She is 13 now, and the curves are there and the hormones are kicking in and the boys are looking a little bit more grown and acting a little more mannish and the music and the movies and the TV shows and probably her little friends, too, s-p-e-l-l it ALL out—what to do, how to do it, who to do it with. And much more.
Sex is all around my baby—my baby who is now a teenager in 2012, in what feels like the most sexually-explosive generation since flower power, Huey Newton, Vietnam, burning bras and free love. She is being overwhelmed with it. And so is her mama. I knew the day would come, of course. But it does not make me any more ready.
I have talked to my daughter about these things—have been talking to her about it in an age-appropriate way since before she was old enough to know, even, what’s between her legs, much less its uses. We started with calling her lady part what it is—a vagina—so that she’d think of it as a body part, no different from her elbow or her knee. Later, when she started asking where babies come from, stories about The Stork took a back seat to the truth: when mommies and daddies want to have a baby, a seed from his body mixes with an egg from her body to create a baby, and then the baby grows in the mommy’s stomach until it’s strong enough to come out. I’m still kinda shook on the conversation we had about abortion. She was eight. And I left the New York Times out on the table, with a story about the death of an abortion doctor right there on the front page. The kid had questions. I answered.
But nowadays, talking about sex with her feels… different. Has more urgency. Even compared to last year, when she hit middle school. Because she’s older. Taller. Cuter. And, scarily, quieter.
That’s the most worrisome part of all, you know. Because the questions aren’t coming anymore. She’s tucking herself into her own little world, where text messages and Instagram rule and peer opinions hold immense, intense sway and her easy questions are taking a back seat to awkward silences and nervous giggles and that look that’s all, “Oh my God, you’re not going to talk to me about sex and boys again, are you? Are you?!”
Why yes, I am.
Because I am her mother.
And I am a woman.
And I was once an awkward teenager who was uncomfortable and clueless and completely irrelevant to boys—and the daughter of a mother and woman who thought sex education for her daughter began and ended with, “Don’t do it,” and “I’m not fittin’ to take care of no more babies, so yeah—don’t do it.”
And I don’t want to have that same kind of relationship with my daughters. It’s important to me that they not only know the facts about sex and the care and keeping of their bodies, but also the finer points of negotiating intimacy with those that they choose to like and love. It’s also paramount that they get that information from the one woman who loves them unconditionally, knows the most about them and has the highest hopes for their future and well-being. Sure, I expect my girls will seek advice and counsel from others. They are, after all, human. But I make it known gently and often that, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how weird, no matter how scary, those questions and discussions should begin with Mommy.
And until the teenager gets up enough nerve to ask, I offer. Talks about sex, boys and intimacy show up unannounced and as organically as I can muster—during a Little Shawn lyric blasting through the speakers (“So, how much respect could a dude have for a woman he’d let his crew ‘bang’? Do you know what ‘bang’ means?”), during an episode of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta (“Why do you think Mimi and Jocelyn continue to let Stevie J. disrespect them, only to turn around and fight each other instead of being mad at the guy who’s playing them?”), or during a Jill Scott song (“Want to know what she’s singing about when she says there’s ‘power in them rolling hills’?).
A new nationwide survey commissioned by Planned Parenthood, Family Circle magazine and the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health (CLAFH) at New York University, shows that my teenager and I are not alone. The survey, the first of its kind to question both parents and teens in the same household, showed that though most parents and teens talk about sex, teens are less comfortable than their parents having these conversations. Still, teen sex experts suggest, parents need to talk more about how their teens can prevent pregnancy and STDs, no matter how uncomfortable their teens are with those talks. Embarrassment and mortified teenagers aside, a 2010 survey out of CLAFH shows that 46 percent of teens report that parents are the biggest influence on their decisions about sex (only 20 percent say their biggest influence is their friends) and teens who report having good conversations with their parents about sex are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners and use condoms and other birth control when they do have sex.
In other words, we have to talk to our kids about sex. If we’re not comfortable with it, we need to get comfortable with it. If they’re not comfortable talking about it with us, well, we need to talk with them about it anyway. The stakes are way too high for us to let a little embarrassment get in the way of our children’s reproductive health and choices—some of the most important choices they’ll make in their entire lives.
Don’t have the words for the convo with your own teen? I can dig it. So can Planned Parenthood, one of my go-to sources for ways to have those difficult conversations with my own children. Every October is Planned Parenthood’s “Let’s Talk Month,” when the organization releases a set of new and updated resources that put special focus on helping parents and teens get more comfortable talking about sex. (Yes, I know October is almost over and I’m mad late with jumping on this bandwagon this year, but heck, these are convos that need to be had all 12 months of the year, so, yeah.) This year’s materials can be found at www.plannedparenthood.org/letstalkmonth and include:
- an Online Flipbook featuring actors Cynthia Nixon, Alfre Woodard and Elizabeth Banks, as well as parents and teens sharing their thoughts on why it’s important to talk about sex;
- Parenting Tips: Talking About Sex, an animated, interactive digital tool that encourages parents to talk to their teens and models examples of conversations;
- a video featuring real-life parents and teens offering advice on how to talk about sex;
- the “Tools for Parents” section of plannedparenthood.org, which features tips to help parents talk with their teens about sex and sexual health, build strong parent-teen relationships, and set rules that help keep their teens safe and healthy; and
- a “Twitter” Q&A for Parents with PPFA, Family Circle magazine and CLAFH experts to help parents navigate difficult sex topics with their teens.
Also as part of Let’s Talk Month, CLAFH will make available its Families Talking Together family intervention program, an evidence-informed parent-adolescent communication program designed to support parent-teen communication, foster effective parental supervision of teens, and build stronger parent-adolescent relationships. Families Talking Together is available at no cost and in English and Spanish, and offers versions tailored to African-American and Latino families. It is available at www.clafh.org/resources-for-parents/parents-materials.
Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country will also provide workshops and events for parents during the month of October and throughout the year. Planned Parenthood offers educational programs that are geared toward helping parents communicate with their teens about sex and sexual health.
I know all of this can be overwhelming—hard to swallow, difficult to broach. But I think my daughters are worth it. Aren’t your children, too? TALK. After all, statistics don’t lie: with teen birth rates and STDs soaring among young black and Latino teenagers, talking to our kids honestly about sex is not only the right thing to do—it’s incredibly necessary. Crucial, really.
I invite you to check out last year’s award-winning MyBrownBaby Let’s Talk About Sex series and to share it with every parent you know. Together, we can raise children who are informed, smart and proactive about their sexual and reproductive health—the surefire way for them to make good choices for their bodies and their lives.
- The Best Ways For Parents To Get Ready For “The Talk”, by Denene Millner
- How An Unplanned Pregnancy Changed The Way I Want To Talk To My Kids About Sex, by Tara Pringle Jefferson
- How A Single Mom Talks To Her Son About Sex, by Michelle Bond
- Tweens, Sex & the Essence Article That Scared the Crap Out Of Me, by Denene Millner
- A Recipe For Solid Relationships Between Black Girls and Boys