuality for children to live healthy lives and thrive.
It’s about moving away from “the talk” as a one-time awkward thing we must check off our list and moving towards normalizing talking about gender and sexuality in our homes and becoming trusted sources of information and support in the process.
Taking Stock of Our Own Values
There are a variety of values, assumptions, and beliefs that influence our perspective and how we function in the world. The assumptions that we make on gender, sexuality, relationships, bodies and family life can have a direct impact on how we parent and how we interact with others. Some of these assumptions can have positive consequences, while others can be more negative and harmful—whether we see it or not or want it or not.
It can be helpful to take stock of what we have been raised to see as “common sense” or “the norm” (for example, that a family is made up of a mom, a dad, and their biological kids or that boys can only be in love with girls). This can help to challenge the boxes in which we try to fit people, including our children.
By assessing our values and challenging our assumptions, we take the first and most important step in creating space to talk about sexuality and gender in a way that leaves space for children to see the diversity of experiences that exist in the world and to grow into their authentic selves. Reflecting on our values can help us figure out why we are uncomfortable with some parts of this conversation and why we feel a certain way when we see, for example, a boy in a dress or someone whose gender presentation is confusing to us.
Get Curious! Tips and Questions to Ask Yourself
- Get curious about those moments when you feel uncomfortable/defensive/dismissive about certain people or experiences that challenge your existing understanding. Cultivate self-awareness by recognizing when those feelings come up and understanding what you think and do as a result.
- What values and beliefs about sex, sexuality, and gender did you grow up with? Where did these values come from and how have they changed over time? How might these values be different for different people depending on who they are or their life context?
- How have your own experiences with gender, sex, and sexuality shaped how you view those things? What are significant experiences that may have had a deep impact on your own beliefs and values?
- What was your family culture like? Did your family culture openly talk about emotions? About bodies? Sexuality? What did privacy mean? What was easy or difficult to talk about?
- Have you ever judged someone for their sexual behaviors or choices? Their gender presentation? Have you ever asked yourself what provoked those feelings?
- Do you usually try to think of different points of view when you talk about an important topic like reproduction or family? For example, if you talk about how to make babies, how would your friends who had fertility assistance feel? Or your child’s classmate who has two moms or two dads? The trans man in your office who is pregnant? Your young gay son who really hopes to have a family one day?
- Get curious about your language and how you think the words or expressions you use could make people feel included or excluded, supported or shamed, seen or judged.
Getting curious and reflecting on those questions can help identify some underlying assumptions we carry and get us to think critically about them. This can help prepare us to tackle the awkward moments that come with making sex questions fair-game in our family. Most importantly, it makes space for our children to learn from us in ways that don’t box them in or communicate sex-negative values.
What are our rights? What are we entitled to? What about our children?
When it comes to children’s education, health, and well-being, the issue of parental authority and parental rights often comes up. It is important to know our rights and to understand how they interact with the rights of others, including the rights of our own children.
Parental authority falls under family law and refers to parents’ rights and responsibilities toward their children from the minute they are born until they turn 18. Under their parental authority, parents make decisions that affect their children’s well-being. This means that parents do have rights when it comes to making decisions regarding a child’s education, healthcare, and religion, among other important things.
Parental rights can be limited when it is justified to do so. Parental rights may be balanced against other considerations, such as human rights and the best interests of the children and young people involved. Parental rights cannot and should not be pitted against the health and rights of young people, as if it is a zero-sum game. In the end, it comes down to this: parental rights are important and must be supported but must not supersede the human rights of young people, including but not limited to the right to health, to information, and to non-discrimination.
We must see our children as rights holders too. What does this mean? Our children have a right to health and this right has long been understood as an “inclusive” right. This means that it doesn’t only protect from obvious breaches or human rights violations, like denying them access to healthcare but it also includes a wide range of rights and freedoms that are key to good health outcomes, such as the right to non-discrimination, to access to health-related education and information, and to freedom from harmful traditional practices. The right to health is more than just the absence of human rights violations; it requires that all the conditions are in place for a young person to exercise this right, such as access to education and information.
