What Your Child Needs to Know About Sex
The Three Biggest Sex Words in this Book: Love, Respect, and Trust
This is the most important part of the book. The message is simple, although it can be hard to put it into practice: you should only have sexual intercourse with someone with whom you share mutual love, respect, and trust. I know some if not many readers will think I am naive, but it is a message we lost somewhere over the years on our way to sexual enlightenment in this country. Sexual pleasure has taken precedence over anything remotely resembling emotional connectedness, and our children are the biggest losers. I am disheartened when I speak to teenagers who not only struggle to understand how to identify when one has found true love, respect, and trust, but who also do not necessarily believe that one must have these in a relationship prior to engaging in sexual intercourse. It is very likely that their parents have not had significant or meaningful discussions with them about the importance of these three ingredients.
Am I right? Can you tell me how much time you have spent with your child addressing what I call the “big three”? Have you helped your child learn how to recognize love, respect, and trust? Whether your kid is five, ten, or fifteen years of age, have you done your best to instill in her the importance of forging a relationship with your life partner that is steeped in mutual love, respect, and trust? If we want our children to value being responsible, to show respect for others, to be trustworthy and honest, and to have empathy toward others, it follows that we would want them to seek these values when it comes to deciding whom to share sexual intercourse with.
The Power of the Big Three
It is important to share with your children, as early as you can, that having these three ingredients in a relationship will reduce the risk of sexual harm (such as date rape), sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy, and other nasty consequences of physical intimacy. When you have absolute mutual respect and trust with someone, and you share real love with that person, you never have to worry that he or she will ever deliberately try to hurt you, cheat you, or dishonor you. This is important stuff—consider how many people will sexually abuse others during their relationship, lie about their HIV status or STDs, be irresponsible and not wear a condom during sex, cheat on their partner, and in general treat their partner like crap. But when you really have love, respect, and trust, those negative things will not happen.
I have met many, many parents during my presentations who believe these three core values are what they want for their child. They want their kids to grow up to be responsible adults. They want their kids to have and show respect for others, to be trustworthy, honest, and empathetic. They also want them to forge relationships with people who share the same core values, with the hope and expectation that their children will be treated as they would treat others. Yet when I ask them whether they would want their children to be sexually active only when they have real love, respect, and trust in a relationship, many of them say that this would be expecting too much and would be far too unrealistic. “After all,” many of them say, “what’s wrong with just enjoying a good sexual relationship?”
Are you wondering the exact same thing? What’s the big deal about two people wanting to share sex together? Why do we have to tell our kids that they can’t have sex, can’t do something that can be fun as hell to do, unless they are in love first and have mutual respect and trust with the person they’re going to be doing it with? “If I didn’t live by those standards,” parents have asked me, “then why should I ask my kids to do it? Plus it’s so old-fashioned.” There are parents who believe I go too far when I tell them to use my standard of love, respect, and trust when teaching their child to identify the right time for sex.
But let’s look at reality. When someone truly loves you and has unmistakable respect for you, and is someone you can trust, would you worry that this person might deliberately try to hurt you? That this person might knowingly give you a sexually transmitted infection or HIV? That this person might just be using you for sexual purposes? That this person would leave you high and dry if you were to become pregnant? Or that this person would try to take advantage of you sexually—force you to have sex when you did not want it, for example? The answer in every case is no. Think about it. If we all waited to have sexual intercourse until we had true love, respect, and trust, we would be able to minimize many of the health-related problems that are the result of sexual risk behaviors. Unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and sexual assault would all be reduced. Sadly, however, for the past several decades we have struggled as a society to get control of these major health risk problems among young people. In fact, sexual risk behaviors among young people now represent one of the six major causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States.
