The birds and the bees

The birds and the bees
Parents should be the first educators when it comes to sex, writes Colm Fitzpatrick


Most people find broaching the topic of sex uncomfortable and for many parents this awkwardness is only heightened when discussing the subject with their children. ‘The Talk’ as it’s euphemistically phrased, denotes the time in your child’s life when you think it appropriate to have an objective conversation about how babies are conceived, the various contraceptive methods that people use, and finally some of your own moral or religious guidance on the topic.

Not all experiences of ‘The Talk’ are the same – some teenagers aren’t given one, others are thrown a book and told to digest it, many unfortunately find out about the physical intricacies of it online before parental intervention, and there are of course endless cases where both parent and child look down at their feet and avoid eye contact at all costs wondering why each passing minute feels like an hour.

Many parents treat this topic as one-off conversation never to be raised to again, usually emulating how their own household dealt with the issue when they were growing up. However, it’s important that parents are open with their kids when talking about sex rather than treating it as a taboo subject. Moreover, the notion of having a singular discussion about the birds and the bees when a child reaches their teen years isn’t the best route; it should be an ongoing discussion during their young developmental life.

“The conversation begins at the conception of your child, and even when the babies are in the womb they pick up on so many things, whether they’re loved or are wanted,” says fertility adviser Jackie Ascough of NeoFertility.

“So the underlying message in the whole thing when you’re talking to your kids about the birds and the bees is that they understand that they’re loved and worth loving and that God loves them.”

She adds that this message must be constantly reinforced when they’re born, and is conveyed through loving acts like feeding them.

“When they’re little, even at times when mum or dad feeds their baby, they’re telling their baby that they love them, that they’re safe, that they’re worthy.

“It’s that message that your child gets and that’s the message you want to just keep giving them in those younger years because it’s actually the foundation all the stuff will rest on. It literally goes all the way back to there personally I think, it’s the mindset that you have as a parent,” Jackie explains.

The topic of sex contains not only information about the act itself, but a whole array of teachings about what it means to be human and what constitutes a healthy and loving relationship. By reducing the subject down to mere biomechanics and science, the context and implications of sex can be lost.

The need to provide a holistic framework for sex is paramount in today’s world as more and more young people’s first exposure to it is discovered through online porn which is often violent and unrealistic. Indeed, research commissioned by NSPCC in 2016 revealed that by age 15, children were more likely than not to have seen online pornography, and that both boys and girls actively search for it. Notably, 53% of boys and 39% of girls who had seen porn believed it to be a “realistic” depiction.

Parents aren’t just competing with computers or mobile devices to broach the topic first, but also with the child’s school and their friends.”

“Another thing I emphasise is it’s really important that you get in there first with the information, even if it’s limited when they’re small. You don’t want to go in with too much information, you want to go in with age appropriate information for the different ages,” Jackie says.

“You’re opening the door of communication and you don’t want to be the last one to the party because if you are then you lose your authority.”

Parents aren’t just competing with computers or mobile devices to broach the topic first, but also with the child’s school and their friends. Jackie explains that when her children were young, she provided them with age-appropriate books that were “gentle” and had just enough information for their maturity. However, as your children grow older, it’s vital to dive into the nitty-gritty of the topic or else they may pick up the wrong idea about what it involves. It’s important to feel confident when talking about sex and be understanding of your child’s questions or misgivings. This isn’t a reality far removed from them and depending on their age, they will have personal queries or curiosities.

“We can forget that the details need to come at some stage because I think they’re harder to talk about. It’s really important, particularly for girls because as they come into maturity there are a lot of changes. They’re very physical, once she starts her cycle and all of that, let her know that it’s natural and normal, that it’s coming and that it’s okay,” Jackie says, adding that the occasion should be marked in some way.

Likewise, she adds, “for boys, I think it’s really important that dads are in there as you see visibly that your son is starting to change, that their body is changing and that they understand what’s happening and that it’s good and natural”.

In an open environment where trust is a given, your child will feel more comfortable asking you about particular topics and will also seek your advice when they’re experiencing personal dilemmas. Parents are the first influencers of their children and it’s important to use this role to the best of your ability.

The expectations that parents have of their children about sex varies from home to home, but raising her own kids in a Catholic household, Jackie says that these religious teachings should be conveyed and explained.

“…Church teaching, Church encyclicals, there’s a couple of things that we read to them and discuss and ask questions and have them ask questions and I do give them basic instruction on fertility awareness, even the boys,” Jackie says, noting that it’s important they have some education on the topic.

With so much material out there, it’s easy to ignore the subject of sex completely in the whimsical hope that your child will absorb the correct information without your guidance – an option that becomes even more appealing if you too are uncomfortable talking about it. However, Jackie believes that this attitude can have a negative impact.

“First thing, get over yourself; maybe that’s how your parents were with you. Let’s do it better. This generation has too many challenges, they really need parents to step up with this kind of information,” she explains, adding that if this is territory you’re too apprehensive to explore, find somebody you trust to help you. This might come in the shape of an individual who can speak to your child while you’re present or perhaps somebody to guide you along throughout the conversation.

“It’s okay not to have the answers as a parent, not every parent will have the language or feel comfortable talking about this maybe – find out how to,” Jackie says.

With reams of resources available for parents on this topic, there is no excuse nowadays to avoid discussing what it means to be a sexual being with your children as they become young adults. In an atmosphere of love, care and understanding, a two-way conversation will help your kids to learn more about who they are and navigate in a world that is just beginning to open up to them.