Our children rely on us to see their rights upheld. Making sure they are given the information they need, over time, to make important decisions for themselves so they can be healthy and thrive is one way to make sure we are upholding their rights.
Why does it matter?
Every parent wants their child or children to be safe. Beyond safety, parents wish for their children to grow up healthy and to thrive. What does that have to do with talking to our kids about sex, sexuality, gender, and relationships? A whole lot, in fact!
Some of the many purposes of being a sex-positive parent is to protect our kids, equip them with the information they need to thrive, and then nurture their resiliency and promote positive self-concept.
There is a lot of evidence on the urgent need for quality sexuality education (“sex-ed”) in the home (and in schools) and its positive impacts. Becoming a trusted source of information and support to our children matters a whole lot. When we have conversations with our children about gender, sexuality, and health it:
- Sets the stage for our children to make healthy decisions about their bodies, their relationships, and, later, their sexual lives. Studies have shown that when parents talk openly with their children and teenagers about sexuality it leads to less risky behavior, less conformity to what they think others are doing (in other words, making decisions that make sense for them instead of copying the decisions of those around them), and helps them to view their parents as good sources of information. These conclusions are part of the large body of international evidence that shows the positive impacts of comprehensive sexuality education. Click here to consult the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) research on sex-ed.
- Supports young people as they grow into their authentic selves. Every child benefits from information, support and space to be who they truly are. Between 4% and 10% of the population identify themselves as something other than heterosexual and/or cisgender. This percentage continues to rise as younger generations become more comfortable with a more fluid understanding of gender and sexuality and as more space is opened in our society for people to be their authentic selves. Most children will have a sense of their gender identity as young as 2 or 3 years old! Considering only these numbers, many of us are raising children who already or will eventually identify themselves as 2SLGBTQ+ (TwoSpirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Trans, Queer, and more). Strong family support and connectedness is crucial for the health and overall well-being of 2SLGBTQ+ youth. It is a predictor of better mental and physical health outcomes for the rest of their lives. Children who are cisgender and/or heterosexual also benefit greatly from the space we can create for them to discover how they wish to express their gender and to learn what they are passionate about, free from rules about what boys or what girls “should” be like. In schools that have 2SLGBTQ+ inclusive policies and GSAs (Gay-straight Alliances), risks of suicide and overall risk-taking behaviors are reduced for ALL students, not just for sexual and gender minorities. That is true in our home too—when we make space for all children to grow into their own authentic selves, surrounded by our unconditional love and active support, they thrive.
- Helps our children make sense of and challenge rigid gender norms. Strictly enforced gender roles harm children and young people. Supporting our children in figuring themselves out includes helping them to understand and challenge strict gender norms and that is a very good thing! What we think of as rigid gender traits are more often societal expectations about how we think men and women should act and not fixed concepts rooted in biology . Studies on the impacts of these cultural gender roles on young children of all genders are clear: rigid gender expectations can lead to mental and physical health problems. Having conversations with our children on gender norms can help them throughout their lives as they encounter harmful stories about “how they should be.”
- Sheds light on and challenges sexism and gender-based discrimination. Sexism is the systemic oppression of girls, women, non-binary people, trans people and people who do not conform to gender norms. This systemic oppression can be carried out by institutions like schools, work places, and governments. Individuals can also oppress through prejudice and acts of discrimination. Many of our kids come up against sexism and do not necessarily have the words or the support of trusted adults to make sense of their experiences. In 2018, Girl Scouts Canada released the results of a Canadian survey that found that by the age of 10, more than half of all girls reported having noticed gender inequality and having had experiences of it. Reading the “Girls Attitude Survey” helps to better understand the long-term impacts of sexism and discrimination against girls and young women, ranging from anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, abuse, and declining intentions to pursue careers in science, technology, law and politics, etc. Sexism does not just affect girls. The idea that the masculine is superior to the feminine also limits the gender expression of boys who are punished by society if they show traits or interests that are thought of as feminine. This can include expressing emotions like sadness, fear and tenderness, caring for others, or even simply loving pink or wanting to take a ballet class. The same goes for trans, gender non-conforming and gender-creative kids who are also greatly impacted by sexism and who need our support and guidance to separate their experiences of discrimination from their sense of self. Sex-positive parenting is a way to nurture the resiliency of ALL kids in the face of adversity and to help foster a sense of community and pride around who they are.
