Sex Positive Parenting: Some Introductory Thoughts about Teenagers
Sometime around your oldest child’s 13th birthday, if you are like most parents, you will have an epiphany. You will suddenly realize that you are like your own parents in more ways than you ever imagined you would. This is not some curse, but rather a function of something you did not see was possible, while your kids were growing up, so were you.
In most cases, American and European middle class parents are in their mid-30’s to mid-40’s when their first child reaches adolescence. As a parent what you didn’t see happening is that as you were working to shape your children’s future, they were also shaping yours. The parent that took the child rearing job seriously and selflessly will have developed an identity and a way of life that revolves around that parental responsibility. By this time you are no longer consciously asking how will your activities impact your children, rather it is automatic. This is not saying your children rule your life, but rather the duty you have as parent colors everything you do. Having made this sacrifice of your freedom you might be wondering if the investment was worth the effort, especially since the most difficult part is just starting.
As a professional in the field, I had one significant advantage over most parents. No, it wasn’t that I had all the answers because more than a few days I drove to work wondering how I was supposed to lead a team of parenting experts when I was a failure as a parent. The advantage I had was that most of the difficulties and heart breaks of parenting a teenager are so common that they can be expected. Even though emotionally it was still hard, intellectually I knew these difficulties were not a sign my wife and I had failed as parents. Additionally I, by that time, had well over a decade dealing with parents who had not invested in their children’s lives and had chosen the path of self over parental duty. I knew the difficulties I had as a parent of two teenagers were not even similar to those parents. How many times have I sat behind my desk with a parent in tears knowing I have nothing to offer to “fix” their teenager? These most often were not “evil” parents, but rather parents who, if they could, would change what they had done (or more correctly not done) in the past 15 years with their child; however, that was sadly not possible.
The time when the first child reaches adolescence comes about the same time that most adults begin to reflect how their dreams of a perfect and eminently successful life had been replaced by a struggle for personal meaning. Just like they were finding with their kids, past events of the parent’s prior life were exerting a level of control over their daily existence that they never dreamed possible. I have often said we are all a prisoner of our 18 year old self; the choices and events of our late teen years set in motion the things that control our lives later in adulthood. For instance our choices of education, mates and careers all begin to bare their true fruit in middle adulthood, yet the seeds were sewn in our late teens. And that final realization we are so like our parents is the moment it all comes together.
I do not say all this to suggest a depressing fatalism, but rather to point out that as our kids reach the point of beginning their journey into mature adulthood, we their parents are just completing that same journey. Because of that, I think it is important in a discussion of Sex-Positive Parenting to take a break for self-reflection.
As your children move into the challenges, pain and wonder of adolescence how are you doing in cultivating your own Sex-Positive lifestyle? Are you prepared to shift your role of parent from that of master to that of advisor? As difficult as this time is for your children, it will be nearly as difficult for you. The process of changing your relationship with your teens is just that a process, but it begins with the onset of their sexual maturity because adult (reproductive) sexuality is the biological end of childhood. You must recognize that you, as parent, own no part of your teenager’s sexuality. Let me say that again, you as parent own NO PART of your child’s sexuality. Their adult sexuality belongs entirely to them. You still have a great deal of control over their daily lives in those earlier teenage years, and a lack of ownership simply means you must work to shape circumstances that allow your child to develop their own sexual identity and habits in an environment of emotional and physical safety. Your child will develop their adult sexuality years before their brains have fully developed the systems of risk-management and judgment. Thus, you are left in the difficult task of both affirming their ownership of their sexuality while at the same time building a hedge around their actions that inherently limit their ability to express that developing sexual identity.
Therein is the challenge of Sex-Positive Parenting of an adolescent. You will need that new found circumspection of middle-adulthood to resist your own desires to, on one hand, cling to your son or daughter as a dependent child and, on the other hand, react defensively to their provocations as you would to an adult.
I close with this. Your children’s teen years can be wonderful for you. There is nothing more self-affirming than to see your child become a responsible adult. Each step on the way to adulthood is fraught with difficulty, but the journey can be one of life’s great joys.
