A CONVERSATION WITH SALEEMA NOON
There are few subjects that make parents’ palms sweat (and kids’ eyes roll) more than ‘That Subject’. (You know the one we mean? Nudge-nudge, wink-wink?) We’re so awkward about sex or ‘the birds & bees’ or ‘hanky-panky’ or ‘making whoopie’ … that it seems easier to tell our kids they were sweet surprises from the cabbage patch, or delightful deliveries from the stork, rather than give them the proper information.
But our kids need us to be honest with them. And we need to be brave enough to have these conversations – so our kids can hear the facts from us (before Jono or Bella in the playground give them misinformation that’s laughable or downright dangerous). So how do we do that? How do we survive these tricky chats with our dignity (and our kids’ eyeballs) intact?
Well, who better to turn to for advice than Saleema Noon – Canadian sexual-health educator and recent co-author (along with Meg Hickling, ‘body science’ instructor) of a new book:
Talk Sex Today …
GRAPEVINE: Lots of parents are reluctant to teach kids about sex – why do you think that is?
SALEEMA: Well, often as parents, we realise kids need this information. But most of us didn’t grow up learning about sexual health from our own parents. And it’s really hard to know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it… so we kind of freeze. Some parents feel uncomfortable broaching the subject with their kids, because sexual health and sexuality are still taboo in our culture. And there’s also a perception that teaching kids about sex encourages experimentation – although research indicates the opposite.
BETTER TO KNOW THAN NOT KNOW
It isn’t knowledge and information that leads to experimentation. It’s ignorance and a lack of knowledge – combined with curiosity. Kids who learn from reliable adults at an early age about healthy bodies and sexuality actually delay their first sexual encounter.
So it’s helpful for us as parents to establish ourselves as our kids’ No.1 source of reliable information about sexual health. That way they’re more likely to come to us, rather than seeking out information on the internet or by asking their peers, when they have questions or concerns. The key is to normalise the topic in our home.
GV: At what age is it appropriate to begin teaching kids about sex?
SALEEMA: The day they’re born! Really – from the outset it’s important to use
scientific terminology for body parts. Kids are perfectly capable of learning these words and knowing how to use them. And, when it comes to reproduction, puberty, and the rest of it – the earlier the better! When kids are three and four and start asking questions – “Where did I come from?” “How did I get a sister?” “Where is the baby inside you?” – those are great opportunities to have a chat. It’s never too early.
And I encourage parents to give a bit more information than they think, a bit sooner than they think.
Kids will only absorb what’s relevant to them, what’s interesting to them, and what they’re ready for. For example, the other day in a kindergarten class I’d just finished explaining the mechanics of sexual intercourse, and I said, “Does anyone have any questions about how babies are made before we move on?” and one of the kids raised her hand and said, “Well, not about that – but what colour is the atmosphere?” To kids, science is just science.
GV: In the early chapters of Talk Sex Today you discuss talking with kids about ‘Body Science’. Can you explain your approach with each different age group?
SALEEMA: We call the little ones – kindy kids to about Year 2 – ‘Magical Thinkers’. At that age, if they don’t know the facts about something, they’ll just make up a story that satisfies them. They’re the easiest to teach. I say I’m going to tell them how to be body scientists, and they just hang onto every word!
The Year 3 and Year 4 kids we call ‘Bathroom Humour Types’ – and they’re similar, but a bit more giggly, because they’ve heard about sex before. It’s starting to make sense to them, and they have lots of questions about things they’ve heard!
When they get to Year 5 and Year 6, we call them the ‘Gross-Me-Outers’! And we need to acknowledge the discomfort these kids often feel. In the classroom, for example, I might say, “I get it! You’re at an age where you feel uncomfortable talking openly about bodies. Right? I remember feeling that way when I was your age, so I’m going to do my best to make this as comfortable and fun as possible. We’re just going to treat this like science. I want you to think of yourselves as ‘body scientists’. And yeah – a lot of what we’ll talk about is pretty adult stuff – but I’m sure you can handle it. So let’s just stay in scientific mode. Okay?”