- Protects against sexual abuse. Educating ourselves about sexual abuse and educating our children about their bodies and body safety are important to prevent harm. By making sure that our children learn about their bodies-including the correct names of their genitals-and about human reproduction and sexuality, we can help raise them to understand their bodies, feel comfortable and confident, and hopefully feel comfortable discussing their bodies and sexuality with parents and guardians that love and support them. Teaching our little ones the names of their body parts and about safe and unsafe touch matters, even if it feels uncomfortable and/or sad to have to think about sexual abuse. Having the correct names for their genitals and knowing about tricky people can help them recognize and resist assault. By teaching our kids, we also give them the tools and vocabulary to tell trusted adults and healthcare professionals when they need help and they are much more likely to receive the help they need. Talking about consent and safe/unsafe touch also means raising children who understand that sexual abuse is wrong—with the ability to better empathize and respect the rights and feelings of others. Beyond just countering scary possibilities, teaching proper names for all body parts also helps children develop a healthy, positive body image and feel more respect towards themselves and sexuality in general. It helps counter the sense of shame and taboo that can be built around our genitals, desire, sexual pleasure, and sexuality generally.
- Teaches children about consent and how to ask for it, give it, and respect people’s boundaries. This means talking about consent from the beginning to teach children that they are the bosses of their bodies. While parents and guardians have a responsibility to keep them healthy and safe, they can decide when, for example, they feel up for a hug or a kiss. This also means they get to say “stop” or “no” and should expect to be respected. A key part of teaching our children about consent can be setting limits about your own body with them and demonstrating how you expect they will respect them.
- Supports them in knowing how to initiate and nurture strong, healthy relationships. When young people are asked about what they wish to see in their sex-ed, one of the most common answers is that they want to learn the skills to initiate and nurture healthy, loving, satisfying, mutually respectful relationships. The Making Caring Common Project is a multi-year research study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that surveyed young people over the past several years about what they learned, did not learn, or wish they had learned from their parents and from their school-based sex-ed. The findings reveal that large numbers of teens and young adults feel unprepared for caring and lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them. They report that parents, educators, and other trusted adults provide young people with little or no guidance in developing these relationships. The good news is that an overwhelming majority of young people surveyed WANT this guidance. Healthy relationships and social support networks are so important. They have a direct impact on our well-being and even on our life expectancy. Strong, healthy relationships help us to manage stress effectively, problem-solve, and overcome life’s challenges. Learning how to have healthy friendships early in life can set our kids up to have some of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences life has to offer. Let’s talk about what being good friend looks like. Let’s model good relationship behaviors and talk about how we support others in our lives and how you know you can trust those around you. Having conversations early about boundaries, trust, healthy communication and consent sets the stage for becoming a trusted resource for our kids as they figure out how to navigate their social world!
- Helps counter sex-negative messaging that have long lasting effects. Sex-positive parenting helps our children grow up with a sense of sexuality as a natural, normal, healthy, pleasurable part of being alive, of being a human being. One essential message of sex-positivity is that any sexual activity and any touching of body parts should be consensual. When we take the shame out of sexuality, we can provide a strong foundation for awareness of consent. If we raise our children to not be ashamed of their sexuality and desire, then they can develop a keener sense of what they want and don’t want and the skills to communicate about sexual consent, boundaries and desire and to give a true yes or a true no to partners. Sex-positive parenting also creates space to ask questions and seek out information if the topic isn’t steeped in shame and secrecy. It means as our children grow older, they can seek out support and ask us questions if they need guidance. Learning to navigate romantic relationships and partnered sex is of course far off in the distance if you have toddlers. But raising kids in a sex-positive household is something that begins at the onset of parenthood. Our work starts even before children can talk because, from the moment we start caring for our babies, they learn from us about their bodies, gender, respect, and consent.
When do we start talking about sex?
