It’s routinely expressed, even by the more liberal among us, that our children are sexualized, and at earlier ages than ever before. In the clothing they wear, entertainment they watch, or marketing they’re spoon-fed, kids are systematically brutalized with a message of sex; explicitly in today’s music, more by innuendo in television and movies. Of all the challenges this creates for parents, perhaps the most immediate is the need to talk about sex with our kids far sooner than we would have hoped.
For the record there is no such thing as The Sex Talk. If that management concept I use so often, The Rule Of 50, applies anywhere it applies here. It may demand 500 conversations, say nothing for 50, and God forbid only one to get such an important message as sexuality across to our children. By most standards I started this early, maybe too early, around six for my youngest. It began with the sensitive topic of ‘touching down there’. But we gradually amped up our talks. As tweens, they may know more about sex than any kid in their class. We’ve long since moved past anatomy and now are discussing how sex is presented and distorted in the world around them, through language from the internet and television, in music and the scourge of pornography, to behaviors seen in friends at school. But we’ve yet to cross that threshold into the emotional and moral realm, which I argue is more important and dangerous than the biological.
Warnings about STD’s and pregnancy are far easier than foretelling the emotional carnage so often associated with sex, particularly when it’s cleaved from love, intimacy, and commitment. Despite what music and movies claim, most of us do understand, and usually from experience, that sex and emotions cannot be separated, at least for long. There’s always a reckoning when the two are divorced, routinely in depression, anxiety, and heartbreak. Something any parent would never want for their children.
But how best should we prepare our kids for those unseen dangers when the world acts as if none exist and our own pasts illustrate to near perfection that very disregard?
This is my struggle.
If I’m completely honest, there’s only one means of safeguarding my kids from that reckoning. It’s not ‘education‘, contraception, or consent – it’s abstinence. Only by waiting until they are emotionally mature with a clear vision to see the hidden perils should they ever begin down that path. Yet that opens more questions, when are they mature enough to take that first step and how does that conversation go? Is it when they can drive, vote, sit in the exit row of a plane, or drink alcohol? Is it when they grow body hair or get a period? And then do I simply pull them aside when that time feels right or I suspect something’s up, hand over a box of condoms with the warning, “Always use protection!”
Yet the challenge with an abstinence message is it contradicts everything they see and hear around them. Entertainment and friends carry the loudest microphone in a kid’s life and they’re saying something different. At a time when the greatest desire is acceptance and inclusion, convincing kids to walk so narrow a path is to brand a scarlet letter on their chest and help ensure they get the the ugly end of social media and hallway gossip.
Yet as difficult as all this surely is, it pales to what I believe is my biggest predicament in preaching abstinence to my kids.
How can I encourage them to ‘wait’ when I didn’t?
Parenthood is good at making hypocrites of us all. If you doubt that, you haven’t been parenting long enough. We’re spared much of this reality while kids are young. But about ten years old is when they become walking mirrors reflecting our own insincerity. How many times do we warn our children of certain behavior only to do that very thing when they’re not looking; or we leverage our perceived age and maturity for the reason we can behave in ways they can’t? And can there be any clearer reflection of our potential for hypocrisy than when it comes to sex?
Like any sane parent, I absolutely want my kids to wait. I wish for nothing more than to see them walk through adolescence with pure minds and clean souls so when they do arrive at that monumental decision, it will not only be with a chaste body but also a free conscience.
But I can imagine even now how such a conversation would go. I make a warning against being too hasty, acting more sensibly and judicious, and how waiting until marriage would be preferable. But I know my kids, and invariably would come the next logical question, “Dad, did you wait?”
This is when things become very real.
My better self, or depending on how you choose to look at it, my gluttony for punishment, simply won’t allow me to preach abstinence, unless it’s upon the pillar of my own shortcomings. Anything less is to build a message upon a foundation of hypocrisy that will crumble and scatter like dust in the wind.
This has led me to wonder how honest I should be about my past sex life? How deep into the rabbit hole should I take them when the time comes? To step in that direction leads only to my disgrace and their disappointment. Mine is a sexual past no child would be proud to discover about their father. Within it are dark chapters where any shaft of light would scorch me to cinders of shame and regret.
But it seems, to me at least, that from the humiliation and guilt is a message that might resonate with them far better than demands and threats. When asked “Dad, did you wait?” my response must come be a place of humility, but also honesty. A message that says, “No, I didn’t wait and it’s for that very reason I want something different and better for you. I want to spare you a similar reckoning.”
As I see it, shouldn’t I underscore my youthful and regrettable experiences and their fallout as an example of how not to live? Instead of falsehoods to protect my pride, wouldn’t their father’s real story, even if it ends in my humiliation, make the loudest and gravest warning of all? Is it not better to show how I became entangled by the very dangers the world around them says isn’t there, instead of acting a picture of moral perfection? That if it can happen to me, their father, it can happen to them. Much like a hiker returning from the summit warning those he meets of the imminent danger ahead and suggesting an alternate course, shouldn’t I too warn my children of what lies farther on if they take that well worn path and point them instead in a nobler and safer direction – all because I’ve been there and know?
In truth, is it not for this reason that I should, in fact I must, encourage my children to wait – because their father didn’t?