South London Photographer: How do you talk about sex to your kids?

My biggest ambition for these boys of mine is to see them grow up into decent human beings. Obviously feeding, clothing and keeping them clean are the urgent, pressing and more than challenging objectives on a day-to-day basis but if I can just encourage them to be essentially decent people into and throughout the majority of their adult lives…. Well, that to me will be success.

But it is so much easier said than done. And sadly, even parents with the best intentions will unwittingly fall short of achieving even a fraction of that aim. I might be one of them.

And that’s because being human is so damn hard at times. There are so many factors involved too. Genetics, environment, events, unstable and changing moral boundaries all have an impact, and many of those aspects are entirely out of our control.  How we bring our children up to think of others and themselves is fraught with potential pitfalls.

Take, for instance, the subject of sex.

My oldest son has asked me time and time again why sex is thought of as ‘bad’ by society, or at any rate something to be hidden. His question is prompted by the reaction of peers through his years in primary and now in secondary school during sex education classes. Everyone is always horribly embarrassed.  Some weren’t even allowed to be there at all.

It’s true; it’s a difficult subject to address appropriately with children and can feel awkward. I have always tried to be age appropriate but honest, to avoid cloaking sex in something mysterious, hidden or dangerous. But I don’t know how to answer his question fully. We discuss religion’s role, the need for family planning when there wasn’t any, and even touch on Lady Gaga’s new video about the prevalence of rape in American colleges.

His involvement at school on the debating club and an avid interest in current affairs and human beings in general means he doesn’t simply accept everything I say but instead counters arguments I offer which lack robust substance, questions statistics I might have read on Twitter, for instance, which are based on short-term and limited data, and offers alternative viewpoints that take various positions into account. I really hope his thoughtful responses are a good indication that he has the potential to grow up into a well-rounded, sensitive and emotionally intelligent male person.

We’re in the car at the time and I temporarily forget there are two much younger children in the back, who may or may not be listening in.   Suddenly my littlest one squeals in delight, “The Penis Movie!”, and despite everything I’ve just written I didn’t react as helpfully as I might have done.

“Pardon?” I said hesitantly. I wanted to be sure I’d heard right. I’m not concerned he’s referring to pornography although maybe that’s a failing in me. However, that does seem unlikely – the possibility of pornography I mean, as opposed to me being without failings.  I have an awful lot of those. Rather, that he’s using the word penis at all – and simply because I don’t want him to get into trouble at school.

“Where did you see a poster for The Penis Movie, darling?” I asked calmly. The older boys are laughing hysterically.

“Heh,” said No 1, showing No 3 some pictures on his phone, “is this what you mean?” I have no idea what images he has found for my little bundle of cuteness in the back and wait with slightly bated breath to find out where he’s going with this.

“Yes,” says my now acutely embarrassed three-year old who clearly has no idea why all this energy is focused on him.

Son No 1 shoves the phone in my face as I try to negotiate Sunday traffic on a busy A road. Briefly, before I shove his phone away, I see that when my son says The Penis Movie he is actually referring to Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Ohhhh!” I say, “OK!”  I suspected it might be something like that.  Rather than porn.

I tell No 3 he must be careful about using the word penis because sometimes grownups are shocked when very young children mention penises. I also explain that the little furry creatures he likes so much are actually called chipmunks. But I forget to explain what penis means. He asks. Because he’s 3. And clever and inquisitive. Which is good, isn’t it?

“It’s a…” I almost say scientific but then realise he won’t know what that means either so change to…”a grown up term for willy.”

Son No 1 helpfully reminds me that Son No 3 probably has no idea what I mean by ‘term’. Of course – a word. “It’s a word. It’s just a word.”

Then I say, “OK, which one of you told him penis was the word for chipmunks?”

Both older children categorically deny any wrong doing but are each laughing so much by now it’s difficult for me to concentrate on the traffic. But all I am really concerned about is that when I look in my rear view mirror, my little baby boy looks incredibly sad and like he’s about to burst into tears.

Damn, I think. I handled that completely wrong – now I’ve somehow communicated the world is intolerant of him and his penis and somewhere in all of that there is something to be ashamed of. Shit!

“Not that there is anything wrong with the word penis,” I start to try and unpick the damage I’ve evidently caused and well… somehow I think I just make it worse.

“In fact,” I say, “you should all be very proud of your willies. They’re all very nice indeed.”

“Mum!!!” Son No 1 is appalled by me and Son No 2 is in stitches.

But my loving, innocent, delightful little monkey child is still devastated and embarrassed. I wish the traffic would abate so we can get out the car as soon as possible and change the subject. I hate that my own awkwardness has caused him distress.

