In my “Contemporary Parenting” class at San Jose State University, I always tell my students that it is important for parents to have conversations about difficult topics that may arise such as race, sex, puberty, relationships, death, etc. with honesty and accuracy.
Children can pick up on when their parents are embarrassed or uncomfortable about a topic and they usually don’t bring up those “types of conversations” again. It’s important for parents to help their child feel comfortable with the questions that their children bring to the table.
From around the age of 2, I have been able to talk to both my children about their private parts. They know many of the technical terms for their body parts. My 2 year old daughter knew the word for “mole” because she had one on her leg. Then one day, during her bath she started calling her nipple a “mole.” I matter-of-factly stated that it was a “nipple” not a mole.
Since then, my 2 year old daughter often runs around around our house saying “nipple” on the top of her lungs. She likes that it makes people laugh. I use to squirm when the grandparents would ask, “Who taught her that word? What a shame!” The widening generation gap between my parents and me was not something I wanted to get into at that time.
When my son was around five he had questions about puberty and sexual orientation, so we had simple conversations that were developmentally-appropriate. I gave him some of the facts and terminology and waited for him to ask follow up questions. Most of the time, what I said was enough. I also knew that I could always elaborate on the details later. I wasn’t making up stories. Everything that I stated was true and could be explained.
Recently, my seven-year old son asked “How do you know when you have a girlfriend?”. There was this one girl at school that was giving him more attention than the others: She made an alligator out of playdough for him, she waited for him in line, and she held his hand at times. I was definitely caught off guard. I wasn’t expecting the “girlfriend/boyfriend” conversation until at least… middle school!
So, I took a deep breath, calmed my nerves (without him knowing!) and tackled it like I do every difficult question that he asks— as honestly as I could. I started with the ins and outs of relationships: how it happens, how you know when you really like someone (inside and out), who asks who, and what to do when you don’t want to say “yes.” We used a lot of hypothetical situations to see how he would ask or what he would say to someone who was asking him. He was seven, so he wasn’t ready to be in a relationship, but was curious enough to want to know. If he was an adolescent, I would also talk to him what it means to be in a healthy relationship and the importance of having safe sex.
This led me to thinking about other parents who may be finding out for the first time that their son or daughter is ready for the next milestone in their lives…a relationship!
For parents who are finding out for the first time, I would say:
- Use Active Listening Skills. Start by asking them questions to find out what having a girlfriend/boyfriend means to them. Based on their age, they may have a completely different idea of what this means than what you may believe. Make sure you ask questions out of curiosity rather than with alarm. It’s easy to jump into making judgment calls like “You’re too young!” but it’s important for you to get a better understanding of how your child is experiencing this milestone. You want to look for feeling words that they are using to convey the message. Are they excited? Anxious? Nervous? They may have said yes, but maybe they are not sure if they want a girlfriend/boyfriend.
- Connect to your own experiences. Children want to hear from you. They want to know what you think about this new milestone. You can help explain your views, opinions and beliefs by thinking back to what it was like for you. You may recall your first boyfriend/girlfriend or you may recall not being able to date when you were their age. You can connect this back to a discussion on pros and cons of dating as well as what types of rules are set for your family about having a girlfriend/boyfriend.
- Keep Open Lines of Communication. Be approachable. Let them know that you will always be their to answer any questions that they have along the way. It’s important not to judge the girlfriend/boyfriend. Many children internalize these comments and may not want to tell you things because they don’t want to risk their girlfriend/boyfriend having a bad reputation with you. Your opinion really matters to them! So just be approachable and available to navigate them through the ups and downs of this new milestone!
Amita R. Shah, Ed.D.