A CHAT – NOT A LECTURE
As parents of these ‘Gross-Me-Outers’, we too need to be flexible about how we provide information on sexuality. We can’t force our Year 5s and 6s to sit down with us for half an hour and look us in the eye while we regurgitate everything we’ve rehearsed on a given topic!
GV: How do you coach parents and teachers to handle it if a child’s acting inappropriately – like if a young boy snaps his classmate’s bra strap?
SALEEMA: That’s one good reason why I always teach boys and girls together – not only so the kids all get the same information, but because it also fosters respect between boys and girls. Boys need to know that, for girls, the decision whether or not to wear a bra is a really hard one. If boys understand what girls experience, maybe they won’t make fun of them – or try to snap their bra strap. They’ll realise how self-conscious that can make a girl feel.
Same thing with boys going through the changes of puberty. It can be really tough when their voice cracks and they sound like a girl. Maybe if their sisters learn that, they’ll be less likely to harass them. So it’s about fostering respect.
Also, we don’t want to separate them for sexual health education, because we don’t separate them for anything else in school. We don’t want to give them the message, before we even start, that this is something they should feel embarrassed talking about in front of the opposite sex.
GV: This is a changing world that teens are encountering. As you say, “Kids are exposed to much more than we think, sooner than we think.” What are some areas of social media and the internet that parents should be wary of (in terms of guiding and protecting their kids)?
SALEEMA: From the moment their kids can hold an iPad, parents should set limits and boundaries. There should be rules around when and how we use devices – and parents need to play an active role in whatever their kids are doing online.
So, when it comes to entering the world of social media – which younger and younger kids are doing these days – parents should be ‘following’ their kids and looking at what their kids are posting. And parents should make it clear that there will be accountability – and no privacy! (Don’t be hesitant about this; there’s no question of privacy – the internet is the most public space there is!)
Parents need to know what kids are doing online. Kids as young as eight or nine are using SnapChat and TikTok and Instagram – but these seemingly harmless social media apps can very quickly turn to something that’s not helpful in their lives. For one thing, there’s this competitive aspect: If your post gets lots of attention, that’s a good day – but if it doesn’t, this will be a rubbish day.
More and more kids are looking to this external gratification to fuel themselves – which, as adults, we know is unhealthy, and the start of a really slippery slope. Then there’s the problem of what they might come across online – and how easy it is for them to emulate what they’re seeing.
And, of course, pornography is a real issue …
GV: What tips can you give parents for talking with their kids about pornography – and for guiding them if they see something disturbing or upsetting?
SALEEMA: Parents should have a brief conversation with their kids around Years 3 and 4, and the main message should be: “If you see sexy videos or sexy photos online, those are meant for adults. And if you stumble across them, or if you search for them yourself, please come and talk to me. I promise that you won’t get into trouble. I just want to help you deal with the things you’ve seen …”
A SAFE LISTENING EAR
It’s really important that kids feel safe talking to their parents. Or, if the kids don’t feel comfortable with that, a trusted adult friend or relative that the parents have arranged – a safe grown-up or grandparent that their kids might feel happier talking to (without the parents having to know about it).
As our kids get older, we can get into a deeper conversation about the reality of pornography. Most kids will see porn well before they’ve experienced a sexual relationship. And, as they have nothing to compare it to, they often mistakenly think that what they’re seeing represents a typical healthy sexual relationship – which of course it doesn’t. They need to know that, because what they see in porn can be disturbing and misleading and confusing, it’s a better idea to wait until they’re an adult to make more positive decisions about that.
It also helps to point out how porn features people acting like they’re having the time of their lives – but they’re acting; it’s not real. Porn shows us what society reckons is beautiful, not what an average healthy person’s body looks like. And it also makes some pretty bold assumptions about what women want in sexual relationships.
If we believed everything we saw in porn we’d think that women are up for anything … that they enjoy violence during sex … that consent doesn’t matter; what really matters is what the guy wants. Young men, too, often walk away from seeing pornography feeling like there are all kinds of
unrealistic expectations on them – which is damaging in itself.
GV: You believe that learning about ‘body science’ helps protect kids. Aside from what you’ve already mentioned about keeping kids safe online, how else does giving them this information protect them?