I am writing this as a bit of self-reflection on my own part. Last year our youngest had his 21th birthday. We no longer have any teenagers. With that passing I feel part of my own raison d'être is passing with it. I know that is not rational, but it is there none the less. But, I can say the past decade of parenting teens has given me a sense of self-value to which I do not think anything can compare. I hope when you are in my shoes you will feel the same. And I hope this part of my sex-positive parenting series will help in some small part.
The transitional years between elementary school and high school are to a great many people the most difficult years of their entire life. I would guess many or most of my readers will say those were the most difficult years for them as well. Though a great deal of attention is given to physical signs of sexual maturity during these years, the unseen effects of brain development are just as important. So the Sex-Positive parent will have their hands full for a few years. I think it would be safe to say that for that year or two your child is going through puberty you will be in the most “hands-on” part of Sex-Positive Parenting. Thus far most of what I have been writing on has been pretty passive in nature, and when we get to later adolescence it will be mostly passive again; but in puberty you must act actively and proactively. Looking back to my own kids and to families I have worked with over the years, I can tell you that some of the most important teachable moments will only come once. If you miss them, your words will be too late to have the right impact. So, it is important to keep a close eye on your children’s development and be ready for those important teachable moments of puberty.
Traditionally puberty and middle school (or junior high) were the same for the vast majority of children; however, that is changing. For reasons not quite understood the development of secondary sexual characteristics are coming significantly earlier for children today than they did forty or fifty years ago. What is problematic is that the brain development process has not similarly become more rapid; hence we have adult sexual function coupled with children’s brains.
Why does this matter?
Just a short note about human cognitive development.
Children go through a series of milestones in the way they think and conceptualize the world. I’ve always been a fan of Jean Piaget and the way he described these stages. If you will recall psych 101, the final stage of cognitive development comes about age 12 or 13, where children finally come to be able to understand abstract solutions and project those solutions into new circumstances or onto other people. This ability to think beyond simple black and white answers is a critical adult skill when negotiating the joys and dangers of adult sexuality. When modern notions of parenting and sexuality were conceived the transition to adult thinking and adult sexuality was happening at about the same time; however, now children are getting adult bodies before they get adult brains.
If you recall in my discussion of middle-childhood I made it clear that rules not logic are the key in middle childhood, but the ground work should be laid for logical principle based sexual ethics in middle childhood so that when they are ready they will have the tools for solid adult decision making. Every child is different, but you might need to continue with rules based sexual morality well past the point your child’s body looks like an adult. Don’t be deceived into thinking that sexual maturity and cognitive maturity are one and the same. This is one reason that observant and attentive parents are so very critical even when your children think they no longer need you.
So, before I present the goals for puberty, realize that you will need to overlap these very much with the goals of middle childhood on one end and the goals for later adolescents on the other.
Here are my Sex-Positive Parenting goals for the puberty years.
1) Prevent (or minimize) shame about the development of secondary sexual characteristics.
2) Provide a safe and healthy environment for sexual talk, questions and exploration.
3) Protect your children from circumstances that are likely to lead to sexual exploitation.
In the next three segments, I will go into each of these goals.
This is THE BOOK to get for your pubescent child. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Prevent (or minimize) shame about the development of secondary sexual characteristics
Most of us can remember the issues we all had when our bodies began developing secondary sexual characteristics: confusion, curiosity, discomfort and a desire to not let others know what is happening. Of course for males the process is gradual not sudden like the arrival of a girl’s first period. I must say I think that older societies had a good point when far from trying to pretend these changes weren’t taking place, they were the subject of celebration, often publicly.
One difficulty is that children vary in age at their entry into puberty. Though as adults the one to three year variation in the onset of puberty might not seem all that important; but, to children the effects are dramatic and often life changing. It is important for parents to keep track of their own child’s development relative to their peers and although there is no way to eliminate the impact of the variations, parents can work to minimize the negative side effects. I will now briefly break down the impact of these variations by sex and time.
Early Developing Males: The good thing for early developing males is that they are often fawned upon by both peers and adults. This leads to a high percentage of them becoming leaders, not just in adolescence but throughout life. Since success breeds success, these boys parlay their physical superiority over their peers into confidence and they often get adult mentoring that other boys do not. The down side is that this biologically induced favoritism also can lead to arrogance and a sense of entitlement. For this discussion, the concern is that this group tend to be the sexual bullies. They are often the ones who lead the sexual assault on the late blooming boys using both humiliation tactics and “gay baiting” to brand the late bloomers as being effeminate. In effect their sexual development can be a club to beat their peers into submission. It is imperative that the parents of early developing boys stress empathy and fair play during these years to head off problematic sexual habits.
