If you’re an open-minded, liberal parent or guardian — or perhaps planning to be one at some point — you may have thought about how you can raise children who share your sex-positive values. Though we can’t and shouldn’t force our beliefs on our kids, we can, nevertheless, act and live according to our convictions and hope they will learn by example. But how do we set such an example?
As a sex educator, writer and mother of a seven-year-old daughter, I’ve pondered this question a fair bit. And despite not having all the answers and realizing that this is an eternal work-in-progress and learning-by-doing scenario, I’ve pinpointed what I believe to be the 10 most important rules of sex-positive parenting.
Why would you want a kid to be sex-positive? Isn’t that inappropriate? Aren’t kids too young to learn about sexuality?
Because I hear the buzzing of the skeptics in the back — or perhaps it’s the echoes of my conservative Christian side of the family — let’s do a recap of what it means to be sex-positive.
What is sex positivity?
Contrary to false assumptions, being sex-positive does not mean being up for, or into sex with anyone at all times. Instead, in the broadest terms, sex-positivity refers to having positive attitudes about sex and feeling comfortable with one’s own sexual identity and with the sexual behaviors of others.
Therefore, when I talk about raising sex-positive children, I’m not implying we usher our kids towards adult sexual behavior or discuss topics they’re not ready for. Nor do I, under any circumstance, encourage cringy oversharing about our own, or anyone else’s sex life. Instead, it’s possible to be a sex-positive parent without a mention of the word sex, at least up until the point when they’re old enough to really understand what sex is. How?
Since sex positivity is largely about concepts and attitudes towards ourselves and others, raising sex-positive children means fostering open-minded, secure, shame- and judgment-free humans, who will be well equipped and prepared for a healthy future sex life. And who wouldn’t want that for their kids?
When and how to talk about it…
Rule #1: Create a safe space where all questions are welcome.
The best way to be there for our kids, in general, is to listen to them and take their questions and concerns seriously. When it comes to questions around our bodies and sexuality, it’s especially important to be considerate of how we respond and that we do our best to explain — in an age-appropriate way.
I make a point to complement my daughter on her questions, saying things like “I’m glad you brought that up” and “your questions are interesting and good.” And often I tell her that she can “always ask me anything and there are no bad questions.”
Rule #2: Don’t push topics. Let their questions guide the conversation.
Most kids are curious and love to ask ‘why?’. (Like, a lot!) Paying attention to their whys and letting them guide our conversations rather than holding impromptu lectures allows for joyful and unhurried discovery.
Most of the time, kids will let us know, through their questions and actions, when they’re ready for a new topic or challenge.
My daughter is currently seven and has yet to grasp what sex really is. While I can tell she’s at the cusp of puttingtwo and two together, I intend to let wait for the right questions before completing the puzzle.
Rule #3: Teach your child to love and accept themselves.
While I don’t prescribe the idea that we must love ourselves in order to be loved, I believe it’s a lot easier to be accepting and positive towards others when we feel that way about ourselves.
If we’re lucky, we learn early that the ones who behave badly and treat us disrespectfully often do this from a place of jealousy, insecurity and discontent with themselves. Understanding this at an early age got me unscathed through a ton of middle school and high school drama: The most popular girl who told lies about me to all the boys in middle school? She was simply jealous because I suddenly grew breasts too, and therefore she felt threatened. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her.
A huge majority of adult relational issues are simply more complex versions of the teenage drama above, thus knowing this is crucial through all stages of life.
With my daughter, I focus on compliments that build true confidence and consequently traits related to her abilities, her ways of thinking and behaving, rather than her looks. I tell her that she’s strong, capable, brave, healthy, and powerful. Of course, I also tell her that she’s beautiful, but I try to steer clear of the stereotypically gendered words like cute and pretty. The way we compliment our children should aim to instill that their looks do not dictate their value.
Rule #4: Demonstrate self-love.
When teaching our children to love themselves and their bodies, we can’t be hypocrites by talking down our own. We all have insecurities, but no matter what they are, we should practice never speaking these out loud to our kids. Not only do our children hear and observe everything with a tendency to imitate, but it can be disorienting, even traumatizing, to hear Mom or Dad complain about their physical appearance. Instead, aim to focus on the same in you as what you focus on in your child; what your body can do and how you’re grateful for it.
Growing up, my mom encouraged me to love myself; meanwhile, I watched her struggle to do the same for herself. Her immense hatred of her thighs and butt caused me to carefully examine my supposed cellulite before the age of 10. I plowed through all of her women’s magazines and learned to count calories, write diet plans and follow a strict jogging and aerobics regimen before I graduated elementary school. (‘Twas the ’90s y’all!)
