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Nate Edwards, BYU
Laura M. Padilla-Walker

SALT LAKE CITY — Parents and their children have very different views of how effective and comprehensive "the talk" about sex is in most homes, with parents giving efforts higher marks than the kids do, says a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Parents who are comfortable having many developmentally appropriate conversations about sexuality as their children grow up are less likely to have children who engage in risky sexual behavior when they're 21, says study author Laura M. Padilla-Walker, professor in Brigham Young University's School of Family Life and associate dean in the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences.

In America's "highly sexualized" culture, kids pick up bits and pieces about sexuality starting at a very young age and from many sources, says Padilla-Walker. "I was disappointed that (conversation) levels were so low and that they didn’t change as children aged. Even if we think or hope that our children are abstaining from sex before marriage, they are still sexual beings and have sexual feelings that need to be discussed at increasing rates and in higher quality ways as children age."

Nate Edwards, BYU
Laura M. Padilla-Walker

The study calls parents a "prime source" of sex education because they can share information and answer questions early, the depth of conversation increasing as a child ages. But while neither parent nor child reported high-level communication, the parents believe they're doing a better job of communicating about sex, while their teens give them comparatively low marks.

Participants were 468 adolescents ages 11-14 at the start of the study and their mothers, as well as 311 of their fathers. Each summer for a decade, participants answered a survey about their sexual communication. The youths also answered questions about their sexual behaviors. Of note was a finding that moms talked about sexuality less to sons than daughters in early adolescence, though it leveled off when they were older.

Padilla-Walker is also co-author of "A Better Way to Teach Kids About Sex." The Deseret News asked her why ongoing conversations about sex are important and how they might be framed. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: Is there some advantage to an in-depth conversation about sex at a particular time or should it be snippets here and there?

Laura Padilla-Walker: I think how these conversations will look varies. I think for a child who has a lot of questions at one time, a long and detailed conversation might be appropriate. Most children, however, will have questions at varying intervals and the answers will be relatively short. Or the opportunities for parents to initiate conversations will come up intermittently (e.g., with a movie that has sexual content) and will not be lengthy. The idea is to send the message to your children that you’re willing to talk about sexuality at any time and are completely open to questions and conversation. … If you notice that there is much more of you talking and fewer questions from them, it might be time to table the conversation and talk again the next day or week or whenever the situation presents itself. If your child isn’t listening or perceives you as lecturing, the conversation will be less effective. The best conversations will be those where you are allowing your child to ask questions and express concerns and doubts, and you are nonjudgmentally answering and asking for their thoughts as well. This ideal will not always occur, but it’s something to work toward.

DN: Why did mothers talk less with their sons in the early years?

LPW: Mothers and daughters are the dyad most likely to talk about sex, probably because they are both female so there is an ease and understanding. However, sons need conversations about puberty and sexuality just as much as daughters do, and those conversations don’t need to be with the father. Mothers might find it more awkward to talk to sons and fathers to daughters, but both mothers and fathers should practice becoming comfortable talking to both sons and daughters about sexuality.

DN: Besides providing correct information, why should parents talk to kids about sex?

LPW: There are many goals that parents have for their children regarding sexuality (e.g., abstinence, safety), but the goal our work focuses on is healthy sexuality. Many youth who are not sexually active still have very unhealthy perceptions of sexuality and high levels of shame that make it very challenging to have healthy views of sexuality once in a committed or marriage relationship. We want children to be able to talk with their spouse about sexuality and enjoy that part of their marriage, and we are the first model of how those conversations might look. Research has also shown that when parents talk with their children about sexuality, children are less likely to engage in early and risky sexual behavior. So there is no need to fear that if you talk about sex more, children will feel permission to go and engage in sexually risky behavior. … There just isn’t any research to support that.

DN: Why does it matter that kids and moms, especially, view the amount of conversation about sexuality differently?

LPW: The important thing to realize here is that even if parents think they are talking about sex enough or a great deal, children perceive these levels to be lower. So talk about sex more! Talk until you’re comfortable and they are comfortable. Research suggests that children want to talk with their parents about sex, even if they don’t seem like they do.

DN: How do you hope parents will use this study?

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LPW: I hope parents will examine their efforts and decide to try and do better. This could mean apologizing to their teenage children about how they have approached sexuality in the past (shaming, anger, secrecy) and deciding as a family to do better. It could mean parents of young children start talking about body parts with the correct names and being open and honest about our wonderful bodies and what they are capable of doing. Answering our children’s questions, simply and honestly, from a young age can do wonders for opening these lines of communication.