Sunday, February 20, 2011

Teaching Sex Ed to Parents First

I want you to imagine that you are presenting a sexuality education workshop to a group of 100 college freshman.  You open up by asking how many of their parent’s talked to them about sex and sexuality before 11th grade.  How many would raise their hands?  20?  50?  All 100?  Chances are slim depending on the group, right?  Let’s say you continue presenting sexuality education workshops to college freshman once a month, with 100 eager students attending each session (a sex educator’s dream, I know!).  You begin your session with the same question each time asking who has the brave parents.  How long does it take before you begin to realize the pattern of silent parents?  Session number two, maybe three?  More importantly, when do you realize that you may be presenting to the wrong group of 100 participants?  Don’t panic, this doesn’t mean you are out of a job, it means you may have just created another avenue for sexuality education.  
It occurred to me recently, that for all the interventions and curricula designed to help young people navigate their sexuality (choices, decisions, feelings, etc.), we invest virtually no time and resources into helping parents help their children navigate their sexuality.  What makes this so interesting is, as educators when we sit down to develop a curriculum we are instructed to do research, research, research, add rationale, and do more research.  What better resource could you use to learn more about a child, than that child’s parent or guardian?  I am not sure if parents are the only experts on their children, but most parents and caregivers are the first to see how their child’s personality, speech patterns, anxieties, freedoms, questioning style, etc. develop.  If this be the case why not build a relationship between sexuality educators and parents that would work symbiotically, with the child as the focus.  Something like an individualized sexuality health plan.  
So, how would we actually teach this?  First, let’s think about a timeline.  There are some parents who are geared up and ready to teach about sex education 24-hours post delivery, while others may be ready when their children are of retirement age.  No matter when parents are ready (or need help getting ready), here are some helpful tips.
  1. Parents have feelings, too!  Discussion and education around what parent’s think and feel about sex and sexuality is a very important element.  If you dismiss their anxieties, questions, and concerns, you put parents on the defense.  This only heightens their discomfort about discussing sex and potentially slows or stops their feelings of self-efficacy.
  2. Adults need stages, too!  Remind parents that they may not have all of the answers now (or ever!) about sex and sexuality and that’s okay.  Remind them they are not only learning (or re-learning) about themselves, but they are also learning about their child, so  give themselves room to learn and make mistakes.  It is perfectly okay to move at a pace that is comfortable for them and their child.
  3. One size does not fit all.  Parents may be able to tell you that their first child learned to walk at 9 months and their third child learned at 13 months.  Teaching about sexuality is the same way.  Children will desire to learn different things at different times in their lives, so be patient with them and yourself when it comes to tailoring information to each child.
Now that you are armed with a few tips on how to teach sexuality education to parents, you are wondering where in the world do you recruit them?!  Well, let’s think of places parents with children of different ages may be.
  1. Daycares - Think of approaching daycare centers with organizing a “How-To” sexuality education workshop once a month for parents and daycare personnel.
  2. Faith Centers - If you, or someone close to you is a member of a religious organization, see if any parents would be interested in starting a group to share stories on sex education that are rooted in their particular faith.  This could also help parents of younger children get ideas and support from parents of older children.
  3. Local Libraries - Talk with your local library to see if you could survey parents who attend book clubs or reading groups for themselves or their children to gauge interest in learning how to better educate their children on sexuality.
  4. PTA Board - Yes, schools can be a scary place to bring up sexuality education, but if you, or someone you know has a group of parents that spend time together in or outside of PTA meetings see if they would be interested in learning more about teaching sexuality education to their children.
Some may dismiss this notion of teaching parents about sexuality education as too difficult or laborious.  That may be true, but when you think back on that imaginary story at the beginning of this blog, and you visualized how many students had parents who never talked to them about sexuality, it seems high time that we reframe the conversation.  Many sexuality educators entered the field because of a bad experience (or a series of bad experiences) around how they were, or were not educated about sex and sexuality.  At what point do we stop blaming the parents who never taught their kids about sexuality for all for the high rates of infection and pregnancy, and offer help to parents?  Silence can be seen as an answer, but if we asked a different question, we just may get a different response.


  1. LaShay,
    Bravo! I could not agree with you more on this. And you really hit the nail on the head when you mentioned various places to target parents with this type of education.

    I am constantly bringing up my community partner project (and hope it isn't obnoxious to do so, but it just shows how excited I am about this work) and I'm about to bring it up again...

    The work that I'm doing with child sexual abuse has opened my eyes to many things - including parental anxiety about childhood sexuality. As a very important part of the pilot sexual abuse prevention education program, our volunteer committee members hold a parental information night at each elementary school prior to coming into the classrooms to educate the third graders. Parents have the opportunity to know what we are about to teach their kids about sexual abuse, to voice their opinions, and are given the option to opt-out if they do not want their kids to receive this information.

