Monday, 26 September 2011

Do you talk to your children about sex?

I was raised in a large Catholic family where the word S.E.X was never mentioned. Ever. My parents had 6 children and yet I never knew where they all came from. I knew that Mum would suddenly go into hospital and reappear days later with a new baby, but other than that...it was a complete mystery.

There were lots of unspoken rules about what we could and couldn't say. We couldn't say pregnant, no, that was too vulgar so we used the less suggestive 'expecting' instead. We couldn't, or didn't, ever ask questions about anything personal or remotely suggestive. If we were watching the telly and there was suddenly a kissing scene someone, usually my Mum,  would leap out of their chair (no remotes then!) and change channels.

In fact it was a miracle that I managed to learn anything about my body before it was too late. I remember my Mum's ordeal when she attempted to tell me about periods, her embarrassment was so acute she could barely put a recognisable sentence together and I was left more confused than informed. "Bleeding? Down there? Really?"

When I was about 9 I remember reading a newspaper (probably the News of the World) and finding a word that I didn't understand. I went into the kitchen where most of the family were getting ready for Sunday dinner to ask my Dad what the word meant.

"Dad, what does nymphomaniac mean?"

I distinctly remember everyone stopping what they were doing, rather like one of those western films where a gunslinger walks into a saloon. In the background my Mum stopped peeling the potatoes and my older brothers looked at Dad with a mixture curiosity and hilarity.

To his credit, he answered with "It's an over-sexed woman", an answer I instinctively knew was the only one on offer and that I should just leave it at that. I had no idea what it meant though. An over-sexed woman? Was that a woman who was too much of a woman? I puzzled over that one for ages.

And so, years later, when I had my own daughters it wasn't a difficult decision for me to be very open about any subject they asked about. Ever since they were tiny and asked me questions like "when will I get boobies?" they've always had an honest reply. Now, of course, they're older and thankfully we still have that openness which makes it easier to talk about those more difficult teenage conversations.

My rules were to keep it honest, use age appropriate language and only give as much information as they actually needed.  I always found that if they needed more information they would ask, but sometimes they just wanted a very simple reply. Which reminds me of the story of a little boy asking "Dad, where did I come from?" whereupon the dad launches into a big, elaborate explanation of the birds and the bees. The boy listens intently before replying "Really? Only my friend Tom comes from Manchester."

How do you answer your children's questions about sex? Are you open and honest, or is it a little more difficult for you?