“Mom, what’s an erection?”
“Dad, what’s ED?”
If you’re terrified of questions like these, TV ads for Viagra and Cialis are your worst nightmare. Fortunately, the ultra-conservative Parents Television Council has your back: they have the TV commercial schedule for these products listed on their website. That way, you can either prevent your kid from watching the programs that show them (from radical-left broadcasters like Major League Baseball and NBC’s Nightly News), or distract him/her when the 45 seconds of lurid images of loving couples slash across your screen.
Yes, in families where cancer, Syria, and Donald Trump are discussed at the dinner table, conversations about erections and sex are still, apparently, taboo. What universe are these frightened parents living in? One in which kids don’t wonder about penises, or think about sex? One in which kids don’t look at porn and see penises and sex? One in which young people won’t eventually grow up to become adults who have sex?
Many parents live in a world in which they’re uncomfortable talking about sexuality. I’m sympathetic about their discomfort, but outraged about how they’re dealing with these feelings—depriving their kids of information, and encouraging norms of secrecy and silence.
Parenting is full of conversations that parents find uncomfortable. It starts early, with “I know you don’t want to brush your teeth at night, but I say you have to.” It continues with “I know the other kids think it’s dorky, but you have to wear a helmet when you bike.” And don’t forget “I know you’re broken-hearted that you can’t play soccer today, but I warned there would be consequences if you were late to school again this week.”
I’ve heard parents complain about all the sex questions they’re being forced to deal with these days: What’s a homosexual? What’s a transsexual? What’s a prostitute? Why do some people hate them? What’s a blow job? Why do people want to do that?
No matter how discomfiting, questions like these do represent some expectation of communication by a child. The only thing worse than having to deal with questions you don’t like is NOT having to deal with them—because your kid refuses to ask, or knows she or he will get a non-answer.
The truth is, kids need instruction about sexuality the same as they do in all other aspects of life. To address that need, one single “The Talk” isn’t nearly sufficient; kids need an ongoing conversation that lasts most of the 18 years that they live with you. If you’re fortunate, it even extends beyond the time your kid leaves home for college or elsewhere.
When kids are young, many conversations about sexuality involve plumbing and logistics. Values are essential, too: how to decide when and with whom to have sex, how to treat people you have sex with, what responsibilities come along with the decision and the pleasure (we hope) of sex.
Backward-looking groups like Parents Television Council and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (the re-branded Morality in Media, which was a far more honest name) aim to solve the “problem” of uncomfortable adults by limiting commercials that encourage questions they’d rather not answer.
But such commercials provide a golden opportunity to provide accurate information and clarify your values around sexuality and decision-making (yes, “morality”). We don’t need fewer conversations with our kids about sex, we need MORE. As usual, hiding information and stories we don’t like creates more problems than it solves. The response to TV commercials we don’t like is talking about them, not eliminating them.
No one likes answering questions that they’re uncomfortable with. But doing so is a key aspect of raising kids properly. In fact there’s a special word for conversations with your child that you’re uncomfortable with. It’s called Parenting.