Now, let’s forget the sex stuff for a minute. For any relationship to survive and thrive, think about how essential the big three are. Think how crucial our message is when we explore with our kids how true love, respect, and trust establish a bond between two people that is not easily broken. Physical appearance, material comforts and money, good sex, enjoying the same music, and all the other things that play a part in a relationship really do pale next to developing respect and trust. Put them together with true love, which can only come from mutually congruent values, a sense of empathy for another, and goodness of heart, and they collectively make for the deepest of connections with another person. Of course, conflicts will arise in any committed, loving relationship, but when love, respect, and trust are present, those conflicts are easier to resolve.
Along the way, we will also impart valuable insight regarding decision making and critical thinking about sexual behavior with our kids, the value of contraception and most importantly condom use, and guidance on how to evaluate and manage interpersonal experiences. In short, we will prepare them for as many real-life occurrences as possible so that when they become adults, if they at times engage in sexual behavior with others without the big three ingredients, they’ll do so in ways that dramatically reduce their risks.
Send the Message Early and Often
When you tell your five-year-old that a baby is made when a sperm cell joins together with an egg cell (see chapter 6), you also need to begin your discussion with the statement that this should only happen when two people love each other. Even if you have yet to mention sexual intercourse, you need to discuss making a baby in the context of love between two people: “You know, sweetheart, two people should only have a baby if they are in love with each other. When two people are in love it means that they would never deliberately do anything to one another that is hurtful or bad.” Along with the message of love should also come some mention of respect and trust. It is not too early for your five-year-old to begin to learn what these traits are and how they relate to child bearing: “When two people love each other it also means they have respect for each other. This means that they each believe that the other person always wants to do what is right and good, and they like that about each other. It also means that they can trust each other. When two people trust each other, they never have to worry that one of them might do anything to hurt the other or do something to make them feel bad. It’s so important that two people who want to have a baby love, respect, and trust each other very much.”
When your child is eight and you have your first conversation about sexual intercourse (see chapters 6 and 8), you want to make sure that you reinforce how important these qualities are in a relationship: “You know how we have spoken about how important it is that two people who want to have a baby should love, respect, and trust each other? Well, I want you to know that I feel the same way regarding having sex. When people love each other they always have the other person’s best interests at heart. When they respect each other they never have to worry that one of them would make the other have sex when he didn’t want to. When they trust each other they never have to worry that one of them would cheat by having sex with someone else, or worry that the other has a sexually transmitted infection. They would never have to worry that one of them would just use the other for sex.”
Try to highlight real-life examples of love, respect, and trust for your children (we’ll talk more about this later). When I speak to students, for example, I tell them that although I have been married for thirty-five years I still cannot say with 100 percent certainty that my wife will never cheat me, hurt me, or deliberately try to disappoint me. No one can predict with absolute certainty what another person will or will not do. However, I can come pretty close to being able to do it when it comes to my wife. As I look back over the nearly forty years that I’ve known her I have never caught her trying to do anything that would hurt me. So I can with some accuracy predict that she will never do so in the future. I tell my students that the same principle applies to them: the longer they know someone, the more accurately they can judge whether they can trust that person.
When your child is nine or ten years old and you have already discussed sexual intercourse and oral and anal sex with her (see chapter 8), you should still be mindful of the importance of highlighting the three biggest sex words in this book. You could say something like the following:
“Can you believe that a lot of people who have HIV in their bodies, and know that they have it, do not disclose that information to the person or persons they have sex with?1 It is amazing to me that there are people who know that they have HIV and yet do not tell the people that they have sex with. As you think about this fact, what one really important thing does this tells you?”
Your daughter may look up at you and just shrug her shoulders.
“Really. I can’t believe people would do that, but unfortunately there are many who do. What does this tell you about a lot of people who have sex?”
“I guess it means that there are people who don’t care a whole lot about the people they have sex with,” your daughter replies.
“Bingo! That’s got to be it,” you say to her. “If they really did care about them, they would tell the people they have sex with that they have the virus. Think about it. If you loved someone, you would certainly be honest about having a virus that is transmitted through sexual intercourse before having sexual intercourse with that person. That is just a given if you really loved the person; you would never want to hurt him. But I guess if you didn’t love the person, you wouldn’t bother to share this information with him. Do you see just how important love is when it comes to having sexual intercourse?”