The other issue with early developing boys is that their bodies are prepared for sex well before their brain has made the same leap. The gap between being physically ready for even pre-sexual behavior and being emotionally ready may be as much as five years for some of these boys. Because of this, parents of early blooming boys need to be willing to address appropriate sexual outlets and legal boundaries (such as age of consent) to stave off problems. Thus, in terms of this goal, Sex-Positive parents of early developing boys need not be overly concerned about their own children’s embarrassment, but with ensuring the advantages bestowed by their son developing early do not translate into embarrassment for others.
Early developing girls, unlike boys, are often faced with the physical embarrassment of having their development visible for all to see. It is quite common women who were early bloomers to report a great deal of embarrassment from the fact that they developed breasts before their peers. This embarrassment is only compounded by the fact that 5th grade boys don’t do a very good job of pretending not to notice. The only thing you as a parent can do to cope with this is to try to normalize their development as much as possible. This is similar to the way good moms prepare their daughters for menarche. Emphasizing your pride in having a “young woman” in the house goes a long way to instilling confidence in themselves. One thing I’ll note from my wife’s years working for the leading lingerie brand is that it is helpful to make shopping for bras and panties a mother daughter “event”. Mom needs to be there for support, but it is important that the mother treat the daughter as a young woman and not a child. Let your daughter own the process of being measured and fitted as her own. In other words, don’t be a helicopter mom and hover or make choices of underwear for your daughter. The best way to cope with the embarrassment of early developing girls is to give them the feeling that you will treat them with the respect due an independent young woman (except when they want to be treated like a child). Metaphorically (and physically) teach them to walk into school head high and chest out, with no need to apologize to anyone.
There are special risks for the early developing girl though I’ll discuss sexual exploitation in some detail later, I will just note that a 12 year old girl is more vulnerable than a 16 year old girl even if their bodies are at the same physical development level. More common than outright exploitation, is the tendency to treat girls with the bodies of a grown woman as a woman rather than the little girl she might be. As a parent, you need to ensure the adults in your daughter’s world, do not forget she is 12 or 13 even if she looks 20. Even with professionals who should know better, I’ve seen this mistake made. And yes, it does cause embarrassment when adults talk overly “adult” to a child who looks much older than they are.
Late developing males struggle greatly with shame, but the simple fact they have not reached puberty makes it very difficult for them to understand the cause of their distress. Like the early developing girls, late developing boys are at particular risk for sexual exploitation, and though I will write an entire section on exploitation, let me explain the issues of late blooming boys. Despite all that adults do to prevent the bullying of the immature boys the simple fact is that the adults often make the situation worse. The issues here are the opposite issue of the early developing girl. In this case, the adults talk down to a 15 year old boy who looks 12 and are loathed to give them the same respect as their early developing peers. Though the adult doesn’t see it, the impact on the teenage boy is significant. It saps his self-confidence and makes him more vulnerable to attacks on his masculinity not just during puberty, but throughout life. This just compounds the almost inevitable bullying by the early developing boys. The bullying takes many forms but the target is the same; his inadequate masculinity.
Again, I’ll discuss exploitation later, but I will point out here that parents do have a role. It’s not a panacea but simply remind your son that his biological clock runs at a different rate and that does not make him inferior. Look for opportunities for him to have leadership and since common school based athletics will not likely bring him self-esteem, look for other skills he can develop that will not put him at a disadvantage. You need to remind yourself, as well as others, that the fact he is not sexually developing at the same rate as his peers, and often his behavior is also more juvenile; his intellect is not driven by puberty. You can help your son through this time, but it will take patience and a proactive stance.
Late developing girls, actually have the least social differences of these four groups. Since girls develop faster than boys, the late girls will still be on par with their male friends. Yes, there is the “when am I going to get boobs?” issue, but unlike boys, middle-school girls social status is not so tied to their physical prowess. Like the slow developing boy, the girls need to hear often how everyone has a biological clock and their worth is not tied to the speed of that clock. It is not a bad ploy to let them know that that slow clock will work to their advantage when they are an adult.