We can start talking about sex as soon as a child starts asking about it. While the goal is to remove any negativity and evasiveness from sexuality, it’s important to be intentional about our lessons and avoid giving our children more than they are ready to handle. This means our conversations about sex should be age-appropriate, keeping in mind what young brains need. For instance, young kids need short-sentenced explanations that simply answer the questions they asked, not more, not less. If they want to know how babies are made, no need for a lecture. It can be a simple explanation about what makes a baby: a sperm and an egg need to meet and then the baby grows in someone’s uterus until it’s ready to come out. Even with our simplest answers we can make sure to expand the lens of sexuality, be inclusive and go beyond limited cultural norms or biases. We can talk of diverse ways to make families. We can talk of love in expansive ways. We can make sure to talk of gender in inclusive and open ways. We can answer questions as they come up and answer them in simple true language, calling a vulva a vulva and a penis a penis. We can also nurture a sense of bodily autonomy by respecting our children’s boundaries, asking before we touch them (when of course it’s not an urgent matter of health or safety), stopping tickling when they say no and supporting them in situations like when a relative asks for a hug and they don’t feel like one. It is through these actions that we can show children, from an early age, that even in the naming of body parts, there’s no need to hide and that we are fierce advocates for their sense of agency and body autonomy.
What about pleasure?
As children grow older and their questions become more sophisticated, we can start to introduce the notion of pleasure and talk about it in a plain and open way. Taking a balanced approach to talking about sexual health with our children means including the positive aspects of sexuality, such as the pleasure it can bring, and this can have profound impacts. Far beyond our teachings, this can set the stage for our children to have meaningful and pleasurable relationships of all kinds in their lives as they grow.
Making sure we include discussions of pleasure, intimacy, and other positive aspects of sexuality in our conversations can also be key in preventing sexual violence and harassment, which disproportionately affects girls, women, trans, and young gender non-binary folks.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with over 70 young women from 15 to 25 years old and a wide range of experts, renowned journalist Peggy Orenstein published the book Girls and Sex, which explores how new media, including porn and social media, profoundly impact young people’s sexuality. She found that young people rarely acknowledge the importance and value of female sexuality and pleasure and this has a deep impact on fueling an epidemic of sexual violence.
Talking about pleasure and intimacy with our kids as they mature can make them aware of what they want, what they are entitled to, and what sexuality should be about. Mentioning that “this is something people can do together to give each other pleasure and feel close” when answering questions about sexuality can open some important doors and make some important connections.
Feeling nervous? Our own sex-negative upbringings can make many of us squeamish at the idea of even mentioning sexual pleasure to our children. For some of us, it means overcoming sexual trauma or abuse in our own pasts so we can talk about sexuality in ways that are not fear-based. To raise sex-positive kids requires some work from parents. Reading about sex-positive parenting, finding resources in the community to learn about how to have those talks, practicing with trusted people around us or even in front of a mirror, therapy, books to prompt conversations… those are just some of the ways to get us going. And practice is what makes it easier as time goes on!
To have conversations on gender and sexuality with our children, it is important we have some basic definitions.
Traditionally, this is the classification of a person as male or female. At birth, infants are assigned a sex, usually based on the appearance of their external anatomy and this is the information that goes on their birth certificate. A person’s sex however is a combination of bodily characteristics including: chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.
- A person with XX chromosome usually has genitals and sex traits that we consider to be female.
- A person with XY chromosomes usually has genitals and sex traits that we consider to be male.
- People with other chromosome arrangements (e.g., XXY, XYY, XXXY, X0, etc.), hormonal profiles or genitals that do not typically fit into binary medical and social constructions of male and female are Intersex. There are hundreds of variations of intersexuality.
It is estimated that between 1.7% and 4% of all babies born are intersex. Increasingly, the rights of intersex people are being recognized and there is a strong movement opposing non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants. The reality of intersexuality highlights the problem of considering sex simply as binary (with just two possibilities). Rigid binary also feeds rigid ideas about gender identity and gender expression (e.g. the idea that if nature created only two sexes, that would mean that there can only be two gender identities). The reality is that there are more than two rigid sex categories and that sex is not inherently linked to gender identity.
