I have had the incredible opportunity of working with an organization that teaches youths, adolescents and children all over the world about consent, sex and sexual harassment. In my fourteen months of working with this organization, I have learned a thing or two about how to talk to kids about topics that are generally considered a taboo in our society, especially but not limited to sex. In an attempt to pass on this knowledge, here are 5 tips that will come in handy if you as a parent, guardian, teacher or organization are interested in talking to kids about uncomfortable topics.
- If you don’t teach them about it, someone else will
An important first step in getting kids to talk about taboo topics is understanding that if you don’t talk to them about it, someone else will. Children are incredibly curious and also very impressionable. This means that they would most likely hear about taboo topics outside the home, ask questions from the people around them (other kids, teachers, family friends) and will quickly absorb whatever information they are given. The downside to this is that you as a parent or guardian are unable to control to a large extent the nature of the information so it’s a lot better if they hear about these topics from you first. Yes, talking to your child about racism, consent or even their ethnic history might be an uncomfortable situation that you’d rather avoid until they’re older but children are smarter than we assume and they’ll learn the right or wrong things about these topics anyway.
- Use simple and age appropriate language
When talking to kids about topics that are typically “adult”, it is important to use simple and age appropriate language. It’s futile to throw complicated vocabulary at them and expect them to understand what you’re saying. For example, if you’re teaching a child about “where babies come from” , it’s not very efficient to say “when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, the man releases his gametes which fertilizes the woman’s gametes and results in an embryo that becomes a baby”. Instead, try saying something like “when a man and a woman engage in an activity called sex, their bodies produce things that are like tiny seeds and these seeds come together and grow into a beautiful baby like you!” And even with age appropriate language, they still might not completely understand it – see number 3 below.
- Encourage and entertain their curiosity with kindness
Children are curious by nature – it’s one of the things we love about them and we must encourage this curiosity and answer their questions with patience and kindness. Continuing the conversation above, your child may respond to your explanation about pregnancy with “What is sex?”. That is not the time to say “don’t say that word!” or “you’re too young to ask that!” or even worse, to just ignore them. Go ahead to answer their question gently and using simple language and even if they don’t ask follow up questions, assure them that if they do come up with any questions about what you just discussed, they should come to you first.
- Example not precept
I have known this phrase since I was a little girl because it is the motto of the school which some of my friends attended and now that I’m an adult, I understand that it is an important reminder when teaching children. Impractical knowledge is good but practical knowledge is even more important and when teaching children about ‘taboo’ topics, it should be more than just words. Lead by example not by precept. For example, when teaching children about consent, we tell them that they should respect one another’s personal space and seek consent before invading another person’s space e.g. by touching them. In the same vein, we then encourage parents to make simple requests like “may I hold your doll?” or “daddy’s going to brush your hair now, is that okay?” to their kids in order to further emphasize the importance of consent.
- Correct them gently
Nobody is perfect, especially not kids and they are going to make a lot of mistakes. What do you do if you catch your child being racist, tribalist or homophobic to someone? That’s certainly not the time to say “You got that from your mother” or even worse, to insult them. Wrongdoings should be met with conversation on why their actions were wrong, how to be better in the future and depending on their actions, reasonable punishment.
Difficult conversations are important, especially with kids because their minds absorb a lot of information from their environment and it’s best if they absorb from you. Along with these 5 tips on how to approach these difficult conversations with your child, it’s also important to be in control of the type of information your child has access to. This includes their schools, the media, their exposure to the internet, family members and so on. It’s true, it takes a village to raise a child; best to make sure your village is in order!
Chisom Anastasia Nwaezuoke is a physiotherapist, writer, public speaker and yogi. She is also a sexual health and reproductive rights advocate and volunteers for HandsOff Initiative.