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A Lifetime of Love: Talking with Kids and Teens about Dating, Porn, and Sex

Does anything strike fear into the heart of a parent more than figuring out when and how to talk with your kids about dating, love, and sex? As if those topics were not challenging enough, thanks to 24/7 free streaming internet porn, today’s parents have to also talk with kids and teens about porn! Let’s take a collective deep breath and figure this out together. Our kids really need us to try!

You see, the quality of our relationships (including our romantic relationships) determines the quality of our lives.

Therefore, parents, it’s vital to talk with your kids about what a healthy romantic relationship looks like. You have an amazing opportunity to teach your kids—in what you say and in how you behave—how to love and be loved. Start these lessons when your kids are young and continue them even as your kids become adults. I have two other blogs which include some great questions for families to explore together!

We know that teens are anxious about developing romantic relationships and they feel unprepared. In fact, data from a study of Harvard of over 3,000 young adults 18-25 indicated that 70% want to talk with parents about love and 65% wish they had learned about love in school.

Data also indicates that our teens and young adults listen to us when we talk with them, even if they roll their eyes. And what we say makes a difference.

I often find that parents silence themselves, thinking that unless they themselves are living in a fairy-tale romance (as if that even exists!), they have nothing to offer their kids. Nothing could be further from the truth. But here’s the thing. Kids deserve to carry a sense of optimism and hope about their potential to create happy and healthy romantic relationships, so if what you want to tell your kids is something cynical (love is lie, women aren’t to be trusted, or there are no good men left), use that as an indicator that you would benefit from some support for yourself (like therapy or a support group or a self-help book about healing from heartbreak). One of the greatest gifts a parent can give their kids is a commitment to their own well-being and relational health. So, if you are a wounded warrior, brokenhearted and pessimistic about love, commit to your own recovery. As you recover and become aware of your resilience and strength, you can talk with your kids about how, yes, you got hurt by love, but here’s what you learned and here’s how you make healthier choices for yourself today. Those lessons are solid gold for our kids!

Tips for talking with your kids about romantic relationships:

  1. Never shame or tease kids and teens for having crushes. Romantic and sexual curiosity are normal. And these feelings are tender! This is especially true for our kids who are LGBT and need family support more than kids who have opposite sex attractions.
  2. Resist the urge to minimize young love. This doesn’t mean that you need to encourage or get hyper-focused, but avoid saying things like, “teen relationships don’t matter” or are silly because that’s not how it feels inside of a young person’s head and heart.
  3. Talk about love in the context of your family’s values. Whatever those are—empathy, respect, equality, inclusion. Research indicates that dating relationships lay the foundation for adult relationships, so families should support their adolescent “doing love” in a way that honors self and other.
  4. Lead with love, not fear. Parents for sure need to cover risks like preventing intimate partner violence, unplanned pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And parents for sure need to address that a romantic relationship is merely one component of a teen’s life, which also includes academics, family, hobbies, faith, community, and friends. But parents also ought to be willing to be open to their teen or young adult’s curiosity to explore dating as normal and developmentally appropriate.
  5. You cannot leave sex education to your school district. The CDC outlines 16 topics that constitute the essential components of sexual health education. Research from 2015 indicates that 50% of high schools and only 20% of middle schools covered all 16 of these topics. Learn about your school’s curricula and plan to round out your kid’s education at home. The end of this article includes some resources to get you started!
  6. Technology has ushered in a brave new world. Like it or not, teens report that porn is their primary source of information about sex—more than friends, siblings, school, or parents. Porn literacy needs to be an integral part of sex education. The main message when it comes to porn is this: sexual curiosity is normal, but the sex you see when you look at porn is not normal. Porn sex is fictional, fantasy, made up sex, and it looks quite different from real life sex.
  7. “Ask me!” Parents ought to give their kids and teens the message: “I will answer ANY question you have and I will not punish or shame you for asking. I might blush and I might stammer, but mostly I want you to ask me and not Google.

Creating a culture of respect

As parents, we are well-positioned to model respect in our interactions with our kids so that they can make sexual and relational choices that are respectful of themselves and of their partners.

Our kids absorb tons of messages about respect just from watching how we interact with the world. One way of doing that is by modeling that human bodies are amazing! Be fascinated and grateful and respectful of the sacredness of your body and of bodies in general.

  • Resist the urge to disparage your own body (ugly, fat, old, funny-looking, etc.). When we do not respect our bodies, we are at greater risk of putting ourselves in situations in which others won’t respect our bodies either. Speak about your body in ways that are loving, gentle, and kind.
  • Resist the urge to speak about other people in a disparaging way or in a way that indicates that you think you’re better than other people, as this attitude sows the seeds of dehumanization. When we dehumanize people, it’s far easier to disrespect them and not take their needs into account.

One of the most important, and often omitted, sex and relationship education lessons is about consent. Consent is about creating a relationship climate in which both partners can ask for and agree to what feels good, safe, and pleasurable. Lessons about consent start very early and in ways that have nothing to do with sex.

  • You can model consent even when you’re caring for a baby. This one might sound silly but bear with me. When you’re taking care of your baby, narrate what you’re doing in a way that’s mindful of the fact that you’re touching and interacting with their body. “Here we go, putting some shampoo on your hair and wash, wash, washing it! Look at that smile! You look so happy!” This is a simple way to begin the message in your home that everyone is a person with boundaries that deserve to be honored.
  • Don’t force your kids to hug and kiss anyone, ever. At family gatherings, give your kids a choice about how they do greetings and goodbyes because, again, even little kids have a right to choose the kinds of touches that feel good and that don’t feel good. You can say something like, “Do you want to give Auntie a hug, a handshake, a high five, or a fist bump?” Teach them to respect their elders while honoring their own boundaries and preferences.
  • Give the message that roughhousing and tickling are fine, but you must ask first and you must stop whatever you’re doing–the first time the other person tells you to stop.

Resources for talking with your kids about dating, love, and sex

“Kids Need Porn Literacy”

(Marty Klein, Psychology Today)

The Date Safe Project

(Mike Domitrz is a great teacher about healthy dating and consent)

Al Vernacchio’s work

(including his book, For Goodness Sex)

Scarleteen website

(comprehensive, positive, and inclusive sex education)

MakeLoveNotPorn website

(Created by Cindy Gallop to teach porn literacy)

The Great Porn Experiment”

(Gary Wilson’s TEDx talk)

What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn

(A piece by Maggie Jones, NYT, about sex education, porn literacy, and the impact of porn)

The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships

(Great information from Harvard!)

“Porn is not the worst thing on music.ly”

(Painful to read but great suggestions about what we can do!)

Transforming toxic dating culture

(A panel discussion I did recently with Chicago Tonight)

Books for teens

Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls & Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity & More (Jane Fonda)

S.E.X., second edition: The All-You-Need-To-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties (Heather Corinna)

100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents: Straight Answers to Teens’ Questions About Sex, Sexuality, and Health (Henderson and Armstrong)

Books for kids

Where did I come from? (Mayle and Robins)

It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families (Robbie Harris)