Our gender identity is the internal, deeply held sense of our own gender. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl) but for some, their gender identity does not fall neatly into one of those two categories or can fall totally outside of them. These people can choose to identify as genderqueer, gender fluid or non-binary (NB), or with other terms of their choosing. Our personal feelings about our gender identity begin as early as 2 or 3 years old.
Cisgender: The people for whom assigned sex and gender identity line up are called cisgender (cis is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side”).
Trans: People for whom their assigned gender and gender identity do not align, for example, if the assigned sex is male but their gender identity is that of a woman, may identify as transgender or trans. In this example, the person would be a trans woman (instead of a cisgender woman) because while she was assigned male at birth, she identifies as a woman. The term trans is an umbrella term because there are multiple variations of gender identities that are not cisgender. Many transgender people decide to undergo hormone treatment to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps and a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures.
It is important to note that everyone has a gender identity, not just trans people. Cisgender people think about it less or do not notice the moment when they determine their gender identity because our environment presents it as “inevitable” and “normal.” Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not visible to others.
Our gender expression is the external manifestation of gender. It can be expressed through our name, the pronouns we use, the clothing we choose to wear, our haircut, our behavior, the tone of our voice, and/or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture.
When people’s gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity, we say they are gender non-conforming. Both cis and trans people can have gender expressions that are not entirely conventional and both cis and trans men and women can have gender expressions that are conventionally masculine or feminine.
Gender Creative and Gender Independent
These are terms often used to describe children who do not conform to binary constructions of gender. Children who are gender creative or gender independent may or may not grow up to identify as transgender.
Gender Normativity and Gender Norms
Gender normativity refers to the social constructs that define the gender binary of woman/man as normal and anything that exists outside of this binary as “abnormal,” unnatural and/or deviant. Gender norms are the mostly unwritten rules, scripts, and roles prescribed by socially constructed binary ideas of masculinity and femininity that are reinforced by the dominant culture.
We reinforce these norms or rules constantly, consciously or not. For example, many of us react strongly or negatively if we see a man wearing a dress or a man crying or a woman in a leadership position or who is angry and expresses herself assertively. We reward a typical behaviour either by our lack of reaction or with encouragement, subtle or not. We punish those who do not conform to gender norms by expressing surprise, questioning people, or showing disgust, fascination, or even aggression.
Oppositional and Traditional Sexism
Sexism is both gender-based discrimination and the attitudes, stereotypes, and cultural elements that promote this discrimination. So-called oppositional sexism is the idea that the categories of masculine and feminine are two completely opposite and distinct poles and traditional sexism is the idea that the masculine is superior to the feminine. Sexism affects people of all genders by limiting their genuine gender expressions and exposing them to discrimination on the basis of gender.
Our sexual orientation is our physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to people of one specific or multiple genders. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same.
Generally, especially as awareness grows regarding the diversity in sexual orientation, people know their sexual orientation from an early age, even if it is not immediately related to the idea of sex.
It’s Easier than You Think: How to become a sex-positive parents in 12 easy steps!
Okay, there is no actual recipe and it’s certainly not always “easy” but here are some good principles to think about, grow into, and integrate into everyday family life.
1. Assess your values and understand where your own beliefs and attitudes about sex, gender, anatomy, and relationships come from.
If we skip this step, it means we might not become aware of why we feel uncomfortable or dismissive during some important conversations or we might present certain topics from a narrow or judgmental point of view. Taking the time to get curious about our own assumptions creates space to inform and support our children with an open mind.
2. Let go of the idea of “The Talk."
Talking to our kids about gender, sex, reproduction, and sexuality should not be a one-time thing that happens on a specific schedule. Make it an ongoing discussion and keep that line of communication open. Talking to our kids about sexuality, health, gender, identity, relationships, and consent is a lifelong process where we answer questions, help them make sense of their experiences, and frame information as our children grow up. These are important opportunities to affirm our values and help children build the skills they need to be healthy, to thrive, and to nurture healthy relationships.