    I have only had the opportunity to attend one of the parent nights because my main function as their intern has been to finish the needs assessment, work on research, and develop a new curriculum. I have, however, attended several of the committee meetings and have had the chance to read the feedback surveys completed by the parents from different schools in different neighborhoods in our community.

    One overarching theme is the anxiety that parents face about discussing ANY sexual issues with their children. They really want more information about how to handle these difficult conversations. They crave the knowledge and the tools to effectively keep their children safe, but often have such a fear of how to respond when anything about sex comes up.

    I had thought of the day-care centers, but I really like that you brought up faith centers in your post because I hadn't even thought of that and faith is such an important part of many parents' sexual knowledge. Thank you for writing about this very important topic.

  2. LaShay!
    Great topic. Its funny that you wrote about parents because we were just discussing this in class over the weekend. I think that it is incredibly important for parents to be involved, and the few workshops that I've gone to where parents have been in attendance seemed to be really effective.
    Your list of places to recruit these parents was also really helpful. What could we do about the parents who aren't as organized? What if your parent was an alcoholic/drug user who didn't drop you off at school or go to church?
    How could we recruit those parents? I know groups like AA or Al-anon and Alateen could be good places to bring up those topics. However, we could argue that its the parents who are not seeking help are the ones that could use the education the most.
    Its interesting because when I asked some kids (for my Community Partner project) if they wanted to talk to their parents about sex, I got a lot of responses like 'ewwwwww,no way!'. I think that if we could educate the parents to teach sex well enough that they didn't come across in an awkward way, then they could be totally effective sex educators. I know that as much as I thought my mom was uncool growing up, I absolutely valued what she thought and still do. I'm sure a lot of kids feel the same way and would (secretly) appreciate their parents input on sex and who knows, they may find out that their parents are a lot more liberal than they thought!

  3. Hi LaShay!
    Your blog really hit home for me. Growing up, I never experienced “The Talk” with my parents. My mom briefly explained that I would be getting my period at some point and what this entailed. Other than that, what I learned from my parents about sex was from them being reactive rather than proactive, i.e. I received lectures about being smart and safe when they believed I was having sex.

    I think your reminders and tips are wonderful; it is important to remember that parents and/or guardians have a wide array of feelings, anxieties, and questions and also need time to adjust and grow during this process. I believe many parents are never given the opportunity (hence your outreach at such places as daycares and faith centers) or choose not to overcome their anxieties and therefore never talk to their children about sex. Although I am not yet a parent, I can only imagine how I will feel when my children are approaching puberty. Such an exciting, overwhelming time! While many children are thinking, “Ewww, I don’t want to talk to my parents about sex,” parents may be saying, “There is no way my kids are having sex; they are only in middle school!” All of these combined anxieties can create an environment where nothing is said and learning is absent.

    Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex features tons of information relevant to parents and sexual education. This book features interviews concerning censorship, sexuality and HIV/AIDS education, reproductive laws, religious views on sexuality, and the role the family plays in the sex lives of adolescents. While some parents who are interviewed believe teaching their children about sex is a must, others refuse to teach their children about sex because they believe that this is promoting sexual activity and giving them the go-ahead to sleep with as many people as they wish. I think this would be a great read before reaching out to parents about sexual education because it can provide you with a number of feelings, opinions, and viewpoints of parents today.

  4. Lashay,

    I couldn't agree more! I didn't really think about the importance of teaching parents about sexuality so that they can teach their own kids, until a friend made a suggestion. I have a friend in my community who is much older and has 7 kids! she i VERY religious so when i told her what i study i thought she would be disapproving. her suggestion was that perhaps instead of just talking to teens about sex why not talk to the parents, so that they would have the tools to do it themselves. she said that as a parent, its not that she doesnt WANT to talk to her kids, its more that she simply doesnt know how, whether its what to talk about or how to bring it up, and when to do it, etc. i think that, especially these days parents have the desire to educate their own kids about sexuality but are embarrassed to do it. there are a million books parents can buy about "how to talk to your teen about...." (sex/drugs/rockandroll) but that doesnt give them the hands-on experience that gives confidence.

    I think the real challenge in recruiting parents would be to recruit parents of small children so that sexual education starts at a young age, rather than as teenagers. I think parents of teens would be pretty receptive to attending a workshop on sexuality, because lots of parents of teens arent completely blind to the realities of the world (although some are!).

