When it comes to communication with kids, Rowland Hall Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund’s top piece of advice for parents and caregivers is simple.
“Always assure them that they can come talk to you with any questions, concerns, or experiences,” he said. “And when they do, ensure that your reaction is one of partnership and not judgment.”
At times, this advice can be easy to follow: many adults feel equipped to answer, and even welcome, questions about their children’s friendship woes, school worries, or nighttime fears. But when it comes to tougher conversations, like those around sex and sexuality, many caregivers get nervous—especially if they didn’t grow up having honest conversations about sex, or if they were raised to view sex as shameful or negative.
When [health educator Shafia Zaloom] visited our school, she mentioned how impressed she was with our approach to talking to students about healthy relationships in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental, and caring manner.—Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education
A fear of talking to kids about sex is common, and for a recent article for USA TODAY, reporter Alia Dastagir set out to answer why. As part of her reporting, she spoke to Ryan, as well as to Rowland Hall Upper School health and wellness teacher Lauren Carpenter, on the recommendation of health educator Shafia Zaloom, who was also interviewed for the article. Shafia got to know the Rowland Hall community last September when she held virtual workshops on healthy relationships for middle and upper school students and for parents and caregivers—an experience that influenced her decision to recommend our educators as sources to the national publication.
“When Shafia visited our school, she mentioned how impressed she was with our approach to talking to students about healthy relationships in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental, and caring manner,” said Ryan. “As someone who travels the country talking at schools and colleges, she expressed that she does not always see such a comprehensive wellness model.”
And this kind of model is important, the USA TODAY article stresses, because kids need accurate, honest information about sex more than ever before. In the piece, published September 8 and titled “Why Adults Are So Afraid to Talk to Kids about Sex,” Ryan, Lauren, and Shafia debunk the belief that comprehensive sex education encourages teens to have sex, or even promotes promiscuity. In fact, Lauren pointed out, the opposite is true: accurate, comprehensive information about sex actually protects teens’ health and lives—and this is especially important, added Ryan, because today’s kids live in a sex-saturated media environment that exposes them to sexual messages earlier than ever.
“Talking to your kids about sex and sharing your family’s values with them in an open and curious forum does not mean that you condone them engaging in sexual activity—when we talk to kids about drugs, we don't expect that they'll want to use them because we had that conversation,” said Lauren. “If anything, I think it helps your kids see you as an advocate and strengthens their support system.”
To help get adults comfortable with conversations around sex and sexuality, the educators recommend that they work through personal worries, fears, or hesitations, as well as examine their own sex educations for sources of discomfort. It’s necessary to get comfortable with the subject, they said, because talking to kids about healthy sexuality can’t be accomplished in one big talk: it needs to happen often, and it needs to begin when children are young, as part of an overall approach to helping them feel safe coming to their guardians with any questions. As Ryan shared with USA TODAY, "If you're not having that conversation, the conversation's happening somewhere else—peers, the Internet, or in your first relationship where you're negotiating a power dynamic of one person who knows and the other one who doesn't.”
“Developing all kinds of relationships is part of the natural progression of human life. But navigating those relationships in a positive and responsible way is not innate,” Lauren added. “For adolescents to learn how to navigate the many facets of sexuality and how to make positive, self-affirming choices, it's important to have a parent or guardian's voice leading in an understanding and supportive way.”
It’s okay to not have all the answers, or to return to a conversation later, or to ask your kids for feedback on how they want to approach a subject. It’s also okay to plan what you want to say ahead of time and to lean on resources, including other adults your kids trust.
The educators also offered USA TODAY readers a variety of tips, from teaching kids about consent, empathy, and privacy early, to reminding parents that they don’t have to be perfect when it comes to talking about sex and sexuality: it’s okay to not have all the answers, or to return to a conversation later, or to ask your kids for feedback on how they want to approach a subject. It’s also okay, they said, to plan what you want to say ahead of time and to lean on available resources, including other adults your kids know and trust (see below for a list of Ryan and Lauren’s top resource recommendations). The educators are hopeful that these tips will inspire more honest, trust-building conversations in homes across America.
“I was so happy to see the topic discussed in a national forum, and I appreciated the opportunity to add to the conversation,” said Lauren. “Normalizing the conversation regarding teen sexuality might begin to help diminish cultural stigmas related to it and allow more open conversation—ultimately leading to healthier relationships for teens.”
There are many resources available to help families navigate conversations about sex and sexuality. Below are some of Ryan and Lauren’s top recommendations.
- Your child's pediatrician. Not only is your pediatrician a wonderful resource for you, said Ryan, but they’re also a great resource for your child. “Make sure they have a trusting relationship, and that your child has their own set of questions they can ask at annual well-child visits,” he said.
- Books. Lauren recommends Shafia Zaloom’s Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between, Michael Kimmel’s Guyland, and Al Vernacchio’s For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens about Sexuality, Values, and Health.
- School counselors and health teachers. Reach out to your child’s school to learn who can support you. For Rowland Hall families, Ryan said, “Leslie Czerwinski and Lauren Carpenter are amazing educators who are so respected in wellness circles for their years of service and expertise. Any opportunity to join them in an important conversation I am going to take, because I know I am going to learn something as a parent and colleague.”
- Local nonprofits. “My top resources are Planned Parenthood, YWCA Utah, the Rape Recovery Center, UCASA [the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault], and the Utah Pride Center,” said Lauren.
- Utah Department of Health. The state’s website includes information on a wide variety of topics.
Check out the full USA TODAY article here. (Subscription required.)