Why Adults Don’t Know What Parents Know
In one long conversation with him, one of my son’s father suggested that we know everything about sex and HIV, and that kids should be taught about both. He continued, “One day in 10, I’ll die. No kid should ever be told that.”
I asked, “You don’t think there are parents today who think those things?”
“No,” he answered, “the vast majority of parents today aren’t that way. I don’t have a single parent right now that I would say should speak out on that issue, or that knows everything.”
The whole conversation wasn’t about sex. Not at all. But the difference between my son and his father’s parental ideal is that he listens to what adults are saying about sex and talk to other adults about the realities of life. There is no shame in listening to adult perspectives on these topics. Parents should open up the lines of communication about what is covered in class or what they hear in their home. Most parents just don’t want to admit to each other that they don’t know everything, and more importantly, they don’t want their kids to know anything.
Experts might tell you that your kid is at risk for HIV by staying sexually active. They might tell you that children of your child’s age should wait until they are at least 18 to have sex. Again, all this is true. But you and your kid may already know that, and you may already be thinking along those lines. Too many kids and parents don’t let parents know what happens to kids who don’t speak up and tell us.
I’ve spoken to too many pediatricians, pediatric psychologists, adolescent specialists, and parents of kids with mental health issues who wish there were more resources available for them to share with other parents. I’ve seen how kids who don’t tell us can suffer from mental health issues when they come out to parents or when they tell us. Children who are torn between their own need to protect their secret and their wish to protect their own family.
I recently worked with a mother who was so sick of this issue that she dragged her own daughter out of her room and told her she could die from anything from not saying what was happening. Another patient told me a parent of an eating disorder patient threatened suicide if her child didn’t stop telling us about their eating disorders. Both of these people wanted to end the pain they felt for what their child was going through.
Last year, a program called Save the Children offered a popular course in mindfulness to families in Texas about the issue of HIV, sex, and consent. The parents were ready to talk about the consequences of sex, the reality of homophobia, what to do in a sexual assault situation, and much more. Those parents who attended said it was the only conversation they’d ever had with their kids that centered on how to be safe.
As an adolescent, my father pushed me to be open about talking about sex. I remember him trying to get me to come clean about what happened with a boy I was involved with on the phone, in a room, under an assumed name, when I was in high school. He called me and asked me to meet him at a coffee shop, to tell him everything. Of course, we both knew that would never happen.
I know that my dad wouldn’t tell me if we lived in a world where all adults knew everything, and nobody else had any secrets. But the discussion I had with him when I was in high school was the first I had ever had about sex. When I think about that first time as an adolescent, it’s clear to me that those were the most important conversations I had, and since that time, all of my adolescent friends, as well as adults I’ve met, have talked to me about sex, dating, sex education, HIV, the science of a vagina, and consent.