There’s never a bad time to discuss sexuality and identity with your children. But it’s normal to be intimidated by when and how to bring it up.
Thankfully, back-to-school might just be the perfect opportunity to start the conversation.
Many parents and caretakers find this time brings new concerns - and thankfully opportunities - for a smooth transition to chats on sexuality and gender since school has new people, new feelings, and exposure to new gender performances.
It’s up to us as parents to do what we can to cultivate a household with open communication. Doing this allows us to be sure we’ve provided the tools to make informed decisions on how to process the lifelong journey of self-identification AND keeps them safe as they experience the natural curiosity of their bodies and other people’s bodies too.
It’s ok if you need guidance as you support your children through this journey. We reached out to Melissa Pintor Carnagey, LBSW, sexuality educator, bestselling author, and leading national voice for sex-positive education for a few key considerations on how to use the back-to-school season in your favor.
Start Early And Be Prepared For A Continuous Conversation
We get it. Sexuality and identity conversations feel like high-stakes work. Plenty of us feel pressure to “get it right” the first time. Accept that you’ll probably make a few mistakes along the way. But the biggest mistake is thinking you have to wait until your children are older - or you have the perfect way to say things. Pintor Carnagey reminds us this is a lifelong journey.
“When parents understand that a person’s sexuality is lifespan, not simply a phase that starts at puberty or in the teen years, [it] becomes clearer opportunities available to foster a child’s sexual health early and ongoing,” they say.
The transition will be smoother if you lay the foundation in your everyday interactions.
“From teaching accurate names for a child’s genitals to modeling consent in everyday life, sexuality education is about more than just sex or reproduction. It’s available through teachable moments that begin early before it’s even about sex.”
Know The Culture Of Your Local Sex-ed
Our expert says families must play an active role, early and ongoing, to ensure young people are prepared, not scared, along their journey.
In a perfect world, all children would have access to high-quality affirming sexual education. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, it ain’t happening. Pintor Carnagey notes that in the United States, only 28 states and the District of Columbia currently mandate sex and HIV education in public schools. Only 18 states require the content to be medically accurate. And only 11 states require it to be LGBTQ+ inclusive.”
“Our young people receive all levels of math, more than they will ever use in their adult life, but are shortchanged when it comes to learning about their bodies, consent, healthy relationships, and sexual decision making- vital skills for health, safety, and quality of life,” they say.
Thankfully, as parents and caretakers, we can supplement - or supply - the information our youth need to make informed decisions around sex and sexuality at home. But don’t stray away from advocating for better policies in your district at school board meetings!
Feel Free to Supplement
If you live in one of the many places that are lacking, feel free to supplement! Pintor Carnagey recommends asking your children what they’re covering - or better yet, ask the educators and administrators - so you’re aware of what your children are learning.
“This will help you identify any gaps or misalignment in values, so you know where to start with any supplemental talks and education at home.
She says having books around, like Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg or The Every Body Book by Rachel E. Simon, can assist with covering sexual health topics in a comprehensive, inclusive, and potentially fun way for tweens and teens. Resources like these can let your child know that sexuality is normal and no topic is off-limits.
Leave The Normative Scripts - On Gender And Sexuality - At The Door
Affirmation begins at home.
Children of all orientations and genders need parents who can ensure they feel affirmed in their whole selves while learning about sexuality. This is especially important for queer youth.
Pro tip: Abandoning normative scripts on gender is a large percent of the battle.
“Understanding gender and the different ways people can identify, express themselves, and the varying ways bodies can develop is an important part of staying open and affirming to the beautiful diversity that exists in being human.”
She reminds us that gender exists on a spectrum - that extends well beyond the “man/woman” or “boy/girl” dichotomies we’re socialized to believe. To make an informed choice about who they are, parents and caregivers must give their children the space to explore and express themselves in a way that feels good, free of limits and expectations.
“Their identity is not up for debate or assignment,” she says, noting that the most important thing children need from their loved ones, regardless of their identity, is knowing they have access to love and support. Parents have an opportunity to provide this support by exposing children to a diverse collection of images and social interactions.
Pintor Carnagey says the best way for parents to correctly introduce their children to conversations on queer identity, whether or not their children identify as queer, is to avoid assuming their children’s identities - or anyone else’s.
“Abandon a desire to critique or control how they identify or express themselves. Instead, give them the space to explore and thrive in their unique identities.”
They note that children receive “cisgender, heteronormative messages early and ongoing.” This process erases the presence of queerness. It’s up to parents to intentionally incorporate positive representations of queer identity - this is important for ALL CHILDREN - in the things they watch and read and the people and places they interact with within their community.
We get it. It can be scary to know your children are dipping a toe into the larger world. Yet as parents, we must accept that engaging with their peers is a necessary part of identity development. There’s a big world outside of our household customs, and they’re all available for exploration.
Need more guidance? Melissa’s book, Sex Positive Talks to Have With Kids, is a bestselling comprehensive guide that supports parents and caregivers in conversations at every stage on topics like gender, sexual identity, navigating sex talks, consent, and more!
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker and activist working to amplify Black women's voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. She is also the founder of the #FreeBlackmotherhood movement.