3. Aim to answer questions simply and honestly.
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to sex-positive parenting. When we talk to our kids about their anatomy, gender or sex, honesty is key. This is an area where we want to avoid confusion and we want to make sure we normalize having those conversations. This is important health information so answers should be straight forward and given in true and simple language. This means teaching the correct names for all body parts, including genitals. It means answering questions about masturbation, how babies are made, or about erections without resorting to metaphors, cutesy words or fear-based tall-tales that skirt the issues. Help your kids find the information they need to make good choices for themselves. If this is hard, it’s on us to find the information in books or to seek out people in online spaces or in our communities who can support us to find the right words.
4. Be mindful of your reaction.
Communication is only partially about the words we use. People heavily rely on our body language, tone, and inflection to get a sense of what we are “really” saying. While the content of our answers might not include anything shaming, the way we answer our children’s questions about sex may communicate fear or that they should be embarrassed about what they brought up. Responding to their questions in a matter-of-fact way communicates invaluable information to them.
5. Embrace and promote body positivity. Not only with your kids but with ourselves.
Our kids see and hear the way we treat our own bodies and they internalize that important information. The way they will see and treat their own bodies is informed by our own ways. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being overly critical of our bodies and let out some less than flattering comments about ourselves. In the same vein, for the most part, we should refrain from commenting on our kids’ bodies. Instead, let’s speak about ourselves in ways we want our kids to speak about themselves. If we model comfort with ourselves (even if we have to fake it until we make it) as well as love and respect for our own bodies and what they can do, our kids will know what they deserve and can demand that too.
6. Respect their privacy.
Sex-positivity is all about respect (respect for people’s rights, including their right to information, privacy, meaningful choice, agency, and autonomy). As parents, we should show serious respect for our children (of course, not only when they ask us sex questions!) so they get a feel for it and know to expect respect from us when asking questions. This doesn’t mean stepping away from our responsibility to keep our children healthy and safe but there are many opportunities where we can be mindful about respecting their privacy, especially around their bodies (“oh you want the door closed today? No problem. I will knock next time”) and their privacy around their private thoughts and feelings. Kids are full individuals, not just adults in training. What makes us cringe and feel exposed is likely to make them feel the same way. We can show our kids that they deserve to be treated with respect and to set their own boundaries around what and when to share with others, including their parents.
7. Cultivate emotional intelligence by becoming an emotion coach.
Teaching our kids how to understand and regulate their emotions is a lifelong gift to our children. Mastering this important life skill is linked to increases in self-confidence, greater mental and physical health, and healthier social relationships. If we want our children to know how to strike and nurture healthy relationships, we have to offer them the skills needed to do that. This means being aware of our children’s emotions, recognizing them as opportunities for connection and teaching even when they are unpleasant to us, listening to them empathetically and validating their feelings, helping them label those feelings, and supporting them to discover appropriate ways to solve problems and deal with upsets. Kids and teenagers WANT to hear from us about healthy relationships and part of that learning is to nurture emotional intelligence in children of all genders.
8. From gender to consent, start talking early and be a fierce advocate for children from babyhood on.
It’s never too early to teach our kids about consent. It can be done in simple and meaningful ways from infancy onwards like explaining why we are touching their bodies (e.g. it might be to keep them safe and healthy: “I’m going to insert this thermometer in your anus now because it is important for me to know if you have a fever so I can make sure you’re healthy and you get medicine if you need it”) or by asking them if they want a hug or a kiss before going for it. As they get the feel of what consent is about, it is also helpful for us, their parents, to look at how we can sometimes undermine consent with our own children.
For instance, when we don’t stop to tickle them even if they ask us to, when we force a hug or a kiss when they are mad and brush them off if they try to swat us away, or when we make them sit on a relative’s lap even though they said they didn’t want to, we undermine the consent of our children by teaching them that their consent only matters in certain circumstances. On top of being more mindful of our own habits, we must speak up for children and support them if they do put our teachings into practice by refusing to give grandma a kiss.
What messages are we sending to children if we prioritize social norms and other people’s feelings over them deciding who touches them and when? We can lovingly explain to relatives and loved ones how our child doesn’t feel like a hug right now but perhaps a high five will do?
