Puberty is awkward for all parties involved. For kids, it starts with some build-up as friends start reaching these biological milestones, followed by sprouting new body parts and features, and ultimately resulting in a few years of asking yourself “Is this normal?” 37 times a day.
And because sex education in this country is, to put it mildly, not very comprehensive, a lot of these questions fall on parents who themselves didn’t receive adequate preparation in this area when they were in school. Essentially, it’s a cycle of awkwardness surrounding basic bodily functions that shouldn’t be taboo in 2020, but here we are.
Not surprisingly, some parents are better equipped to handle these conversations with their pubescent child than others. Some of it comes down to being more comfortable and familiar with the parts you have, but, as with many aspects of life, things don’t always neatly align when it comes to matters involving genitals. Here are some tips for navigating (and surviving) these conversations with your kids.
Over the weekend, the person behind the @AITA_reddit Twitter account (which is not officially affiliated with the “Am I The Asshole?” subreddit, but features its content) posted one in which a dad asks whether he is the asshole for not wanting his 13-year-old daughter to wear tampons. He seems to think that at 13, she is not “mature enough” to know when to change a blood-soaked cotton cylinder nestled in her vagina.
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His wife—aka their daughter’s tampon dealer—pointed out that his anti-tampon sentiment is misogynistic. The dad’s rebuttal is that if he had a son, he wouldn’t buy him condoms at the age of 13, either. You may be wondering about that innovative comparison, and don’t worry: we get an explanation for this too. In his own words:
“I know that most people wouldn’t think of tampons as inherently sexual but my daughter has also asked for birth control for her periods, although there are tons of different painkillers, and I think she’s using this as a gateway to possibly becoming sexually active.”
There is so much to unpack here, it’s hard to know where to start. For one, it appears as though the dad thinks tampons are sneaky dildos, which would then give his daughter the idea that putting things in her vagina is always a pleasurable experience. And then what? After she realizes how much she enjoys having something in there, naturally she’ll want to experiment with other objects, including penises?
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re a parent and haven’t already endured one or more child going through puberty, this may help.
If you have a kid, you know that eventually they’ll go through puberty. Prepare for this conversation in advance so you don’t feel put on the spot when your child comes to you with questions, and then resort to speaking entirely in euphemisms, or start rambling about what you think you might remember from your own sex ed classes 20 years ago. There are plenty of great, science-based resources out there for parents—including from Planned Parenthood, Rutgers University and the American Sexual Health Association. Use them!
This one can be tricky, especially for parents whose own sex ed involved learning that periods are gross, masturbation is evil and/or makes you go blind, and wet dreams are an indication of a lack of moral character. You have the opportunity to make things different for your child, in terms of how they think about reproductive and sexual health. That’s kind of a big deal! Be mindful of how you describe reproductive and sexual bodily functions (so you’re not adding to the stigma) and set the record straight on any stigma-inducing myths they’ve already heard.
Not everyone identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, so keep in mind that the conversations you have with your kid may not be the ones you had been prepping for, and that’s OK. Places like the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN and the CDC offer resources on this, along with how to have inclusive sex talks with LGBTQIA young people.
Along the same lines, try not to scare your kid. Yes, this means not using inaccurate information on unplanned pregnancy and birth control efficacy, but it goes beyond that. For example, telling a child who hasn’t yet started to menstruate that periods are always horrifically painful may make them fearful and anxious about theirs starting. Sure, plenty of people who menstruate deal with pain, but instead of using that approach, use it as an opportunity to talk about how periods don’t look and feel the same for everyone.
We hate to tell you, but there’s no such thing as The Talk (singular). Different questions and concerns will likely pop up throughout your child’s puberty, so make sure they know that it’s not a one-and-done situation, and they can come to you with questions any time. Also, encourage them to learn more on their own. Websites like Scarleteen and Bedsider (among many others) are geared towards younger readers, and the format (like the ability to learn more about IUDs at 3 a.m.), gives them some degree of autonomy over accessing the information they need.