What Does ‘Sex Positive’ Parenting Look Like?
Sex positive is a recent parenting buzzword – thrown around a lot, without any clear definition. And so, it sounds great, but it doesn’t actually tell you what to do when you run up against what feels like inappropriate behavior in children.
Like when your toddler asks the barista at your favourite coffee shop (the one who actually gets your name right) if he has a penis?
What does being sex positive mean?
First, being sex positive is not just about sex, so don’t think you have to get into any pornographic conversations with your 2-year-old. Yes, being sex positive means viewing consensual sexual activity as healthy and natural.
But more broadly, being sex positive includes understanding and respecting your own and others’ bodies and emotions and being open to discussing that without judgment, shame or awkwardness.
Toddlers are crazy little ids with no filter. And this is precisely what makes being ‘sex positive’ so important at this age: Plenty of opportunities to drill in these messages so they are there when he or she needs them later.
How does a parent do it?
Most of the time, sex positive parenting means responding to outrageous situations in a calm, accurate, age-appropriate, and positive (get it?) way.
When you talk about body parts with your kid, use the correct terms.
Using the right words for body parts – vagina, vulva, breasts, penis, testicles, etc – from the start teaches kids these words are like any other words, and conversations about them are as natural as any other conversations.
Sure, your kid will eventually pick up the right words without you teaching them – but by that point, it may feel like unwieldy, scientific terminology. They’ll also eventually pick up the wrong words – ‘dirty’ or ‘bad’ words they’re not allowed to say.
If the right names for body parts (theirs and others’) are normalised early on, they’ll be able to understand their bodies — and, later, express their feelings and desire — healthfully and accurately.
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When they ask about other’s private parts, don’t shush them.
That barista may never take your order again. But there’s no use shushing or scolding your kid – that only sends the message that it’s not all right to ask questions or learn about bodies.
Instead, try to get them to consider the barista’s reaction – Does he or she look surprised or shocked? This builds emotional intelligence and helps your kid learn to understand reactions that signal what is private and what is public.
Then, you can explain that maybe the barista’s mommy or daddy didn’t talk to them about penises and vaginas, so maybe they’re shy about talking about them now. “And it’s not nice to make someone talk about something they’re shy about. So only ask people you know really well that question.”
When you catch your toddler exposing or touching his or her private parts, don’t freak out.
And then there’s the time when your toddler decided to stick her hands down her pants in the middle of dinner. Mortifying? Yes; it definitely feels like inappropriate behavior in children (or anyone). But a toddler touching private parts is developmentally appropriate; until around age 5, children become increasingly interested in exploring their and others’ bodies. Scolding them or batting their hands away will only teach them it’s not all right, ever.
Instead, explain that it’s fine to touch their private parts, but only privately – in the bedroom or the bathroom when they’re alone.
When your child doesn’t want to kiss or hug someone (or to receive a kiss or hug), don’t make them.
There’s always the aunty or uncle who expects (and gives) a big, smacking kiss every time she sees your kid. And bless her for her fondness – but making a child receive or give affection they don’t want to give only sends the message there’s nothing wrong with intimate physical contact against their will.
Reacting with a play-pout or pretending to be upset when a child refuses to show or receive physical affection conveys a similar message: that it’s fine for people to be upset or angry about their decision to share or not share their body.
And bartering affection (“If you want a cookie, you have to give me a kiss”) is just as bad. It doesn’t leave children with much choice over their physical interactions – toddlers are hedonistic little truffles; not taking the cookie isn’t an option — and without choice, there can’t really be consent.
The price may seem trivial now; an occasional forced kiss or bartered hug isn’t going to scar a child. But the foundation it builds is dangerous, particularly for girls, who are most often socialised into giving and receiving intimacy they don’t want.
When kids – both girls and boys — understand and experience bodily autonomy, they’re more likely to assert it for themselves and respect it in others when it really matters.
Let them go naked.
Fact: Toddlers love to be nangu pangu. Making them cover up or be clothed all the time isn’t a bad thing, but it can subtly instill the message that bodies need to be hidden.
This doesn’t mean turning your home into a nudist colony (unless that’s your thing). But letting your kid spend some amount of time without their clothes (most obviously before or after bath time) conveys to them it’s natural to be at home in their own skin … as long as they’re at home.