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.