News / Ottawa

Why a conversation with your kids about sex doesn't need to be so 'talk-ward'

Advocate Sonya Barnett says kids as young as four should be getting honest answers about sex, consent and body image.

Sonya Barnett will lead a sex-ed workshop Friday morning.

Maxwell Lander/Contributed

Sonya Barnett will lead a sex-ed workshop Friday morning.

Four-year-old Cassidy has already begun his sex education – and he likely doesn’t even know it.

“Because we’ve always just acted like its normal, and it is normal, he doesn’t treat it like a big deal,” said Beth Lawless, Cassidy’s mom.

It's age-appropriate, of course. She makes a point of using anatomically-correct terms for male and female genitalia, rather than “cutesy names.”

And when she was pregnant last year, she was as honest as she could be with a four-year-old about how the baby got in her belly.

“We didn’t want to lie to him or pretend,” she said.

Lawless is part of a growing group of families who discuss the birds and the bees – or at least issues of consent, body image and respect – from Day 1.

She said it’s important to set an open tone and offer honest answers, so when her kids face real challenges later in childhood they’ll feel comfortable coming to her for help.

“I would rather know that something is going on than hold on to this illusion of innocence,” Lawless said.

The Barrhaven mom’s approach is precisely what sex educator Sonya Barnett will preach to Ottawa parents this Friday as part of the Youth Services Bureau’s Moms for Mental Health breakfast series.

“As soon as they’re old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to get the answer,” said Barnett. “It’s not about sitting down when they’re 10 and having ‘the talk.’ You should be having these conversations ongoing.”

Her own son started asking questions around the age of four, she said, and since he was so young he wasn’t squeamish or jaded about the answers.

Being open from the beginning creates a safe space for other tough conversations later, including mental health issues or problems with bullying.

“It helps build a strong, trusting relationship with your kid,” she said. “If you’ve developed this relation with your child they can come to you.”

Barnett recognizes that talking to kids about sex hasn’t gotten any easier in the 21st century.

The Internet is full of misinformation, and the fact that most teens have smart phones means issues of privacy and consent are all the more relevant, Barnett said.

But, if they put their minds to it, parents can be the “first line of defence” to keep kids safe as they mature.

“Get over your discomfort,” Barnett said. “I know it’s difficult, but your teenager and their health is more important than your discomfort.”

Tips for the talk:

1. Set an open tone from the get-go.

 Kids have questions, and they deserve honest answers – otherwise they won’t come to you when it counts, Barnett says. Even if the question is uncomfortable, parents should do their best to answer it honestly, accurately and without judgment.

“If you approach the question like they’re asking why is the sky blue, it sets this tone that they can come to you with any question and they can expect an answer,” Barnett said.

2. Don’t know? Don’t worry.

Kids say the darnedest things, and sometimes they’ll ask a question you don’t know the answer to. But resist the urge to shrug it off or make something up.

“Even if you don’t know, be open and say, ‘You know what, let’s look that up together,” Barnett said.

3. Stay true to your values

Your cultural and religious values won’t be jeopardized by providing medically accurate information to your child, Barnett argues. Besides, parents should be the “first defence” against inaccurate information-sharing on the playground – particularly the virtual playground of the Internet.

“If you can instill your values but supplement with medically accurate information, that’s a great encyclopedia to arm your kid with,” she said.

More on