WHAT PASSES FOR LOVE
Many teens don’t understand what true love is. Countless times I have had teenagers tell me, “Oh, Dr. Fred, I love him and he loves me. He’ll always love me, he’ll never leave me, and he’ll never hurt me. Our love is forever.” But after a little questioning I find out that they’ve known the other person for a grand total of five, six, or seven months.
So I say to them, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, if you become pregnant he’s probably going to leave you.”
“What, Dr. Fred?” they reply. “Are you kidding me? He would never leave me if I was pregnant.”
“Sure, he would,” I reply. “There are many, many guys who get their girlfriends pregnant who leave the relationship. They don’t stick around and take responsibility and that’s a fact!”
When I made these statements to a class of eighth graders, one of the boys vehemently protested, saying, “That sure wouldn’t be me, Dr. Fred!”
“Well,” I said, “you would have to prove me wrong, then, because the odds are very much against you. The truth of the matter is that many boys leave their girlfriends high and dry and it’s often because they really didn’t love them.”
Other factors that cause teen boys to leave their pregnant girlfriends include immaturity, fear, and the fact that they are just kids, of course. All of this is why we want to actively encourage our kids to delay intercourse until they are older, in love, and in a better position to behave responsibly. If you follow my advice in this book, you’ll have a far better chance of having this happen for your children.
Is This Love?
From a developmental standpoint it does take a certain amount of emotional intelligence and maturity to fully appreciate what true love is and to know when you’ve found it. It is one of the major reasons why teenagers (and perhaps many adults as well) need a major course in “Love 101.” We really don’t invest a lot of time or energy teaching our children how to recognize love. Consequently, many of our adolescents will have relationships where they are certain they are in love only to find out, often the hard way, that they weren’t really in love at all. So we need to make a concerted effort to teach our children what love is and how to recognize it when it actually happens.
Oh, there’s plenty of passion out there and a lot of emotions that masquerade as love. Many people have experienced the feelings, emotions, and attitudes initially associated with love in a relationship, only to find that they were insufficient to make for an enduring and lasting love. That is, what we thought at first must have been love was really only a sort of passion, infatuation, or lust. Rings a bell, doesn’t it? You can probably remember a time or two when you thought you were very much in love, only to find out as time went by that it wasn’t true love at all. You may have acted upon those feelings in ways that, in retrospect, were not in your best interests. Even as adults many people have a whole lot of difficulty knowing when they have found real love, so we can only imagine how tough it must be for young people.
Our kids have a much more difficult job of navigating the love issue than many of us did, and far more so than our parents and grandparents. This is because they live in a culture where many more teenagers and young adults are sexually active. And when a relationship goes bad, it’s considerably more complicated when sex has been involved than when things haven’t gone that far. Consequently, the misidentification of love among young people today has far greater consequences than it did when many of us were growing up. Today, a kid may think she’s in love and move much closer to having intimate sexual situations than she would have in past generations. And the closer one gets to a mutual sex encounter, the closer one gets to experience a sexual risk situation: pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection, sexual assault, and so on. Because of this, a major part of our job as parents must be to help our kids appreciate how difficult it is to know when you have true love with someone, and to develop a skill set that allows them to differentiate true love from something that passes for it. I hope you can see how important it is to focus much of your attention on identifying love in your efforts to be approachable for your kids. Love should form the foundation of the many messages about sexuality that we will want to impart to our children as they grow and develop.
A True Friend
I give a lot of talks about friendship with kids at different grade levels as part of a broader conversation about sexuality. When I tell fourth- and fifth-grade kids about my trust in my wife after all these years, I follow it by asking them about their friends. I think that a very useful way to help kids understand love is to ask them to consider the difference between their regular friends and best friends. The discussion goes something like this:
“How many of you have had a friend whom you are no longer close to because he or she did something you didn’t like?” Just about every hand in the class goes up. “So give me some examples of what your so-called ‘friend’ did that made you break off the friendship with her or him?”
