On August 14, four parents joined an #AdventuresLive2020 panel to share their experiences and perspectives on the complex topic of raising children without sexual shame. Timehin Adegbeye came through from Nigeria, Fatime Faye from Senegal and Kobina Ankomah-Graham from Ghana, with the discussion moderated by Kinna Likamani. A lot of ground was covered in two hours of lively conversation, out of which we have tried to distill nine of the major keys that stuck with us. This is by no means a comprehensive or authoritative guide to raising children without sexual shame, so please add your own thoughts in the comments! So here are 9 things we learnt About Raising Kids Without Sexual Shame
1. Unpack your baggage
Few people can say they had a perfect upbringing free of sexual shame: even if family environments encouraged this, it is difficult to escape the influence of repressive societies (see #8: It’s bigger than you) It’s important for parents to be aware of how their past experiences have affected them, and to proactively engage with their own issues around sex and shame in order to avoid transferring these, consciously or subconsciously, onto their children. Raising a child who is truly free to be herself, said Timehin, “forced me to go back into my childhood to deal with traumas that I didn’t even know were traumas. So beyond parenting my daughter, my philosophy has forced me to revisit how I myself was parented.”
By unpacking this baggage, parents can also grow to embody the freedom they are teaching. According to Fatime, this is the most important aspect of raising children without shame, because such messaging will be confusing to children if parents themselves aren’t leading by example. It’s easier said than done, Timehin acknowledged, “But the journey is its own reward. In making room for whatever my child becomes, I am allowing her and myself to become more of who we are.”
2. Get ’em young
It’s never too early for sexual education. Kobby’s son is about to turn three, and he shared that “as soon as he could start talking and understanding”, he and his wife began teaching him about body parts and related boundaries during bath time. “We don’t shy away from calling his penis his penis,” Kobby said. “We also go further and tell him no one is allowed to touch it.”
Fatime, too, began teaching her children as soon as they could communicate—something she considered especially important because she could not be around them all the time. Even if you don’t teach your children about sex, she pointed out, there are many other sources from which they might learn about it: even cartoons contain sexual allusions. It was important for her to not only teach her children young, but also to ensure that they felt comfortable to speak with her about anything they had learned or experienced elsewhere.
3. Trust is everything
All the panelists stressed the importance of trust, which in Fatime’s experience, is rooted in a consistent practice of openness. Her children and others know that she is free about sex and love, and speaks about it openly, so they similarly feel free to speak with her about anything without feeling embarrassed. And when they do, she takes time to listen and engage with them meaningfully. She highlighted the importance of respecting children’s emotional intelligence: children are highly intuitive, and if you’re uneasy in your response, they’ll pick up on that.
In that light, trust sometimes requires parents to be open about their discomfort with something their child has raised without expressing shock or judgement—which can be a delicate balance. For example, one of the viewers asked for advice on managing her alarm at her 10-year old son’s preoccupation with sex and women’s bodies. While this might be disconcerting, responded Kinna, “you don’t want to remove special relationships and intimacies with your child out of fear, because he’s going to assume there’s something dirty [about sex].” At the same time, the ability to engage healthily can mean taking a step back. “You don’t have to respond to everything immediately,” Kobby said. “You can pause and say, I don’t know. And that’s important for children to know, that their parents don’t know everything.” (see #9: Give Yourself Grace)
Timehin emphasized that the key to gaining trust is not making it about sex specifically, because children’s interest in sex is related to their interest in everything. “Listen to her about everything, have conversations with her about everything. Take time to build that trust, then take that and apply it to conversations about sex.”
4. It’s not just about sex
“Nobody told me about the other things that come along when you start having sex,” Kinna reflected, things like emotional labor. Raising children who are confident, self-aware and empathetic provides a good foundation for them to negotiate the non-sexual implications of sex, particularly if there is trust and open communication with their parents. Under those circumstances, Kobby believes, conversations with his son about the emotional aspects of sex would arise organically, but there will still be a need to proactively teach him to live outside the stereotypical gender roles that are imposed through social conditioning.
One of Timehin’s priorities is teaching her daughter the importance of trusting her intuition: “If you have a sense of whether someone is safe for you or not, trust that feeling.” It’s also important to teach children how to date with self-awareness, she said—to know what specifically attracts them to a person, to understand the power dynamic in the relationship and the potential cost of intimacy.
Beyond relationships, there is broader social baggage that comes with sex, especially for girls and women in patriarchal societies. Timehin’s 8-year old daughter has already experienced negative reactions from children and adults due to her lack of inhibition and readiness to make friends of any gender. When this happens, “I try to reflect things back to her so she can arrive at answers for herself,” said Timehin, “teaching her things that are true about herself and about the space she can occupy in the world.” She does this by asking her a few value-driven questions, such as: these people who are saying things about you, are their opinions rooted in anything that is true? Are they opinions you can respect? Is there any part of what they’re saying that you can or should take responsibility for? Does it matter?
5. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!
Consent is an integral part of sex education. Fatime stressed the need to be specific when teaching children about consent, and to directly engage with cultural norms that may blur their understanding of boundaries. For example, in her setting, girls are often described as the “wives” of their grandfathers, so it was important for her to tell her daughter that this does not mean that he—or anyone else, including other family members—could touch her inappropriately. She listed all the specific body parts that were off-limits, the different acts that were not acceptable, and taught them to say “don’t touch me here” in multiple languages.
While girls and women are disproportionately affected by sexual violations, Kobby reminded us that boys are vulnerable to predators too, but this is often obscured by the fact that patriarchy teaches men to see any sexual act with a woman as a conquest—even if that woman is older and the act technically constitutes statutory rape. “Sometimes boys fall between the cracks,” he cautioned, so it’s also important for them to understand what specific acts should not happen, and to feel safe to speak with their parents if they do.
