Being an Askable Adult - A Primer
We hope you enjoy this guest blog post by Bree Ervin with tips for Let's Talk Month!
Talking to kids about sex can be hard. Many of us missed out on the sexual health education we wish for, or were raised by parents who were uncomfortable having “the talk.” Talking to other people’s children about sex and sexuality can multiply that discomfort – how do you handle different values, how do you judge how much information to provide, how much is too much, how little is too little?
This post hopes to offer a brief primer to help make the job of talking to any kids, but especially other people’s kids, about sex and sexuality a little easier.
Whether you are a teacher tasked with providing comprehensive sexual health education or just the “cool” parent on the block who is known for having an open door and an open mind, it is important to know how to handle questions about sex and sexuality respectfully and appropriately.
I think the first and often hardest step in talking to other people’s kids about sex is to recognize that you are there to provide information only, not opinions, not values, not judgment. Just information. What the youth does with that information is their choice, however studies show that youth who have accurate information tend to make healthier choices for themselves and their partners.
Reminding yourself to stick to the facts can help you focus and by not getting personal you can often avoid those feelings of embarrassment that so many of us have around topics of sex and sexuality.
The second step is to respect the right of youth to ask questions and get factual answers. We hear a lot about offering “age-appropriate” information, but what does that mean? To me it means that if a youth is old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to hear the answer. Youth are subjected to so much overt sexuality in the media, in advertisements, even in the toys they play with and they have questions about it. As they grow older many youth are introduced to new concepts, ideas and actions by their peers and they need a trusted adult who can help them understand what they are hearing, and dispel any misinformation they are given. Don’t be scared by their questions. Be honored they trust you enough to ask.
The third step is to identify what kind of question the youth is asking. In my work I have learned that there are three main types of questions.
- Informational questions – These are the questions with factual answers about how body parts work or come together or how birth control or STI risk reduction methods work.When answering informational questions, remember it is okay to say, “I don’t know. Let me look that up and get back to you.” I do not recommend Googling the answer with the youth because the internet can take you to some scary places.*
- “Am I normal” questions – Often these questions sound like, “My friend says ________ is always ________, is that true?” or “Is it true that most __________ are _______?” The hidden question is often, “I heard this is normal, I don’t fit into that, does that make me abnormal/bad?” Youth who are asking this type of question are asking for reassurance that they are okay, that they are “normal.” The answer to “Am I normal?” questions is yes, the youth is normal. That said, if you suspect that the youth has an STI, an unplanned pregnancy or is harming themselves or others, this would be an appropriate time to offer them information about organizations, services or other resources* that could help them.
- Permission questions – These questions often sound like, “Is it okay if…?” or, “I heard it was wrong to…?” or even, “Have you ever…?” Permission questions can be tricky, if you are talking to a youth who is not under your direct guardianship, it is not your place to give permission. These are the types of questions where I find it most important to remind myself of my role as an educator. A good boiler plate response to permission type questions is, “Some people do ________, other people don’t. How do you feel about it?” This encourages the youth to check in with their own value system. You can also provide information about any potential risks of that activity as well as ways to reduce those risks. Masturbation is a common topic of permission questions. You can inform questioning youth that a majority of people in the USA masturbate, that it is a method of sexual gratification the does not carry any risk of pregnancy or STI transmission and as such is considered a safe sexual activity. You can also let them know that some people feel that masturbation is a healthy and fun way to get to know your own body, but that others feel it is wrong and that the youth should talk to a trusted adult or guardian. In this way you are giving them factual information, acknowledging that different people have different values around this topic, and encouraging the youth to check in with their own values before making their own decision about whether masturbation is right for them.
If you’re not sure what kind of question the youth is asking, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. “It sounds like you’re asking about __________, did I hear you correctly?” Youth will often test new adults with warm-up questions before they get to the real question. Showing them that you are listening without judgment and trying to provide them with factual answers will help put them at ease and build the trust you need to be an Askable Adult.
*Some additional resources for adults and youth:
Colorado Youth Matter – Dedicated to ensuring that all Colorado youth have access to comprehensive scientifically sound sexual health education, the CYM website also provides resources, data and other tools to help youth and their adults access the information they need to make healthy choices. - //www.coloradoyouthmatter.org
Scarleteen – a sexual health website for youth (and their adults) with factual information, question and answer sections, articles and more. - //www.scarleteen.com
The Teen Clinic – Run by Boulder Valley Women’s Health, the teen clinic website has a question and answer section that allows youth to ask questions anonymously and get factual answers from a trained sexual health educator. - //www.teenclinic.org/about/get-answers/category/ask-us/
Bree Ervin is the proud mother of two young social justice upstanders and youth sexual health ambassadors. She is also a certified sexual health educator in the state of Colorado. She writes on topics of intersectional feminism, sexual health education, consent and other politically charged topics at ThinkBannedThoughts.wordpress.com You can find her on twitter @thinkbanned or facebook/bannedthoughts.