One kid says, “Well, my friend lied to me one time.” Another student says, “My friend stole five dollars from me; I couldn’t believe it.” And yet another says, “Mine blamed me for something bad that she did and I was the one who got in trouble for it.”
Next, I ask, “How many of you have a best friend?” Virtually every hand goes up. “And what makes a best friend different from just an ordinary or regular friend?”
Various answers are given by the students, but they are very certain that there is a major difference. “They’re much nicer than just regular friends, Dr. Fred,” says one. “You know your best friend much longer and much better than just regular friends,” says another. “They are always there for you, and you can always rely on them,” replies a third. “They wouldn’t ever hurt you; you can always trust them.”
Every time I ask this question the students hit the nail right on the head with their comments. “You guys got it right,” I often say. “Clearly, a best friend is different from just a regular friend. A best friend is someone you’ve known much longer. He’s someone that you have history with. You can look back over a pretty good chunk of time and see that a best friend wouldn’t cheat you, wouldn’t lie to you, and wouldn’t do anything to deliberately try to hurt you. The length of time you have known your best friend allows you to evaluate that person much better. The more time goes by without a negative incident, the better able you are to get a sense of just how good a friend he is.”
Then I’ll ask, “How many of you have had a best friend who is no longer your best friend?” Only a couple of hands ever go up. To this day I get the same response: very few. Best friends are different from just ordinary friends. You love your best friends, you can trust them, they respect you and you respect them, and they usually stay in your life for a longer time than ordinary friends. Understanding what it takes to become—and stay—best friends with someone is the key that allows kids to understand when they have found love, respect, and trust in a romantic relationship.
When I conclude discussing the difference between friends and best friends, I segue back to my story about my wife. I tell the students that my wife became my best friend before we married and has been my best friend ever since. “I never have to worry that my wife will cheat on me or give me a sexually transmitted infection. I never have to fear that she would force me to have sex or hurt me if I chose not to. You see, my wife and I have true love, respect, and trust in our relationship. This kind of history is what you all need to have in a relationship with someone before you start to have sex.”
How Can You Recognize Mutual Love, Respect, and Trust?
One of life’s great challenges is to find a relationship with another person that offers these wonderful and endearing qualities. I suppose no one is perfect at knowing exactly when one has all this in a relationship; there are certainly plenty of people out there who must have thought they had it and got married, only to be divorced some time later. But I do know that we don’t spend enough time as parents helping our children better understand love, respect, and trust. And this isn’t the kind of thing we can expect our schools to help teach. Although there are probably no real “love, respect, and trust experts” out there, common sense informs us that if we allow our kids enough time to explore the characteristics of these qualities in meaningful and enlightened ways, they’ll have a much better chance of recognizing the real deal when they find it. So please devote as much time as you can to talking with your kids about love, respect, and trust.
Below are some of the more important points that should help your kids identify when they have the “big three” ingredients in a relationship.
WHAT IT MEANS TO TRUST
Imagine this conversation with your young son:
“Do you remember when our friend Ronni allowed her son Scott to go away for the weekend with his friends, and she said to him, ‘I know you’ll make the right decision and not drink alcohol while you are away. You’re eighteen now and I trust you to make responsible decisions while on your own’? Well, Ronni had no idea whether or not Scott would drink alcohol, but she trusted him.
“You and I have spoken about how important trust is in a caring relationship with another person. When you trust someone, you never have to worry that she will make the wrong decision. A person that you trust is someone you never worry about purposefully doing anything that could hurt or disappoint you.
“Trust is also very important in a sexual relationship. I know we’ve talked about the type of person you would want to have a loving relationship with. Well, being able to trust the person would have to be a major ingredient in that relationship.”
Time and Experience
The student who says she knows everything about her boyfriend after six months needs to be challenged. We all remember how much longer things seemed to take when we were kids. In a kid’s mind, six months is a whole lot longer than it is in ours. We need to help our children understand that knowing someone for six months is better than knowing that person for three, but not as good as nine, or ten, or twelve months—or two or even three years, for that matter. We need to help our kids see how time and experience have a way of sorting things out for us, and when it comes to really getting to know someone, the more time the better.