SALEEMA: There are lots of simple, practical things. When we teach little kids about ‘body science’ we teach them things like keeping safe by avoiding needles or condoms they might find in the bushes or on the playground. They don’t make the connection between the condom and sex – they just understand that it can have germs that can make them sick, so they shouldn’t touch them.
I show them needles (which usually prompts great excitement as they trade war-stories about their immunisations!). I explain that usually needles are used by nurses or doctors to give us medicine, but “some people use them to do illegal drugs, and that’s why we worry – because there could be germs in them that could make kids sick.”
From early primary, your kids need to know:
- the three private parts of the body: mouth, breasts, and genitals
- that they have ownership of their bodies (the basics of consent)
- the scientific words related to anatomy and reproduction (i.e. vulva, penis, testicles, vagina, urethra, anus, uterus)
- that reproduction happens when a sperm joins an egg, usually (but not always) through sexual intercourse
- that the baby grows in the uterus (not the stomach)
- that the baby is usually born through the vagina
- that families are formed in different ways and are all unique
- not to pick up condoms or needles
(Reprinted with permission from ‘Talk Sex Today’)
We should also ensure that, from a young age, kids know technical names for body parts – so they can vocalise to adults if something inappropriate’s going on. Kids needs accurate information about what sex is, and that it’s an adult activity – so if someone tries to do that to them, they’ll know right away that it’s not okay.
If kids don’t know what’s appropriate and what’s not – and if they don’t know the facts about what sex is – why would they say no? We teach kids how to respond if someone behaves in a way that makes them scared or uncomfortable.
IF IT’S INAPPROPRIATE …
We tell kids to say “No!” or “Stop!” in a really bossy voice – no matter who it is. We tell them to do whatever they can to get out of there, even if they have to use violence. And then report it to an adult. And if that adult doesn’t listen, tell someone else – and keep telling until someone does something about it!
Sexual harrassment is not a problem that kids – or even teenagers – can deal with on their own.
It’s also important to explain the difference between ‘private’ and ‘secret’ …
GV: How do you make that distinction for kids?
SALEEMA: I tell them, “Our bodies are private because they’re so special to us, and so important. When we’re thinking about bodies and what we’ve learned, we have to be good judges of when it’s appropriate to talk about this – and when it’s not. For example, this is not a topic for the playground – because we don’t talk about private things on the playground.
“It’s good for you to talk about bodies, and we encourage you to tell your parents what you learned today – but it’s got to be in private, with the grown-ups in your life. And we shouldn’t touch other people’s private parts with any part of our body, because private parts are so important and so special. But no part of the body and nothing we’ve talked about is a secret …” Kids understand that difference – and again, it helps protect them.
Along with that, even when they’re little we need to begin teaching the concept of consent …
GV: How do we do that?
SALEEMA: When I was young and my parents had dinner parties, it was considered polite for me to give each of the guests a hug and a kiss goodnight before I went to bed. But, knowing what we know now, it’d be far better for a child to acknowledge the guests in some other way – like a high five, or a firm handshake with eye contact. We can still teach kids to have respect and good manners – but in a way that empowers kids to maintain their comfortable boundaries.
We can teach our preschoolers to communicate with one another … to ask, “Can I hold your hand?” “Do you want to keep playing this game?” … and to respect the other child’s response. When their friends say “Stop it – I don’t like that!” our kids must listen. If we teach consent in a non-sexual context, it’s an easy bridge when we’re discussing people talking about their private parts – whether that’s an adult, when they’re a child, or when they’re in high school and they’re in a romantic relationship.
We need to teach them consent in a variety of contexts – and establish the idea that they’re the boss of their body.
GV: It’s obviously good for kids to be open with their parents and ask questions … but how should parents handle it if they’re blindsided by a tricky question?
SALEEMA: I’d suggest stay calm … don’t look as shocked as you might feel … and say something like, “Well, that’s a really great question, but I don’t have an answer right now! Give me a chance to think, and we can discuss it later tonight. Okay?” It’s better for parents to step back and take time over their answer – rather than say something off the top of their head, and come across nervous and
flustered (and maybe even provide incorrect information).
GV:Is there any room, along with the facts, for teaching kids what parents’ own family values are about sex?