  5. This is a topic that hits close to home, since I specialize in educating adult learners. Just last month, I heard a funny (yet also sad) story about my 6-year-old niece. She was taken to the doctor by her grandmother for what turned out to be a urinary-tract infection. The male doctor told her he needed to look at her vagina and she just stared at him wide-eyed. When he left the room, she asked her grandmother “Did he say he was looking at my dinosaur?! What was that word?” I could not believe that my 6-year-old niece did not know the names for the body parts of her genitals. So the next time she came over, I took her aside and taught her the words and locations of her vulva, vagina, and urethra. We practiced pronouncing them together. And the next week, she proudly asked her grandmother, “How is your urethra feeling?” :)

    One of the things that many parents don’t realize is that they should start having conversations much earlier than most of them think. For example, among African-American girls, 27% have some signs of breast and/or pubic hair development by age 7 and 48% by age 8; average age of first menstruation is around age 12, but may range from 9-15. Thus, trying to talk to your children about puberty and sexual development before these changes start could mean starting the conversations around age 6!

    As a professional working in HIV education, I have written lessons for parents of adolescents as part of a faith-based HIV prevention initiative and we found that they were very eager for information and tips on talking to their children. I strongly recommend Advocates for Youth’s Parents Sex Ed Center ( as a great resource, since they have guides for each stage of childhood. It is also important to assure parents that talking about sex does not imply approval of children having sex – in fact, research has shown that parental communication and monitoring has been found to reduce youth sexual risk behaviors and prevent early sexual initiation.

  6. Great post LaShay! I see the value in working with parents because I truly believe that we can't be working "against" whatever messages parents are giving at home (whether they be spoken or unspoken). Just like like with nutrition programs and violence prevention, if we are saying the opposite of what parents are saying, it's difficult for our messages to really stick. I also believe many parents want to talk with their children but just don't feel they have the information or practice to do so. When we provide them with the tools, they are often eager to use them.

    Last spring I received a call from a religious affiliated daycare and they requested a program for staff and parents on healthy sexual development for children. It was clear that this group had very little information about what to expect from their children and they were fascinated by the workshop. We were able to clear up a lot of fears and concerns and it was a great experience overall. I wish more of the work I do as a community health educator involved parents at some greater level than it does!

  7. Great topic, LaShay!

    I was immediately interested in this post as my former position at Planned Parenthood in RI dealt directly with this issue. If you or others aren't aware of this initiative that PPFA (Planned Parenthood Federation of America) has launched, here is some info:

    "Real Life. Real Talk.® is a bold, nationwide, social change effort. Its aim is to positively change the social climate in communities by creating more open, honest, and balanced talk about sex and health. A more positive social climate will, over time, help to ensure that people — particularly young people — have adequate information and services to enable them to make healthy sexual choices. As examples from social movements show, getting people to talk openly and publicly about an issue — particularly a sensitive or stigmatized issue — is a critical step in making social change happen. Once people believe they are allowed to talk honestly about sex, and once they question the consequences of silence, we believe a cascade of positive behavior change in sexual health will follow." I took this directly from their website,

    The site itself is helpful in that it offers some tips for communicating with younger folks about sex. I'm not really in the loop about it anymore, as it's been a couple years since I was involved, but I know I was really impressed with the curriculum and materials generated by the campaign.

    The part I liked best about the initiative that it wasn't heavily focused on content - we weren't telling parents WHAT to talk to their kids about, more about HOW to talk to them. We left values out of it. We all know that PP carries much stigma, so this campaign was trying to get past that.

  8. LaShay: As you know from our last class, this subject is near and dear to my heart. I attended a parent sex ed class when my oldest child, age two, began nursery school. It was mandatory that parents stay onsite for the two hour, twice a week session while their child attended the school. Part of the nursery school fee went towards paying a social worker that facilitated the parental meetings. Fortunately for us, the woman, Barbara Levy Berliner was gifted. Talk about ‘education is manipulation,’ she created the art (sorry Don)! The backdoor entrance was always through conversations, which stemmed from parenting issues. Sex, bullying, eating, society, you name it and the subject came up. Already sex positive, I continuously learned and adjusted my personal sex ed approach with my own children. Barbara also introduced Debra Haffner to the group. She came and spoke many times to us about sexuality and children. Her book, From Diapers to Dating, is also a valuable resource for parents interested in raising sexually healthy adults.
    Jaime mentioned the parental anxiety some parents face when the subject of sex arises. I believe this is because they are starting too late! It is easiest to ‘talk sex’ to a newborn or a one year old who really has no clue what you are saying. So start young and keep on talking; the more you talk the more it becomes natural and additionally, the kids don’t think you are having “the talk” as you have been talking all along. Always answer children’s questions honestly with as much or as little information as required. Haffner gives an example of a child asking a parent where they come from and the parent sitting them down to talk about penis’s, vagina’s and uteruses when the child really only wanted to know what state they came from.
    Eventually you will loose the “teachable moments” as Debra Haffner calls them. Georgina says kids say “ewwwww!” and they do at a certain age, with exceptions, no matter how well the parents relay the information or how comfortable the parents feel talking about sex. At some point, peer culture steps in and it is no longer cool to talk to your parents about begin to rely on peers, even if they still might check the facts with you.
    One of my future goals is to establish weekend retreats where new parents come and bring their children. There would be seminars for mothers, seminars for fathers, seminars for the kids as they age... and seminars for everyone together. Topics are up for to talk sex definitely, but also health, diet, bullying, and many more subjects related to raising healthy adults. I note my positionality in proposing retreats of this type: I am a white Anglo-Saxon female in a privileged socioeconomic class. But on the other hand, I am hoping these retreats might also attract clientele who perpetuate hegemonic masculine culture.

