Spotlight on Women's Health

Lena Solow

Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Lena Solow

July 05, 2015

As a parent, what you say matters. Your children want guidance, especially on tricky topics like sex where they may get a lot of misinformation. You can play a powerful role in helping your kids make smart decisions. Of course, sex, sexuality, and relationships are not always easy to talk about, especially with your kids. That's why we're interviewing Lena Solow. She has been a sex educator for more than 10 years. Get her tips for talking about sex with kids and why she thinks it's so important.

Lena Solow is a sex educator who currently runs a peer sex education program for teens in the Bronx. She teaches workshops for teens, educators, and parents at schools, community organizations, and health centers. Lena was featured as one of NPR's 50 Great Teachers. Follow her on Twitter: @lenaruthsolow.

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Q: Why did you decide to teach sex education to adolescents?

A: I've been teaching sex education to teenagers since I was a teen myself. I explained to all my friends what their periods were. I have always wanted people to understand how their bodies work and the messages they're getting about their bodies from their parents, friends, and the media. I want everyone to feel comfortable in their bodies and to celebrate their bodies and their sexuality.

Q: Why do you think it's important to talk to kids about sex?

A: Kids already get a lot of (mis)information about sex and sexuality from television, movies, social media, and their peers. Unfortunately, a lot of the messages kids — and all people! — get about sex and sexuality can be shaming, judgmental, and violent. Kids are getting information about how relationships and sex work from all types of media — for example, romantic comedies, crime shows, or porn. If you don't give your kids other examples of healthy sex and sexuality, those are the only models they have.

What's more, when you turn 18, no one hands you a book that says, "Here's how to talk about condom use with a partner," or, "This is where you can get tested for sexually transmitted infections," or, "Here's where the clitoris is." When we teach sex education to young people, we give them tools and knowledge they will need for their whole lives. And hopefully, we give them information before they need it.

Q: What role can parents play in this conversation?

A: I've worked with kids for 10 years, so I know what kids talk about. They usually have a lot of questions, and many want to talk with you — they really do want to hear what you have to say! Parents can be resources. Parents can be confidants. Parents can help kids process all the other information they get from their friends, teachers, and the media.

That being said, every parent-child relationship is different, and every child is different. Some kids might come to you with tons of questions. Some might have to be drawn out a little. For example, one parent I worked with learned that her son felt more comfortable writing down his questions than asking them aloud. So, she gave him some books and let him write his questions for her and her husband to answer.

The important thing is to use small moments as learning opportunities in an ongoing conversation. Don't let your anxiety about the conversation stop you from having the conversation at all. Remember that your child is listening and paying attention all the time, even when you're not having an explicit talk about sex.

Q: What's your advice for parents who may feel uncomfortable discussing topics like sex, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) with their kids?

A: It's okay to feel anxious. Parenting can be difficult for a lot of reasons, including the fact that you're supposed to suddenly be an expert on a lot of topics, such as sexuality. You're probably not a professional sex educator, so give yourself a break. Educate yourself on the topics you want to talk to your children about. Start the conversation even though you feel anxious. Feeling comfortable talking about sex takes practice.

Remember that there is no such thing as "the talk" about sex and sexuality. You are not going to have just one talk. This is an ongoing conversation, not a lecture. You don't have to have all of the information. Ask questions, such as, "What do you think?" or, "Do you want to know more?" If you don't know the answer, you can always say, "I have to think about it," or, "I'm not sure, but I'll look it up," or, "I thought more about our conversation and I actually wanted to say… ."

Q: What practical tips do you have for parents?

A: I have three tips. First, give your child resources about their bodies and about relationships. Just having books around can make a huge difference. Second, use small, everyday moments for learning opportunities. Ask your child about the relationships in their favorite TV show. If there are famous queer and trans people on TV or on a magazine cover, use that to start a conversation about gender identity. Did you just overhear your kid or one of their friends say, "She's such a slut!"? That's a great time to talk about shame around sexual activity and consent.