Teaching about consent is also about teaching communication skills and the many ways people use to let us know “yes” and “no” (newsflash: it’s not always just by saying NO), how to assert and respect people’s bodily autonomy and boundaries, how to react to rejection, etc. If we hope to create a safer world for all children, where rape culture is a thing of the past, we certainly have a role to play as trusted adults!
The same goes for gender and sexuality. Children have a sense of their gender from as early as 2 or 3 and they also start to develop a sense of who they are attracted to from early on. This means we must help them to understand their own experiences by giving them the words to do so, in age appropriate ways! If we have a child who wishes to express their gender in ways that are not typical or a child who expresses an attraction to peers of the same sex or gender, our job is to be their advocate and to create spaces where they can be themselves and celebrated as such. It also means extending those spaces by working with the other adults who care for them: daycare providers, teachers, and doctors.
9. Resist gender norms and stereotypes.
Our kids act on a host of messages about gender and gender norms — some subtle, some not so subtle—that they receive since birth. Babies can read differences in gender presentation as early as their first year and they begin forming gender stereotypes almost as soon as they can categorize gender. Around 3 or 4, children begin to work out for themselves what gender feels like to them and they begin testing their understanding often by adopting (and in some cases, rejecting) stereotypical behaviors of what is normatively associated with masculinity and femininity. While it’s normal, it’s healthy and important to be mindful of how we may be reinforcing those stereotypes (for example, by overly praising our daughters when they wear dresses or by showing discomfort if we see our sons play with dolls or wearing nail polish). Since this is a time when children are receiving so many messages (and often, rigid ideas) about gender, we can use these messages to encourage critical thinking. For example, we can use books and media as perfect conversation starters on gender norms, encourage friendships across genders, expand activities made available for all kids, vocally challenge generalizations (e.g. when we hear, “pink is for girls,” we can certainly remind children that colors are for everybody and that there are no rules about how to be boy or a girl) and help our children learn the skills to challenge stereotypes (e.g. “Daddy feels like crying too sometimes, would you like a big hug?” or “mama needs to repair the washing machine, would you like to help me carry those tools?”).
10. Make lots of resources available to them… and to ourselves.
There are wonderful books that can make it into the bedtime story roster or can be strategically left lying around the house. Kids are curious and can really dig into topics like puberty, how babies are made, or what families can look like if you make the resources available to them. Some of these books can start some great conversations, while others can be perused in private. Figure out what are great online resources for tweens and teens that you and your older children can both rely on to seek out medically accurate, affirming, and inclusive information on sexual health. And then, do yourself the same favour and start equipping yourself with good resources around inclusive sex information. Sex-positive parenting can keep us on our toes! It’s great modeling to put a question aside if we don’t have an answer right away and then come back to it once we’ve done some homework. It shows children how we are all lifelong learners and how valued their questions are. Sometimes, keeping the lines of communication open about sexuality means we wade into unknown or scary waters. It’s okay to take the time to look things up, educate ourselves, find the appropriate resources, chat with friends, and seek expert advice from sexual health educators (found online or in the community). It’s a great journey for parents too as we get to be engaged in our children’s learning and enrich our own lives.
11. Advocate in your community for inclusive schools, comprehensive sex-ed, and youth friendly healthcare services.
Despite the mountains of evidence showing the benefits of young people having access to comprehensive sex-ed, it’s still a hot topic in Canada. It is a hot topic because media and political forces have framed sex-ed as something that is controversial and a matter of opinion or political affiliation as opposed to something that is essential. From polls and studies, we know that most parents and young people want sex-ed to be taught in schools and that having good quality, scientifically accurate, comprehensive sex-ed contributes to students’ overall health and well-being now and into the future. Unfortunately, scans of sex-ed curricula across Canada’s provinces and territories indicate that the quality of information taught to students is uneven and in some parts of the country, extremely outdated. Scans also indicate that sex-ed curricula across the country at best skim the surface of what would meet national and international standards and at worst, violate these standards and/or lag far behind. Currently in Canada, there is no national strategy and no national accountability mechanisms to ensure that sex-ed curriculum content, delivery, and teacher training meet either international best-practices and standards or the Canadian Guidelines on Sexual Health Education.