I know, this has gone long, but keeping tabs on your child’s sexual development is important and this age group is particularly susceptible to embarrassment that they are not like their peers. Nearly every child will think their physical development is the center of everyone’s attention. You need to give them the assurance that they are not freaks and they are not the subject of everyone’s gossip. Even though they might pretend they don’t need your reassurance at this time, they do so very much. Avoiding shame is not likely to be entirely possible, but you can minimize its effects.
Provide a safe and healthy environment for sexual talk, questions and exploration.
The cornerstone of sex-positive parenting is the concept that human sexuality is not dirty or shameful; yet in the last section I pointed out that embarrassment about developing sexuality in adolescents is quite normal. So how does one reconcile the two? The answer lies in the idea of providing a safe and healthy environment at home where sexuality is a normal part of life. This is not suddenly sprung on your 12 year old, but rather it is just an atmosphere that has been fostered since long before the kids began to understand the significance of these things. So, you start preparing for adolescence when your children are still in diapers. I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in the earlier sections of this study, but let me just remind you that the normalization of sexuality is done when your children are under six years old. Or, to reverse the concept, sex-negative attitudes of the shame of sexuality is done when your children are under six.
Providing an inviting environment for sexual questions and discussions presupposes that you have an environment where the parents talk with their kids, not at their kids. All too often parents get into a habit of only talking to their children when they are giving orders or lectures. When I was a social worker one common goal I had for parents who neglected or abused their children was that they would talk to each child 10 minutes per day. This seems so minimal, but I found it one of the hardest things to actually accomplish in my job. You must work to ensure your kids feel free to talk around you and to you about things that are important to them without fear of an hour long lecture after everything they say, or that what they say will be used against them later. If they cannot talk about class or the mean girl at lunch or their zits, there is no hope to have the opportunity to talk and answer questions about sexual issues.
The key to effectively talking to adolescents about anything is to find the right teachable moments and to respect their feelings. There is a lot of consternation by the religious right and the feminist left about sex in media aimed at young teens; however, I do not see this as necessarily a bad thing. For a parent who is already involved in their pubescent child’s life, sex in media gives more than a few teachable moments as well as opens the door to questions. I distinctly recall when I was perhaps 10 or 11 watching a movie on TV with my mother set in a brothel. I asked my mother directly why the man was paying the woman before they went into a bedroom together (this was the very early 70’s so there was no sex scene shown). Though my parents’ were very sex positive she did not answer my question and just said “He is paying for her body”. It took me years to figure out what that meant. If she’d said “He’s paying her to have sexual intercourse”, I would have known what that meant, at least on a physiological level, and she would have opened a door of communication for more questions. Instead she shut down the discussion with a euphemism that was over my head.
I’ll be right up front, I think hugely popular shows like Game of Thrones are good family viewing provided the parents are there to help the kids process both the sex and violence. The reality is your kids are going to see those shows anyway, and you should have the courage to watch them as a family. I recall years ago when the movie Titanic came out, I took my 12 year old nephew to see it. On the way home we talked about the movie and I made a point to pose the question “Was it right for the Leonardo DiCaprio character to have sex with the Kate Winslet character?” Not surprisingly he gave the “Christian” answer that it was wrong because they were not married. That gave me opportunity to challenge what he expected me to say and point out the real issue was one of birth control and how the DiCaprio character was in no way prepared to father a child should she become pregnant. In that 2 minute answer, I opened the door for later discussions on the topic.
It doesn’t matter if you are talking about Miley Cyrus’s latest antics or an explicit sex scene in Game of Thrones, you can bring up issues of sex as a positive thing as well as point out how sexual violence is all too real but it should not be tolerated. You need to be willing to engage your adolescent. I know for many of you it is embarrassing to be in the room with your kids when there is nudity or sex on TV, but be assured they are watching your response and will react accordingly. While you should not be afraid to condemn sexual violence or abuse, you need to be careful not to say negative things more than absolutely necessary and be sure to say something positive about positive portrayals of loving sexuality. Your kids will notice and remember if you say “Wow, that was a beautiful love scene”.