The thing is, no matter what you do, or what you say or don’t say, being human is fraught with complications whether it’s to do with language, morals, religion, or indeed sex. And there are just so many things to navigate and stumble over as you progress through life, and of course we all cock up (excuse the pun) not only from time to time, but each and every day. I read this fantastic article by Alain de Botton this weekend which is ostensibly about crushes but in actual fact his musings on what is to be human are brilliant and worth reading for that alone.

If you haven’t got time for the whole article, I do think just the following should be read by everyone; “…the facts of life have deformed all of our natures. No one among us has come through unscathed. There is too much to fear: mortality, loss, dependency, abandonment, ruin, humiliation, subjection. We are, all of us, desperately fragile, ill-equipped to meet with the challenges to our mental integrity: we lack courage, preparation, confidence, intelligence. We don’t have the right role models, we were (necessarily) imperfectly parented, we fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analysing our worries, we have a precarious sense of security, we can’t understand either ourselves or others well enough, we don’t have an appetite for the truth and suffer a fatal weakness for flattering denials. The chances of a perfectly good human emerging from the perilous facts of life are non-existent.”[1]

I just love that! Maybe I should tattoo it across my forehead and let anyone I come across sit and stare at the point just above my eyebrows, hopefully taking it on board. Seriously, everything I think in relation to my recent growing acceptance that all human beings are undeniably complex, and sometimes or quite often really horrible to each-other, no matter how straightforward they might seem (in fact watch out for those ones), is summed up perfectly by Botton’s essay and those words in particular.  And yes, we damage our kids no matter how hard we try not to by imposing our own and the world’s  shit on them constantly.  It’s part of being a parent.

And so, even though I don’t think I navigated The Penis Movie episode as well as I might have done, what matters more is that I sensed his discomfort and shame and did my best to let him know I think he’s great – every little bit of him.

Next time, I might write something about how this relates to photography… you never know!

Image ©SJField 2016




[1] Alain De Botton, The Book of Life, On the Madness and Charm of Crushes


Published by

Sarah Furniss

Family and corporate, portrait and event photographer working in London and surrounding area.

7 thoughts on “South London Photographer: How do you talk about sex to your kids?”

  1. I think you’re doing great. My parents were very much into telling me everything I asked about (probably quite unusual for those times) so I was prepared for being the same with mine. They hated any mention though – I just had to hope for the best!

    1. Oh, thank you Catherine. I think we will see when they’ve lived a little first. But they are good boys in the main (although quite annoying at times – the smallest threw a whole loo role down the toilet this evening, by accident he claims. He was very upset about it though and tried to rectify the situation himself – which wasn’t that helpful to be honest!) How great your parents were open and honest. I can’t think why anyone wouldn’t be.

  2. Interestingly I was talking to my twin sister about this very subject, our experience is shortly told. Her to mum “my periods have started” mum to her “I’ve only got tampax, you’ll have to use those.” End of discussion. Me to him “C you tell me about the facts of life.” Him to me “Have you heard stories in the playground?” Me to him “yes” end of discussion.
    Surely the only way is to answer any question openly, however difficult (difficult only exposes our inadequacies and phobia) as honestly and as engagingly as possible. Easy to say, often difficult to manage.

    1. The generation your parents are from were still living in the “long shadow of that monstrous dwarf, Queen Victoria” (I may have misquoted there slightly but you get the gist) where sex and desire was driven as far out of site, along with the servants, as possible. The problem is that the sense of shame that attitude promotes can lead to awful problems for people later on – shame is a destructive and extremely unhelpful sensation, sometimes too difficult to process, especially where there isn’t a lot of internal cohesion. Nowadays there are lots of wonderful books that we have access to for children which openly and appropriately explain things. Each time I was pregnant (apart form the first obviously) I used the opportunity to explain how the baby got inside me referencing those books for the children. But I know lots of people who wouldn’t have done that. Who were too embarrassed. There is a balance to be had though, of course. No child really wants to listen to their parents banging on about sex all the time – that too is fraught with problems. We are very strongly hardwired that way and that’s what makes it a tricky thing to navigate. But your experience does sound woefully inadequate. My friend, now my age, was horrified and petrified when she started menstruating because no one had explained a thing to her.

      1. And when I first read your comment: ‘No child wants to listen to their parents banging on at sex all the time…’ I laughed. Then I took a second read; of course all you say points to a society still unable to form a language and my work with my mother has highlighted lots of examples. You’ll be fine.

  3. Sarah-Jane, I think you are a wonderful mother because you are so sincerely concerned and careful about every aspect of their life. As you’ve mentioned, there are lots of other factors that influence them outside home but the thing that you comfort them and teach them to be confident is something that they will surely remember while growing into adults.

    1. Thank you, Madalina. They drive me bonkers too! But I do hope they grow up with genuine confidence, as much as possible. An internal robustness and strong sense of self is so important, I think. But hard to instil.

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