Getting Rid of “The Talk”

16 Feb

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I find it strange to still be hearing adults refer to “the talk” when they mention discussing sex with their kids, as if there were only one.  As if you could possibly cover anything significant about the human body and desire and maturity and emotion and the entanglements of these in sexuality.  Not to mention STDs, pregnancy, parenthood, sexual identity.  And forget about constricting gender binaries. Or the problems of the notion of “virgin.”  Or broken hearts.  These are all critical elements in communicating about sex and they certainly can’t be covered in something as momentary and isolated and awkward as “the talk.”  Family communication research indicates that young people prefer their parents as primary sources of information.  It also shows that parents fancy themselves rather thorough in talking about sexual matters with their children.  It also shows that the children don’t fancy their parents as being all that thorough.  So something breaks down, it seems and, while I am seriously one of the last ones to point to parents when we seek explanations for social phenomena that we don’t like, I am going to go ahead and say that, as parents, we’ve got some real issues about this sex talk thing. And because we refuse to confront them, we pass them on to our children.

It’s a troubling message indeed if children come to see sex as something that can get covered in a rather official, sit-down, fidgety but stalwart conversation.  “The talk” is so dang somber, and it’s so NOT like the rest of the family’s conversations, so set apart from the rest of how the family does things, that it doesn’t invite engagement in the moment or continuing dialogue later at all.  Given that studies continue to show that people rate fear of public speaking as a top fear in their life, and in fact have rated it in some studies higher than fear of death, and given that we set “the talk” up as some sort of prepared speech, albeit to a small audience, it’s no wonder parents don’t do it, or don’t do it well, or that their kids are exceedingly uncomfortable through the whole thing.  Part of the solution is to quit thinking of sex talk in terms of THE talk and to incorporate talk about sex into everyday conversation.  Most parents probably do not use the model of “the talk” to make sure the kids carry their cell phones and have them ON and ANSWER the dang things.  They probably don’t have “the talk” about speaking in respectful tones to parents or about how to treat siblings, or about driving safely, or about homecare responsibilities, or about politics or religion/spirituality, or about how to treat other people.  These things are too important to reduce to a single conversation. They tend to get incorporated into everyday life and become just part of a family’s regular discourse.  So families tend to already have a pattern in place for dealing with important things—they talk about them a lot.

For the most part, we actually don’t make something more important by having the big ol’ sit down about it; we just make it awkward and intimidating. We make something important by giving it a place in everyday conversation.

Even conversations about death function in this way.  My friend Catherine asked of some of her friends recently how to respond to her 4 year old’s queries about whether or not he was going to die, or his mom was going to die.  I think the way we deal with the important stuff is to incorporate it into everyday life.  Now death is tricky of course, not necessarily a topic that parents should initiate, but if the child is asking, you don’t have to resort to walking over to the couch, sitting the child down, holding her/his hands and looking into his eyes to answer the question.  I think that these conversations work better if they happen while you’re stirring pots, or pulling up weeds:  All living things die.  Animals, plants, people. People usually live for a long time. Hand me those carrots over there.  When you grow up, you will probably have me with you, like I have my mom… They’re important enough to answer directly but not so awful that we have to do them in ways markedly different from the everyday way we connect.

Getting rid of “the talk” and replacing it with everyday conversations will require that we give up any illusions of control, of containing the conversation, of being its director.  Maybe we’d rather pretend that our children have not been learning about sex and bodily intimacy since they were born, that years of messages about privacy, nudity, hugs, personal space, and kisses have not been about sexuality at some level, and that billboards, magazines, the internet, peers, television, song lyrics, commercials, radio, and film have not been overwhelming the children with sexuality information, or images of death for that matter, for years.  But that would be delusional thinking I’m afraid, and would put us grossly out of touch with the worlds our children in inhabit.  These issues are part of their everyday life already, and you can be part of that in an everyday way.  Or you can keep pretending.