  9. Parents. I definitely agree that they need to be involved, and I often wish that parents had enough time to get a sex ed class of their own that just focused on them and their experiences of sexuality. There is a part of me that really really loves the idea of talking to parents about how to talk to their kids about sex, but I also think a lot about the messages that kids get from their parents that aren’t spoken aloud. It makes me feel as though helping parents to feel more empowered about themselves as sexual beings could do just as much good for the kids they parent as teaching parents how to talk to their teens. I think that helping parents to feel more empowered about their sexuality could also pack a double-punch of giving parents the language they need to talk to their kids AND help reduce some of that anxiety Jamie was talking about.

    I was also in a class a few weekends ago where the professor discussed doing a class where both kids and parents were present during the ‘information’ portion of the session. The processing portion was then done in age-separated groups. I bet that would be a fantastic way to get things rolling as well, as I bet there were lots of great conversations on the ride home. Not only did they get to process the information shared, but it automatically helped to open up conversation without putting the burden of initiation on either party.

    And I also agree with Gigi in regard to the ‘parents who don’t have time’ issue. With the demographic I used to work with, that was always my concern. I wanted to do more parent involvement stuff, but the kids I was teaching just had parents who were working multiple jobs or non-present. I also had kids being raised by grandparents, and I wonder how grandparents feel about having to teach their grandkids about sex. Although I’ve met some incredible grandparent-aged folks, I still wonder about the level of involvement one could get for folks from that demographic.

    But yeah, LaShay, this is an incredibly important avenue to consider, and I feel like when educators can figure out a way to make this work within the context of the work they’re doing with youth, it’s a huge boon.

  10. yes. right. parents must also be thought with health education for them to educate their children.

  11. Well said LaShay! If we want to prevent misinformation or a lack of discussion about sexuality topics then the education must start at the top, with parents, and trickle its way down. I also dig the idea of individualized sexuality health plans because not all learners benefit from the same methods of instruction. Exchanging information about sexuality knowledge should be a collaborative effort between parents, educators and youth in order to receive the most accurate and best tailored messages for the individual. Looking at a variety of community organizations and not just school systems can definitely benefit parents willing to learn about sexuality and communication surrounding the topic.

    Here is my one issue with convincing parents to be the teachers and that is how do you get them to see that there is great value in conducting these conversations? How do we get parents to understand that sex is not taboo and that they won't destroy their child's innocence or corrupt them by speaking about sexuality? There seems like in many cases there is little reward for parents to educate their children about sexuality, because even when adolescents are taught about proper condom use they still may become pregnant or receive an STI. While there is a great deal of parents who comprehend the importance of understanding sexuality or at least reproductive health there are also many adults out there who could care less. I believe that in order for adult learner's to see the relevance in teaching their child about sexuality, (think adult learning theory) then the payoff must be big enough or worth their while in order to get them to commit. Even if educating parents may seem challenging, I could not agree more that this where successful interventions need to start!

  12. Great post, LaShay. One of the most common oppositions to sexuality education in the school systems is that sexuality is something that should be taught at home. How great then, if we allowed them to do just that. Furthermore, most parents out there WANT to be able to talk to their kids about sexuality and think its an important aspect of parenting, but feel incapable of doing so. If you are starting a sexual health curriculum in a school or community setting for youngsters, I think its always just as important to also add a workshop or two for parents. This allows them to understand the content of the curriculum as well allows them to feel like part of their child's learning. This strategy will often also lessen the amount of kickback from parents simply because they were offered the chance to be part of this aspects of their child's learning. However, I also appreciate doing workshops on their own, especially if you aren't the one teaching in the school system. They may feel disconnected from the health curriculum their children are getting, so it would be great if you could offer them some insight to it, even if you aren't the one facilitating it, and the best ways they can interact with that information at home.