Finally, the third tip I have is to throw out the idea that giving your child information will make them more likely to engage in risky activities. It's simply not the case. Think about driving: We acknowledge that it can be enjoyable and useful, and we give our children information on how to stay safe when they're behind the wheel. No one thinks that telling a teen to wear a seatbelt will make them start speeding!

Q: What should parents know about preventing unplanned pregnancy and STIs?

A: This is an area where it's important to educate yourself. Do you and your teens really know how pregnancy happens or how STIs spread from one person to another? If not, get some books or spend some time online. Planned Parenthood and Scarleteen are great places to start. You can correct common misconceptions and be a resource for information. For example, many teens don't know that you can get some STIs from oral sex, or they think that certain positions for vaginal intercourse can prevent pregnancy. You can also connect your teen to services they need. Find out what resources are available for sexual and reproductive health services in your area, and help your child access them.

It's important to avoid shame-based statements around pregnancy and STIs, such as, "If you got chlamydia, it would be so embarrassing," or, "If you get pregnant, your life is over." Those statements say that if those things happen, your child will not come to you and will not know how to get the care they need.

Q: Do you have tips for explaining consent to kids?

A: Talking about consent with kids starts the moment they're born. You can show them what consent looks like by talking to your kids about anything you're doing with their bodies and what is and is not appropriate for someone to do with their bodies. Even something as simple as asking your child if they want to give a family member a hug or a high five can reinforce the idea that no one has the right to their body without their consent.

Explaining consent is about a very basic idea that you are not entitled to anyone's body, and no one is entitled to yours.

Q: What are some of the ways parents can help create a culture of consent?

A: In order to create a culture of consent, we need to fight stereotypes about sex. For example, the stereotype that women don't want sex as much as men leads to the idea that a man has to convince or force a woman into sexual activity. Then there's the incorrect idea that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) teens don't exist or are just confused. This makes it harder for LGBTQ teens to get help if they are sexually assaulted.

Finally, the misconception that people never talk during sexual activity makes it harder for people to know how to check in with their partners or speak up if they feel uncomfortable.

Q: What do you think is often missing from conversations about sex?

A: It's essential that we bring joy and pleasure into the conversation about sex and sexuality. We can't just talk about what we want to avoid, such as sexual assault or STIs. We need to talk about what we want young people to build, such as fun, consensual sexual activity and healthy relationships.

Sometimes this makes people anxious, especially with younger folks. However, adolescents see violent images of sexuality all the time. They hear stories about rape and see ads for movies that show nonconsensual sex. But they often don't have examples of what it means to have a good sexual experience. What's more, when we talk about the pleasure and joy in sex, we are not speaking about sex just as something that makes babies. Talking about pleasure and joy acknowledges that people of all different genders and sexualities can engage in sexual activity. It's important to validate all different kinds of consensual sexual and romantic experiences.

Q: If there's one thing you want students to take away from your classes, what is it?

A: The most important thing is that they walk away feeling empowered to make their own choices and decisions. I also want them to feel less shame and judgment about their bodies and choices related to sex and sexuality.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

A: Don't assume your kid is straight! I cannot stress this enough. The idea that everyone is straight or cisgender — a word for people who are not transgender — gets reinforced a lot from the time we are little. Think about making your questions and conversations gender neutral. Instead of saying, "You might start having feelings for boys," you can say, "You might start having romantic feelings for people." Instead of saying, "You know you can tell me if you have a girlfriend," you can say, "You know you can tell me if you're dating someone." When you meet people of different genders or sexualities — whether in the media or in real life — show your kids that you accept and celebrate those differences. You want your child to know that they will be loved and celebrated, too.

Finally, take some time to think about your own views on sex and sexuality. What messages did you get as a young person? What do you want everyone to have in a sexual or romantic relationship? What do you want to know for your own sexual or romantic life? Then start having conversations about these topics, not just with your children, but with your friends or your partner. The more you talk about these ideas and issues, the easier it will be to figure out how you feel and what you want to express to your child.

Get more tips for starting the conversation with your kids.

See before and after video examples of parents tackling difficult topics with teens and preteens.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.