“It all started with a hushed conversation at a birthday party. I was still in the phase of life where I had to hang around at children’s birthday parties my daughter had been invited to, not yet having graduated to the liberty of “drop-and-go”.
At this particular party, my daughter’s friend was turning seven, and a group of moms with similar age girls sat chatting with cups of tea while our daughters enjoyed the festivities. During a pause in the conversation, one of the mothers asked a question, her voice low and her tone a mix of apprehension and nervous giggle: “Have you spoken to your daughter about sex?”
You could almost hear the cogs of our minds clicking as we each came up with our own answer to this unexpected enquiry. Replies ranged from, “They are way too young and innocent for all then!” and “I haven’t even thought about it!” to “I could never have that conversation with me child!” and “Oh, they will find out when they find out!”
As I sat listening, two things struck me. One, I had not given any thought to how and when to have this conversation with my daughter. And two, none of these moms has a positive take on this very important topic. Their replies ranged from terror to indifference. But nobody felt empowered, excited or ready to talk about the birds and the bees.
Little did I know that in that moment, almost six years ago, a movement was born. A movement I have the privilege of leading called The Chat. The Chat exists to empower families to have important conversations and to foster an environment of love, connection and openness in our home.”
– Christy Herselman, local South African author of The Chat
What an honour to be able to share the story and insights of the amazing Christy Herselman on my blog today.
Have you had The Chat? When should we have The Chat? Is eight really too late?
These are questions that myself and close friends have been asking and discussions we have been having for almost two years now. At first, it terrified myself and MC – as a mom of three girls, I had to prepare myself but I had no clue where to even start. And then a friend shared Christy’s name and her first book with me – and I was forever grateful.
The first time for anything is always the toughest, especially something that makes you uncomfortable or you feel completely unprepared for. After first discussing the topic and the right timing with MC, we were both very immature about it all and tried our best to put it off but then we sat down, spoke as mature adults and decided that we would attend one of Christy’s talks, purchase her book and discuss our way forward.
In November last year (at the age of 7 years and 7 months), SJ had been asking about where babies come from and referring to farm animals giving birth – she wasn’t convinced that mommy cows and pigs were cut open to deliver babies via c-section, like I was. We chose a quiet evening when her younger sisters were in bed, asleep and we sat down calmly and comfortably on her bed. We explained that we had a special story to tell her and we read the book together, page by page, allowing her to ask any questions. At the end, we went through a brief summary of the whole story and answered more questions. Without embarrassing us all online, her questions were quite funny yet pretty straight forward: What happens when we burp?! (not sure how that was related but anyway!) Can I touch the sperm and then have a baby? What happens to everything inside your body when your tummy grows, where does it go? All answered very matter of factly too.
More insight from Christy and her incredible book:
The big question.
After all these years of researching, speaking and writing, still the most common question parents ask me is, “What is the right age to talk to my child about sex?” The answer to this question is not simple or straightforward for a number of different reasons. Firstly, although there is that big moment where we tell our children about the mechanics of sex, it is not about one mammoth conversation on the couch. Conversations about sex should be natural and ongoing, as we release age appropriate information to our children throughout their childhood.
Secondly, when and how we have these conversations with our children will depend on the family dynamics, life situation and character of the child. Some children are naturally curious and ask all sorts of questions. Others are reserved and more inclined towards quietly observing. Birth order and marital status may also have an impact on the timing of our conversations.
Lastly, the acceleration of the digital age and the unprecedented access our children have to – often undesirable – information, attitudes and opinion – mean they are often getting their sex education online rather than at home. This has many devastating consequences and should be avoided at all costs.
Key to all these conversations is something called “the law of first mention” which quite simply means our first encounter with something becomes the grid or filter through which we view it. For example, if you are bitten by a dog which you are a toddler, you may carry a fear of dogs throughout your life. Conversely, if your first experience of dogs is a beloved, gentle family pet, you will probably have a healthy affection for them.
The same is true of sex. If a child’s first understanding of sex happens when they stumble upon online porn or when an older child shares a confused, distorted version, that becomes their grid. How much better for your child’s first mention to be healthy, open, age appropriate conversations with you, their parent, in the safe space of their home where they can ask questions and build strong foundational knowledge and attitudes.