While consent often focuses on protecting children from older predators, Timehin has also faced the challenge of teaching her daughter about observing boundaries when playing with her agemates who share a natural curiosity about each other’s bodies. “I struggled to find ways to send the message that you shouldn’t be touching or looking at other people’s genitals, without tinging it with shame,” she said. She has sought to discourage her by explaining that people’s genitals don’t look that different from each other: “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all!”
6. Don’t forget pleasure
“Because we’ve become so sensitized to predators and grooming,” Kinna remarked, “this is often what conversations with kids focus on.” But it’s equally important to tell children that they are completely in charge of their own bodies, and have the right to enjoy them. Having this conversation with young children who are exploring their bodies for the first time requires some tact. When Kobby’s son started touching himself at a young age, his parents established boundaries without making him feel ashamed of his body, by explaining that it was okay to touch himself inside but not in public.
Timehin had to establish a similar understanding with her daughter at a young age—“The protocol is that this is your body, you can do whatever you want with it, but there are certain things that are private”. But, she said, she had to repeat it to herself a few times to internalize it, due to the lingering inhibitions from growing up in a Christian household where there were strict rules against masturbation (see #1: unpack your baggage). “Even though I knew intellectually that I wanted to protect my daughter from that unnecessary shame, it was still a journey to affirm her in that way.”
As Fatime pointed out, children access (sometimes warped) messaging about sexual pleasure from different sources, especially with the proliferation of digital media through which they might be exposed to pornography—so it’s important not to mystify it. “People talk about the ‘birds and bees’ talk,” Kobby said, ”but I think the idea of a single talk where you sit down with a child and you explain the whole thing to them, it’s dead. It’s an ongoing conversation. So you need to be approachable… Porn will also come up at some point, and for me it will be about telling him that it’s not real. If you want to learn about things that are real, there are places to go.
7. Keep them aware of infinite possibilities
How do parents hold space for their children to embrace their sexualities, in societies where homophobia and transphobia are rampant? As someone who is polyamorous and has relationships with all genders, Fatime has modelled openness for her children, and created an environment where they speak openly about sexuality. Open communication is also central to Kobby’s approach. While he is in a heterosexual marriage, “It’s important for [my son] growing up to be aware that all these various sexualities exist,” he said—and for that variety to be normalized in his understanding, so that he always feels free to be himself.
Although the idea of “coming out” is stereotypically applied to queer relationships, Timehin had a different experience: “I myself am queer, and my daughter came out to me last year as straight. She said mummy, I want to tell you something…I think I like boys.” As Timehin is open about her sexuality, her daughter understands the different possibilities that exist, and is equally matter-of-fact about all of them.
“There are people who have come to me and said, are you not confusing your child?” Timehin said. “I need to emphasize that children are not confused. We teach children what to understand about the world. We teach them what is real and what is legitimate and what is not. There is nothing confusing about my child seeing her mother treated with tenderness. There is nothing confusing about her seeing me receive care…or have somebody who looks at me with love. It is adults who are invested in a narrative that I can only receive care from a specific person. They are confused, and then they project that onto my child, and I’m like—it’s not my fault that my seven year old is smarter than you.
8. It’s bigger than you
No child or parent is an island, and even within immediate family relationships, there can be differing views on how to raise children without sexual shame. Fatime highlighted the importance of understanding your partner’s background, and how hang-ups from their own upbringing may affect their approach. In her experience, the men in her life are not as free as she is to speak about sexuality, so they sometimes have to negotiate when and how these conversations with children happen.
Children are also taught about sex at school, but as Kinna pointed out from Ghana’s experience, conservative parents may try to distort sex education to accommodate their intolerance. It is difficult for children to embrace openness in such a setting. But “if you’re teaching your child about sex and sexuality away from the curriculum,” Kobby said, “you can deal with things as they come. I wouldn’t rely on the state for that.”
No matter how open parents are, there might still be things that children don’t wish to discuss with them. “One thing that I’m starting to be deliberate about,” Timehin said, “is to deepen friendships with people I can trust with my child…I’m making it more explicit to my friends that I’m going to be counting on you to answer questions that maybe she doesn’t feel comfortable asking me.”
It takes a village!
9. Give yourself grace
Raising kids without sexual shame is not easy, especially given the emotional labor that this demands of parents. “Give yourself grace and just deal with the fear,” Kinna said. “What happened to you in your childhood, leave that fear, but take the lessons.” When her teenage son raises an issue that triggers her fear, she is careful to put a distance between that trigger and her response, to ensure that she is not engaging from a place of fearfulness.
Similarly, Timehin has scheduled weekly sessions with her daughter to discuss any questions she has from her interactions with fellow children. “I’m happy that she’s sharing with me, but I need to make sure that I’m emotionally stable enough to respond appropriately,” she said. She encourages her daughter to keep note of any questions as they come up, then “we have the convo with her notebook once a week, and I know I’ve prepared myself.”
Kobby emphasized that for parents who have not historically had open conversations with their children about sex and sexuality, but are seeking to build trust later, it’s important to acknowledge that their response was delayed and this will affect how children trust you with such conversations. “A lot of parents may suddenly flip it on the child, though they haven’t invested that time before,” he said, “so the child won’t be ready to open up. Just be incredibly patient.”
And remember to extend that patience towards yourself. “Parents should forgive themselves, not operate with guilt or feel fear,” Kinna said. “I frequently find myself telling my 14 year old, ‘I’m petrified right now. This didn’t happen for me in my childhood, but I want to build it with you. I may not know how, I’m just a human being. But maybe, together, we can do it.’”
Want to hear more? Watch the full panel discussion on Facebook.