We can do this by encouraging them to reflect on actual experiences that they have had where time played a role in helping them to better understand something, as I do when I discuss with students the difference between regular and best friends. Any examples like these will help our kids better understand how it takes time to determine if one loves another person, can trust that person, and has the respect of that person. So, for example, if you have your child reflect on what he knows today as opposed to the same time last year it will help to give him that perspective. Or if you discuss with your kid how he couldn’t make a basket the first time he started playing basketball but two years later is on the all-star team, this should demonstrate how time and experience have allowed him to become a better player.
People who love, respect, and trust each other demonstrate this over time. These are not qualities that emerge after a short period of time; they evolve slowly and they cannot be rushed. In addition, people do not demonstrate these qualities for only a certain period of time; they consistently demonstrate them over and over again. This doesn’t mean that they can’t disagree or be angry or mad at each other. People who love, respect, and trust each other do have their moments that are rocky, but even during these times no one can deny that the “big three” still exist between them. However, if one cheats, lies, hurts, or denigrates his or her partner, then it is impossible to have real love, respect, and trust between them. No matter how much a person tries to show love, respect, and trust, there is no room for deliberately hurting one’s partner—no room at all! You can’t be super nice 95 percent of the time and purposefully hurt your partner the other 5 percent and expect to have true love, respect, and trust. It just doesn’t work that way. Just as it is important to help your child understand when love, respect, and trust exist in a relationship, it is just as important to help your child develop an appreciation for when they don’t.
Real Examples of Love, Respect, and Trust
This one is very simple: just take the time to highlight for your child examples of love, respect, and trust that occur in life. When your spouse or partner does something that exemplifies one of these traits, bring it to your child’s attention. When you see these characteristics exhibited by your friends and neighbors, try to remember to tell your kids. Even when you’re watching television or a movie with your child and one of them is portrayed, bring it to your child’s attention. These real-life examples need not be sexual; the “big three” are qualities you want your child to cherish in any loving and supportive relationship. Then, at a convenient time reflect back on one of these occurrences and point out how these qualities are especially important in a sexual relationship.
As your child gains reference points for the big three, she’ll increase her ability to identify them when she personally experiences them. Any examples you can think of should be beneficial, but try to focus on those that highlight the big three in actual romantic relationships: someone going out of her way to do something for her partner out of love, someone sacrificing a personal desire out of respect for his partner’s wishes, or someone allowing the partner to pursue something that requires the granting of considerable trust.
For example, if a friend of your husband stays overnight at a female colleague’s apartment because he worked late and commuting home would take too long, you can discuss how your friend must really trust her husband not to “fool around.” If someone you know agreed to put off having children for several years so that his partner could go to college and start a career, you can talk with your child about how much he must love his partner. If a friend totally disagrees with her partner’s belief that their seventeen-year-old son should not be allowed to have friends over to the house while they are away for the night, but nevertheless doesn’t overrule her partner, you can have a conversation about how that is an example of respect for her partner’s position.
Use Authentic Teaching Strategies
I’ve spoken a lot already about authentic teaching; I cannot overstress that it is the most effective approach for teaching about sex and sexuality. Whatever we do as parents to help our children come to understand when one has love, respect, and trust, we must use authentic teaching strategies as part of our efforts. Let’s look at some techniques that we could use:
Keep a Journal
Together with your child, keep a journal for a week. Both of you can enter different examples of how members of your family showed love, respect, and trust with each other. At the end of the week review the journal and explain why each of your entries is an example of the big three.
Tell a Story
Create a scenario that involves two sixteen-year-old kids who have been dating for two months. One evening after going to the movies they go over to a friend’s house and they are hanging out in the backyard. After talking with their friends for a while, they wander over to the porch and start to kiss each other. After a minute or two, the boy puts his hand on his girlfriend’s breast for the very first time. She is okay with it until he tries to slip his hand under her bra. She protests but the boy continues. She tries to push his hand away but he keeps forcibly touching her breast. She starts to cry but he keeps on doing it.
