How did you learn not to talk about sex?

I bet no one told you directly that sex was a hush-hush topic.  It turns out that no one needs to.  We are so observant of other people that we notice what others do and don’t do, the inflection in their voices, the gestures they make, what they talk about and what makes them nervous.  These small but constant signals shape us in ways large and small.  Over space and time, they build our culture.

Our culture taught us that talking about sex is taboo

In psychology, that’s called conditioning.

It turns out that all animals can be conditioned.  Our brains naturally look for patterns, and that is how we decode and make sense of the world.  As some of the smartest animals around, humans make extensive use of conditioning to control each other’s behavior.

Every time you express approval for one thing and disapproval for another, you are conditioning your child.  Parents know that you have to repeat a message over and over again; that’s because conditioning only works through repetition.  Often we are consciously choosing what messages to repeat again and again, and we have good reasons for conditioning our children with those messages.  We don’t want our children to run out into the street, and we heavily condition them against it.

Conditioning our children

Unfortunately, there’s a whole world out there which is conditioning our children in ways we might not condone.

The world has its own objectives, which are not necessarily the same as parents’.  Parents want their kids to grow into confident adults, but confident adults can’t be manipulated into buying stuff nearly so easily.  The market economy and parents are often at cross purposes.

The thing is, we’re so immersed in it, that we don’t even notice it.  We’re like fish in water.  Until someone actually calls our attention to this thing that we’re so used to, we don’t even see it.  Yet, these are powerful societal messages which shape us.  If you’re not aware of them, you can’t teach your children differently.  The advertisers win.

Learning and skill building

We might want our children to focus on learning and skill building, but if we don’t counter the media messages, the result is girls worrying about their appearance and buying beauty products, while boys focus on status symbols like cars and electronics, and we all worry about whether we’re keeping up with the latest trends.  Advertisers condition us to become better consumers.

The good news is that children pick up and hold on to their parents’ values.  If you take the time to point out to them what’s wrong with the media messages, your children will listen.  You can point out what’s real and what’s exaggerated.  Your daughter doesn’t yet know what’s a real expectation and what’s convention or just media pressure.  She needs you to explain it to her.  Talk with your son about his favorite song.  He sees it all as glamorous and cool; help him separate what really is respectable from what isn’t.

You can’t have these conversations too young

Media messages are everywhere, and we can shield our children from them for only so long.  I have no problem at all with you keeping yours in a no-media bubble, if that’s an option for you…but that bubble will pop someday.  When that day comes, they’ll need to have the critical thinking skills to tell what’s real and what’s marketing. So, the earlier you start these conversations with your kids, the better!

Slip in a conversation here or there about a carefully chosen example of media messaging.  Don’t start with sex in the media!  That’s where you want to be eventually, not where to begin.   Start with something basic.

Media messages are relentless

The “teen” issues of poor body image, hypersexualization, and porn creep younger and younger.  If you think you don’t have to address this stuff yet…I get it – you shouldn’t have to…but today’s world is different from the one we grew up in.  That bubble just doesn’t last very long, and our kids need to be ready for the onslaught.

If you’re not sure how to go about talking about media messages, I’m here to help!  Grab a spot on my calendar and we can chat about how to start protecting your kids, or how to continue the conversations you’ve begun.  I’m a strong believer in conditioning kids to be suspicious of media messages!

In support of you,


P.S. If talking about sex is uncomfortable for you, one of the best ways to gain comfort is to watch others model it for you.  That’s why I’ve recorded over 70 interviews with sexuality experts, so that you can learn directly from them what words to say, when and how.  Check out the video library membership, and as a bonus, gain access to our online parents support group, available to help you with any issue 24/7.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • It’s interesting. May I put my anthropologist hat on for a second? It’s actually very unusual in cultures around the world for the parents to give sex information to their kids. That is most often done by someone else. It varies tremendously who the one is. In a patrilineal society it might be an aunt or uncle on the mother’s side. Or there a group of people who have trusted relationships. It all depends. But it’s rarely ever the parents themselves.

    So, perhaps parents have it right to be reluctant to talk with kids about sex. Not that we have a choice, but still. Kids used to be raised by many more people than parents alone. Still are (teachers come to mind). But kids relied on many others for very intimate things.

    You in a way substitute indirectly.

    Anyways, your point about the media and advertising is very well taken. I mean, wow! What an onslaught.

    • Hi Niels,

      That’s really interesting! I’ve heard quite a bit about sex-ed in the Netherlands, but nothing about other cultures. I suppose it makes sense that kids would learn about sex from another adult who is a permanent part of their lives and who they have a good relationship with, but who isn’t their parent. We seem to have lost the “it takes a village” mentality in our “can do” American society, especially when many of us live far away from our family members, and that puts all kinds of burdens on parents, including educating their kids about sex.


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