Julia Sweeney’s excellent TED conversation “It’s Time For The Talk” is a very humorous account of a situation that practically all parents find themselves in at one time or another. And I’ve got to say that for the most part, she did pretty well with it!
She certainly seems to know the principles of having those conversations that can be much more awkward for the parent than it is for the child. And she understood that rule that applies to children asking about sex, which is very similar to the instructions most lawyers give to witnesses who were about to testify in court: just answer the question that was asked. For example, most have heard some variation of the story about a first grader who comes home from school and asks’ his parents, “what is sex?” Of course, they reply with a professorial diatribe about the “birds and the bees”, when all the child needed to know was that the word, “sex” meant male/female or boy/girl. Julia certainly got this part right.
There are many good books and articles as well as tons of credible information available to you on the Internet and elsewhere about talking to your children at various ages (and the conversations are quite different at different ages) about sex. But there are several other topics we may need to talk to our children about, that test our comfort zone as well. For example, explaining about divorce, death (whether it’s a pet, a grandparent or someone else), why we are moving and you need to attend new school or perhaps about some difficult or uncomfortable situation that is unique to your family.
Over the years, many parents have talked to me about such discussions. In addition, I am a parent myself who has had many such delicate discussions; and I have found that there are two important things to keep in mind. Let me state the obvious one first: to talk to them on their age-appropriate level. Nothing is accomplished if they don’t understand what you said and then leave the conversation more confused. Trust that just as Julia’s daughter came back and asked more questions as more occurred to her, your children will do the same. Also, allow that with certain topics you may need to explain the same thing many times and often in different ways until your child finally gets it.
Second, tell the truth! Arguably, the most important thing to remember is what has long-term implications. Trust is a fragile commodity, which is easy to damage. Always assume that they will “fact check” you in some way. It may not be immediately, but inevitably; the topic—whatever it is— will come up at some point with their siblings, cousins, friends or teachers. In order for you to be the ongoing resource you want to be for your children throughout the crucial ages of childhood and adolescence, they need to trust you. Not only will that benefit them the most, but also it will relieve your mind and make parenting a more rewarding experience for you. So when Julia was asked whether there were videos on the Internet that showed humans mating as it showed cats, saying “no” got her out of the awkward situation for the moment. However, her daughter will find out at some point that this is not the case. A slightly better answer may have been, “not that we can look at”.
A great exercise to prepare parents for navigating this awkward side of parenting is to ask yourself what would have worked best for you when you were on the receiving end of these answers. Unlike many of the challenges of parenting today, these situations are timeless.