SALEEMA: Absolutely! I assure parents that when I’m in the classroom I’m teaching the facts. I explain to kids that the one thing about sex I CAN’T tell them is what the rules are for them – because the rules are different in every family. For that, they have to talk with their parents.
I then remind parents that having these regular chats with their kids gives them the perfect opportunity to pass along, not just the facts, but also their family values surrounding sex.
HERE’S WHAT WE THINK:
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with parents telling their kids, “When it comes to sex, in our family we think it’s a better idea to wait until you’re married …” or “until you’re in a long-term relationship …” – and then share some of the reasons behind those values.
GV: If we’ve given our kids ‘body science’ information early on, and they know the basic facts about ‘the birds and the bees,’ does that mean that by the time it feels awkward for us (and them) to have conversations on the topic of sex, we can drop it – and just trust them to come to us if they have any questions?
SALEEMA: You wouldn’t say to a child, “Okay, you’re in Year 3 now, and you know how to read – so no need to do any more of that …” or “You know your numbers, so we don’t have to practise maths …” Learning about sexual health and our bodies is a lifelong thing. As with anything else, it takes repetition and review and frequent adding-on to the information. That’s why, with our kids, it has to be an ongoing conversation – and the best way to do that is to start early.
That doesn’t mean, if your child’s now 10 and you haven’t done much talking yet, that it’s too late – no. It just makes it a bit trickier.
GV: Assuming that some of us didn’t begin early in educating our kids about sex and ‘body science,’ but we want to remedy that now, what’s the best way approach the subject?
SALEEMA: Honesty’s the best policy. Especially if you have older kids, there’s nothing wrong with a parent saying, “I read this great article in Grapevine, and it’s made me realise how little I’ve really been talking to you about a very important topic. So I want to start …” And there are ways you can do it that are less intimidating and awkward for kids, depending on their age.
For example, go to the library together and get some ‘body science’ books to read. Primary school students might want to read a few pages together with you before bed every night. With older kids, you might get the books out of the library, read them yourself first, then leave them lying around the house and invite your kids to read.
This isn’t a matter of doing what some parents would rather do: namely, giving your kids a book and just leaving them to educate themselves entirely – and alone – on the subject! And it’s not a one-off conversation I’m proposing. It requires many, many conversations – even if they’re only two minutes long.
One thing I know parents are finding helpful now is the website www.amaze.org … They’ve got 2-3 minute animated YouTube videos on every topic imaginable when it comes to sexual health – and kids love them! So that would be a really fun, light-hearted way for a parent to start the conversation. But there needs to be honesty …
I’VE BEEN MEANING TO SAY …
A parent can ask their child, “This is something I’m realising is really important – and I want you to feel comfortable coming to me. So how would you like to learn? Do you want to go for a drive? Should we go to the library and get some books? What would you prefer?”
Come up with something together – and admit that, “When I was your age, I wasn’t comfortable talking with my parents about this stuff – and I want that to be different for us. And if you do feel uncomfortable, I get it!”
Whatever you do, make sure you follow up afterwards. If you’ve given your kid some books, ask them later, “Hey, did you get to the part about the male anatomy where the testicles make 1,000,000 sperm per minute, 24 hours a day?! I had no idea!” And, in terms of keeping the conversation going, our kids will hopefully ask us questions so that we can give them snippets of information.
Sometimes, of course, for whatever reason, that’s not happening – so then, maybe, we need to pause while we’re watching TV to have a quick chat about what we’re seeing on the screen … or have a few words about an ad in a magazine … or share a relevant Facebook post we’ve come across recently in our Newsfeed. Sometimes the angle we take makes all the difference – when something seems a bit like forbidden fruit, it’s sure to spark their interest!
As your kids get older, encourage them to keep talking. And tell them, “It’s so cool that we can now have these more adult conversations together …” Books can also help keep the topic open. My friend’s got a son in Year 9, and although he’s always been open, he’s not into asking questions anymore. So she handed him my book and said, “Hey, this is written for parents, but I think you’re mature enough to handle it – so take a look.” And he’s reading it!
Never stop looking for opportunities to keep that conversation going …