What, when and how?
So what should we be saying to our kids, when should we do it and how should we go about it? A comprehensive age guide can be downloaded here but let’s briefly look at the four main age brackets and what should be discussed at each stage. Remember this is a guide which should be tailored to your family situation. But also remember that you don’t want to wait too long to have these conversations because YOU want to be your child’s trusted source of information.
OK, so what do they need to know at what age?
- The right words for private body parts, such as penis, vagina, scrotum, genitals, breasts etc.
- They should understand that these parts are not bad or dirty, but are private, and should not be touched by others, except you, their parent while bathing etc.
- Explain that they should not touch their private parts excessively or in public. Never scold them about this, rather speak gently so as not to cause them to feel shame.
- Where a baby comes from. Stick with a simple explanation like, “A sperm from dad and an ovum from mom came together inside mom’s tummy which made a tiny baby. Mom has a uterus inside her tummy, where you lived until you were big enough to be born.”
- Later they may ask how a baby is born. Stick with the literal response: “When a baby is ready to be born, the uterus pushes him out through the mom’s vagina.” Also explain cesarean sections as these are very common. Some kids may ask more questions about how the sperm got there, but most will be satisfied with that.
- Keep emphasizing that your child’s body is private and precious and off-limits to other people.
- The basics of sexual intercourse. “Sex is when a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina. When the penis and the vagina fit together, sperm swim through the penis and up to the ovum.” Explain that sex is something special, only for adults and that marriage is the best and safest place for it. A book is great for this conversation. You can purchase mine here.
- They may ask additional questions like: how does the baby grow, how does it come out, is it painful, how does it get out such a small hole? How come so-and-so has a baby and she’s not married? Give matter of fact answers. Keep reiterating that sex between one man and one woman who are married and committed to each other is the safest and most pleasurable place for sex.
- If they ask questions that shock you, don’t scream and run for cover. If you think your child is mature enough, answer by giving the simple facts. If we have covered the basics well, these questions are much easier to answer. The important thing is that we address all questions calmly and without fear or shame, but with an understanding of consequences.
- Puberty happens earlier these days. Explain menstruation in a positive way.
- Changes which will happen during puberty: pimples, periods, hair growth, breast budding. Also be ready to discuss sex-related topics your child sees in the news or hears about on social media.
- By 12 kids are formulating their own values, so check in every so often to provide a better context for the information your child’s getting. Don’t assume your kids will absorb your family’s beliefs and values through the air.
- This is a good time to talk about consequences, responsibility and future behaviours (how to break up with someone, what to do if someone likes you and you don’t like them, boundaries etc). But avoid overkill or you’ll be tuned out.
- Ongoing dialogue regarding technology. Equip your tween to be a safe, responsible technology user. Remember most social media platforms have an age restriction of 13, with good reason.
- In South Africa the average age of exposure to porn is 11. Talk about porn in general terms, avoiding explicit descriptions. Tell your child to come to you immediately if they see anything sexual online so that you can help them process it.
So there you have it! I know it may seem overwhelming reading through that all at once but the good news is, the earlier you start, the easier the conversations become. And once you start, everyone in the family will start to feel like they can talk about anything. This is the goal: to create a safe space in your home where big topics can be openly discussed and where questions can be asked without judgment or fear.
For those parents of older children, you may be reading this, thinking: “I have to play so much catch-up, I should have started years ago!” I hear you. I did too. And that’s ok. Just do it, take the plunge, you won’t regret it!
And one last thing. Remember that while the information you are sharing is important, the really goal is connection. Children who feel deeply connected to, and unconditionally loved by their families are much more likely to engage in healthy sexual habits later in life.
So grateful for Christy, her wisdom through her lived experiences, and her incredible book – it has been one of the greatest tools to approach a subject that so many of us are terrified to chat to our kids about.
GREAT NEWS! Christy is hosting an online talk tomorrow evening, Thursday 6th March on Zoom at 7pm for a cost of R50. You can register now and join “The Chat”. Click here to register.
For more resources and information please visit her website www.thechat.co.za
Have you had The Chat? How did you approach it and how did it go?