I have made a vow not to repeat this pattern, and never comment negatively on my looks in front of my developing daughter. She’ll be confronted with this elsewhere soon enough but it won’t be coming from me.
Rule #5: Demonstrate that nudity is natural and not inherently sexual.
Being relaxed about nudity is the best way to teach our kids that our bodies are not shameful or dirty. In our home, this means that we take baths together and move around naked whenever it makes sense, which is usually around bath time and when changing, etc.
Growing up in Berlin, which is very relaxed about nudity in general, this also means my daughter is used to seeing people skinny-dip at the lakes or go naked in the sauna.
I always allow my daughter to point, comment, and welcome all kinds of questions about my body or her own (“why do you have hair there?” or “why does that look different on you than it does on me?”) and I do my best to answer in a way she’ll understand.
Rule #6: No body-shaming or taboos!
I strive to teach my daughter that every part of the body is wonderful and never taboo, hence, I make no distinction between applying a healing cream to a knee or elbow and treating a sore butthole or vulva. It’s all just the body!
Obviously, hygiene, safety, and a bit of appropriateness have to be considered. Regardless, these things are communicated in ways that make it clear that no part of the body is ever bad!
Rule #7: Demonstrate love and acceptance of others.
A huge part of sex positivity is feeling comfortable with the identities and behaviors of others.
I make sure I don’t brush over any topics, and try to grasp every opportunity to discuss how and why others may look or act differently from what they’re used to. Our only rule is to never point and comment loudly; still, no question is stupid or wrong and can be whispered to me and discussed further.
“Why is that person so small?” “Why is she in a wheelchair?” “Is that person a man or a woman?” “Why are those two guys kissing?” “Why does my friend have two moms?” etc. While Berlin is fairly diverse compared to a lot of places, we still live in a predominantly white, cis, hetero city, and everything outside of that tends to bring up questions.
Taking the time to explain and normalize everything from handicaps to poverty and mental health issues as well as diversity in gender, sexuality, family structure and skin color will help to shape a person who’s less prejudiced and more accepting of others.
If you live in a place with little to no diversity, bringing in books, videos and other media that can open up questions and exploration is a good idea.
Boundaries & Consent
Rule #8: Kids deserve to be asked for consent too.
Did you also grow up with extended family members who’d squeeze your cheeks and place a big wet kiss on your forehead whenever they saw you? The awkward long-hugger or maybe even the butt-slapper? I certainly knew them all and learned that this was an acceptable way to act. Another harmful yet normalized behavior was the sulking hurt adult followed by guilt-tripping: “C’mon and give Auntie Joan a kiss, don’t make her sad!”. [Shrug!]
While fairly innocent and not intended to harm per se, this teaches kids that they owe others their affection and that not putting out will upset others. It instills in them that their boundaries are less important than the feelings of others.
Luckily, I’m now seeing fellow parents push back against these outdated norms by encouraging their children to choose how, when or whether to show affection.
Our kids should know that they have agency over their own bodies, that their boundaries will be respected, and that no one will get upset about their choices. It’s okay if they all of a sudden don’t feel like hugging Granny, even if they normally always do. We also have to teach Granny not to make a fuss about it.
Rule #9: Teach kids to respect the boundaries of others.
Conversely, kids need to learn to ask for consent as well; they can’t hug, kiss or touch others without asking, and no always means no.
My daughter went through a phase where she’d be devasted if a friend wouldn’t return her kisses or other signs of affection. Following these episodes, we’d discuss how others, like her, are also allowed to make their own decisions about their bodies and that turning down affection is not personal—sometimes we don’t feel like it, and that’s okay.
My daughter and I practice asking for and giving consent all the time—when we play, cuddle, tickle-fight, give massages, etc. A stop or no is always listened to, and just because something was fun or alright yesterday, doesn’t mean we’re in the mood today. Ask first and respect a no!
Rule #10: It starts with you!
It’s hard to foster positive attitudes if you yourself are riddled with shame, guilt and prejudice. We all carry these to some extent, so take time to self-reflect and work through your own issues as they arise. As you do, pay attention to how you speak and behave around your children, even when you think they’re not listening.
As sex-positive people who want our kids to be as well, the best strategy is simply to live and speak your values and they’re likely to follow suit. Beyond that, aim to create a safe space for them to ask questions, always listen and make time to discuss.
The more time I spend with my daughter, her friends and her peers, the more I’m certain that children are inherently open-minded and full of love and generosity of spirit. Prejudice, bigotry and hate are all learned traits. Therefore, people who claim we need to ‘protect’ children from exposure to diversity are simply trying to protect themselves and their own fears.