12. And most importantly... parent the child you have!
This means slowing down and tuning into your child’s individual abilities, needs, and goals so that you can respond to their learning styles, interests, and developmental milestones. Many of us spent time daydreaming about who our children would be when we started thinking about being parents, while we were pregnant or early on our parenting journey. When children get here, we start getting to know them and sometimes, this means letting go of what we had pictured or expected. As parents, our core mission is to nurture our children’s growth and to help them be who they truly are. Kids (and everyone really) thrive when they feel seen, heard, and respected. Some of our kids will have a different gender identity or sexual orientation than what we thought they would or they will have ways to express their gender and individuality that surprise us. As parents, we may think that “toning down” kids’ authentic selves or discouraging the public expression of things we find risky (e.g. our little boy wearing a dress to school, our young girl cropping her hair short, our child’s identification as non-binary, etc.) will protect them in a world that is not always friendly. But what happens is that we become their first bullies and their home becomes the first place where they must hide. It is true, the world is not always a friendly place but studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that a supportive and connected family is the most protective factor for 2SLGBTQ+ kids and that is fundamentally true for all kids. For our kids to shine in all their glory, let’s be their fiercest cheerleaders, advocates, and protectors! And let’s find our peers: seek out resources and groups in your community to support your parenting!
Abigail Curlew, Ten Ways Parents Can Be Supportive of Their Transgender Child in a Transphobic World https://firstname.lastname@example.org/ten-ways-parents-can-be-supportive-of-their-transgender-child-in-a-transphobic-world-92276db2bc3e?fbclid=IwAR31hiZ2zDDtEPiK-esV82UdCAG3WuaXT9-TGHoxcyWd4nIMthz6vL6Zb2k
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, Beyond the Basics: A resource for educators on sexuality and sexual health https://www.actioncanadashr.org/beyondthebasics/
AMAZE – Age Appropriate Info on Puberty for Tweens and Their Parents https://amaze.org/
SHORE Centre –The Answer Box https://www.shorecentre.ca/teachers/
The Centre for Sexuality https://www.centreforsexuality.ca/
Options for Sexual Health: Sexual and reproductive health and care and education https://www.optionsforsexualhealth.org/
Airial Clark, The Sex-Positive Parent http://thesexpositiveparent.com/
Visible Child https://visiblechild.wordpress.com/
EGALE Canada Human Rights Trust https://egale.ca/
Cory Silverberg https://www.corysilverberg.com
Everyday Girl Dad https://everdaygirldad.myshopify.com/
Dr. Nadine Thornhill, Ed.D http://www.nadinethornhill.com/
BK Chan, Educator on Emotional Intelligence, Diversity and Sexuality http://www.fluidexchange.org/
A Mighty Girl, The World’s Largest Collection of Books and Movies for Smart, Confident and Courageous Girls https://www.amightygirl.com
Kind Space, A Space for LGBTTQ+ Communities in Ottawa, http://kindspace.ca/
Sexual Health Lunenburg County’s Sextionary: http://www.sexualhealthlunenburg.com/resources/sextionary-2/
SERC, For Parents and Caregivers – Sexual Development: http://serc.mb.ca/sexual-health-info/for-parents-caregivers/child-sexual-development/
Video – “Winnipeg Talks: Talking to your kids about sex and sexuality mini workshop, SERC” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4lLCZIZVGs&feature=youtu.be
Saskatchewan Prevention Initiative, It’s Easier Than You Think: Tips for talking with your kids about sexual health
Saskatchewan Prevention Institute, Messages for Parents
Five Years to Eight Years: https://skprevention.ca/resource-catalogue/sexual-health/messages-for-parents-five-to-eight-years/
Thirteen to Sixteen Years: https://skprevention.ca/resource-catalogue/sexual-health/messages-for-parents-thirteen-to-sixteen-years/
Saskatchewan Prevention Institute, Building Healthy Relationships: Yes, that includes dating relationships! (Booklet)
Saskatchewan Prevention Institute, Tips for Talking With Your Child How to Build Healthy Relationships (Booklet)
Saskatchewan Prevention Institute, Tips for Talking With Your Students How to Build Healthy Relationships (Information Sheet)