My daughter, D turns 5 next month. We’re knee-deep into that wonderful stage of body parts/functions being hilarious, and questions about how she came to be. We’ve got the bare bones sorted, babies are made by a ‘special cuddle’ involving seeds and eggs (makes me feel a little like Mr Bloom’s allotment but nevermind), she knows the medical terms for all her parts, and has idea of what they’re all for (had a tricky moment in Sainsburys explaining that the function of a tampon isn’t to keep a baby from falling out, but I think we’re mostly there).
But, mechanics of sex aside, what messages do I give her about sex, sexuality, gender, consent, boundaries, all those complicated things that even as an adult, and even as a sexual health adviser I struggle with? How do I enable her to have fun, safe, enjoyable sex (without freaking out at the fact that one day my baby girl will be an adult and won’t fit on my knee)?
This is new ground for me. My upbringing was a loving but strictly Christian one. Sex was something unspeakable a man and a woman (and no other combination of that formula) did when they were firmly ensconced in the institution of marriage. It should not trouble my fragile, virginal teenage brain. Quite how I navigated my teenage years without ending up pregnant may prove the existence of a benevolent god after all. But suffice to say, I grew up feeling that sex, my body, and my sexuality were something I should be afraid of, ashamed of, and at all costs kept secret. And I don’t want this for my daughter. Sex should be enjoyable, fun, free and safe. Making it something to be frightened of meant that at the times when I really did need help, I couldn’t ask for it.
Parenting for me has always been about cobbling together ideas and hoping for the best. So with that in mind, I wanted to share with you how I plan to teach D about sex. And hope that you’ll share your ideas and objections with me. After all, it takes an (internet) village to raise a child.
We have a phrase in our house: ‘My body, my choice’. We all use it. It’s a boundary marker. It applies to ‘will you leave me alone for 5 minutes, I’m on the toilet’ as much as it applies to ‘I’ve had enough of being tickled now’. My hope is to give the message that how and when and where she is touched is my daughter’s choice. That the positive messages I give her about all the amazing functions of her body make her protective over it. Allowing her to control small boundaries about touch will hopefully allow her to be strong should someone ever try to break bigger boundaries (so help me god if that ever happens).
I have an open door policy when I’m in the bathroom. I won’t lie, it took a while for me not to feel icky about it. But it seems to be working. For D, periods are just one of those things that gives Mummy a bit of a tummy ache. In an emergency she can be called on to find a tampon from my bag, she isn’t scared of the blood or the primal-ness (cos that’s a word) of it all. For her its just part of life. Same with the way bodies (well, mine and hers at least) look and smell.
D will always sit on the loo while I’m in the shower and ask me the same questions. ‘Are those your boobies?’ ‘yes’ ‘Did I drink milk out of them when I was a baby?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Is that line where I came out of your womb?’ ‘yes’ ‘Why didn’t I come out of your vagina?’ ‘because you got stuck…pass me the shampoo…’ It is as much a part of our routine as a story before bed. The story of how she came to be, mapped out on my body.
Being in the shower provides time to talk about washing too. Bacterial Vaginosis, often caused by over-washing, is, for the most part, an avoidable annoyance. Too many women feel that they are ‘dirty’ and need to wash themselves to smell ‘clean’. Want to see a sexual health adviser get angry? Talk to them about Femfresh. Go on…I dare you… The fact is we don’t smell of perfume, and that’s just great. We shouldn’t. We should smell like humans. For me, teaching D about where and when and how to wash (no soap inside, just FYI) is the same as teaching her to eat healthily. Healthy gut bacteria, healthy vaginal bacteria. Why should one get it’s own yoghurt advert and the other gets perfumed crap thrown at it?
But the biggest thing, by far the biggest thing is to enable her to make good decisions. Healthy decisions about sex don’t start once you’re both in the knack. They start before the clothes come off, before the first kiss, before those first exciting feelings of white-hot passion. Healthy decisions about sex come from feeling valued, and from having self worth. Now I can’t cushion her against all the crap that growing up will throw at her, but I can allow her to be independent, and to trust her own judgement. Starting with baby steps, do you want carrots or peas, a bath or a shower, pyjamas or a nightie. Showing her that her decisions count, will (I hope) encourage her to be autonomous, to trust herself to know what she wants and doesn’t want.
I’m not a massive fan of choosing a parenting ‘school of thought’. For me it’s more a case of whatever works for you. But one piece of parenting advice from Dr Sears has stuck with me since I read it: The way you parent your toddler will see you through the teenage years. Now I’m yet to parent a teenager so I’ll have the knife and fork ready to eat my words. But, with the hope that only a first time parent can have, I hope that the lessons I’m teaching her now, that she is a valuable person, that her decisions matter, that her body is precious, all these things will last her into her teenage years and beyond.
- Anon (though I do have a Twitter