- Ask your child if it is possible that the boy respects the girl? Why or why not?
- Ask if the girl can trust the boy in the future? Why or why not?
- Should the girl continue to go out with the boy? Why or why not?
- What does this tell you about love, respect, and trust as they pertain to sex?
You should stress to your child why the answer to each of the first three questions is no. Because the boy did not stop and was actually forcing her to continue, he was absolutely wrong and she should not go out with him again. If he had stopped right away that would be another matter, but there must be no tolerance for one person forcing another person into sexual behavior. Explain that afterward the boy may be very remorseful and even ask for forgiveness, or he may even say that he only wanted to do it because he loves her, but that anyone who forces someone into any sort of sexual contact can’t possibly have love or respect for that person. You can say that there are far too many people in relationships who experience abuse by their partners, and how this is a major problem in our society. You can also discuss with your child whether the girl should tell an adult what the boy tried to do.
Widen the Circle
The next time you are visiting relatives or good friends and your child is with you, tell them that you have been talking with your child about love, respect, and trust. Tell them that the two of you have been discussing how to tell when two people have these qualities in their relationship. Ask your relatives or friends to give an example or two of how they show love, respect, and trust in their relationship. Have your child give an example that she has noticed in their relationship.
Try a Role Reversal
Have your child pretend that he is your father (or your mother) and you are his child. Have him role-play with you what he would say about how to know when there is love, respect, and trust in a relationship with another. Be prepared to ask him questions that help clarify his statements.
Along with authentic teaching, modeling for your children what a loving, respectful, and trustworthy relationship looks like can have an extremely powerful influence. We can do all the teaching that we possibly can about the big three, but, when we as parents can demonstrate on a day-to-day basis what these qualities look like, the impact on our children will be great. When love, respect, and trust are demonstrated by you and your partner it would be useful to periodically point it out to your children: “You know, what just happened between your father (or mother) and me is a perfect example of love (or respect or trust). I want you to remember what just took place because one day you are going to need to determine whether or not you are really in love with someone, and whether or not that person loves and respects you. This is not easy to do.”
Even if you don’t have a partner or spouse, there are still many opportunities where love, respect, and trust can be modeled. As an example, point out times when you or your children demonstrate these qualities for each other.
Love, Respect, and Trust: A Summation
I will focus a lot in this book on these three important qualities that are so necessary for any meaningful and lasting relationship. Of course, that is one of the major reasons why I want you to pay so much attention to them. But my interest in them really rests with my belief that they can insulate our children from some very nasty and horrible things. If we start early sending our message that love, respect, and trust should be established prior to being sexually active, and we repeat it often throughout their childhood, I am convinced that we can influence our children enough that they will remain abstinent until adulthood. So let’s start thinking right now that we can do this for our kids.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, because of the early intervention of all of the parents reading this book, we see a reduction in teen pregnancy, teen sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted infections? This canhappen through the tremendous influence we gain with our children when we make the effort to become approachable. Strive to become the number one influence in your child’s sexual life—because you do have the ability to bring about the sort of changes I am talking about here, more so than any sex education program.
If you are able to implement all that we have talked about up to this point, you can see how our kids are going to be in a very good place by the time they enter adolescence. This is because they will view us as approachable; they will have thought about sexual feelings and how to manage them; and they will have reflected on the relevance of love, respect, and trust in a relationship. As we continue with our efforts as our children travel through middle school and into high school, our influence should become noticeable in the sort of sexual behaviors our children will and will not engage in.
The importance of your efforts will become very clear in the next chapter, as we take an unflinching look at what’s at stake. We will explore the importance of supporting and nurturing the positive and life-enhancing aspects of sex and sexuality, and the need to protect against the detrimental and dangerous consequences.