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6 responses to “Getting Rid of “The Talk”

  1. Patrick Cronin

    February 16, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    My sons got the “talk” at their Episcopal School in Los Angeles and it was a good one from an Episcopal Priest who was also an MD. So there we were about 50 fathers ranging in age from mid 30s to me, early 50s, and so the “talk” went from abstinence to how to put on a condom if abstinence was not the option of the moment….so the “talk” was good and fair. But the problem was the “after talk” when all of the fathers except me claimed to be a virgin until the wedding night. I pointed out the Vegas odds of 50 male virgins in a room in Los Angeles, which did not endear me to the fathers, but made me a bit of hero with the 13/14 year old boys who knew their dads were lying through their teeth. If we can’t be honest about sex and intimacy et al, I think we should not only not have “the talk” we should only talk about the weather. Great honest post as usual.

  2. r4dic4lf3mm3

    February 17, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Great post! I find that everyday talks about sexuality are not only less intimidating to children, but also to parents. By keeping this type of dialog informal, my daughters and I gotten to the point that we can talk about just about anything without embarrassment.

    • Dr. Mama

      February 17, 2012 at 10:43 pm

      thanks r4dic4lf33m3. you’re right; it’s not just kids who get intimidated by ‘the talk’ and not just kids who would benefit from doing it differently.

  3. Lila Gail Walters

    February 17, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    I like it when you say “dang,” ” hand me those carrots over there” and “or you can keep pretending!” Good job!

  4. lakeshaanderson

    February 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    What is truly baffling to me is that there are so many missed opportunities. My 7-year-old asks a million questions. On this absolutely ridiculous day at school called “Dress Like A Famous Person Day” (which I call ridiculous because of the very issue I’m about to express), my daughter wanted to be a pop princess ala Katy Perry or Rihanna. Um, no.

    So, I was faced with two options: I could say no (“As your mother I mean no and no means no”) or I could use it as a teaching opportunity. You can rest assured the road less traveled was the road taken in my house.

    It was 8pm after a Parent Advisory Council Meeting that she asked if she could dress as one of these two lesser than exemplary individuals. So, timing itself did not allow me to go into a deep discussion about social constructionism. Nor will I any time in the next few years be buying her a personal copy of Berger & Luckmann’s book (which – quite literally – was life changing and I thank you for introducing me to). But, I did use it as a chance to talk to her about what “being famous” means and what she image means and what presentation is about. I asked her very smart 7-year-old brain to dig a bit deeper to think about famous women who present an image she could be proud of because of what she represents(-ed). I explained a bit about media and sensationalism and gendered identity. I also think that I failed to really get much across in the small time frame I had, and I haven’t had much of a chance to really dig at that in a solid way since then but, as you point out, these things are continual conversations that shouldn’t be held in a vacuum. I incorporate these ideas into our daily lives.

    I recently took her to the doctor because A is exhibiting early signs of puberty. The doctor said, “you may want to talk to her about some of these things.” I knew what that meant — take her aside, have this conversation in a closed room, apart of her brother. Tell her what is going to “happen to her.” Her doctor is a good one, but she expected me to have a conversation. A single one. Like lots of other mothers. And one that doesn’t include my son. I don’t operate that way. Both my children need to understand sexuality and they need to respect one another’s paths. I also recognize the need to not scare my 5-year-old right now some conversations get tempered on occasion. I struggled for about a year, determining if I was supposed to be having some sort of “talk” with A and what on Earth I was supposed to say during such a discussion. As you say, there is absolutely nothing else so important; yet, so compartmentalized that I have merely one discussion about it. It took me a while to accept that I was doing the right thing by discussing it as it naturally came about, as it was asked about. That meant that my kids knew what the concept of a uterus was when they were 5 and 3. So what? They asked. I think with our decision to have a flow of communication comes an understanding and respect for open, honest communication. That throws some people off when they’re faced with having to walk that talk.

    Anyhow, now that I’ve rambled on for far too long, my point all along was that there are FAR too many opportunities to talk to your children on an ongoing and informative and caring basis to ignore those opportunities. There is always a message (written or visual) smacking us in the face that we can use as a springboard. Or a story about a classmate. Or a narrative.

    A blog post like this.

    Nice honesty, per the norm.

  5. Dr. Mama

    February 29, 2012 at 8:39 am

    Thanks again LaKesha for sharing the insights you glean from bold parenting. I appreciate the back-up! Let’s keep these conversations with our kids (and each other) going.


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