Why do we refer to conversations about sex and sexuality as "the talk"? Why do we as a culture get so squeamish and shy when we talk about sexuality, especially when kids start to ask questions? Of course, there are plenty of theories and complicated answers, so maybe, as parent and talk show host Maria Leonard Olsen asks, the better question is this: "Adolescence is a confusing enough time in each person's life. Why make it worse by not helping kids understand what is going on with their bodies, hormones, and emerging feelings?"
As the mother of two kids in their early 20s—one who identifies a straight and the other as gay—and as an attorney, radio talk show host of the Washington, D.C. show Inside Out, writing and women's empowerment retreat instructor, and public speaker on diversity issues, she has plenty of wisdom to share on the topic. She's also written several books, including the children’s books Mommy, Why's Your Skin So Brown? and Not the Cleaver Family—The New Normal in Modern American Families. Like her background suggests, she believes in making bigger issues more accessible to children rather than making them scarier. And while that's a big job, Leonard Olsen's rules of thumb might make it feel easier.
So we asked Leonard Olsen for some insight about how to better foster and support children's sexual identities and celebrate all types of love and relationships at home. Read on below to learn how to talk to kids about sexuality in a way that fosters support, education, authentic expression, and celebration of all love and relationships.
Set Up Lines of Open Communication
"My mother did not discuss sexuality with me and, as a result, I was ill-equipped to deal with my sexuality as I entered puberty," and "her mother never discussed sexuality with her—she thought she was dying when she started menstruating," Olsen tells us. She relates this to her own experiences, saying, "I was date raped in high school. I carried the shame of believing it was my fault for decades. Had my parents been more open and approachable about sexuality topics, I may have sought help for my trauma much earlier in my life… Parents can play an important role in equipping their children with important information that can save their lives."
Creating an environment at home that shows your kids you are available and comfortable talking about anything with them will make them more likely to come to you when something comes up. Since talking about sexuality and identity shouldn't always have to be a formal sit-down conversation (though it can be appropriate on some occasions), "I reinforced with my children that they are allowed and encouraged to ask me and their father any questions at any time," Leonard Olsen shares.
Another part of this is helping them "understand that there is much misinformation in the world," so that they can come to you for clarification. And when they do, make sure you engage their questions, remain calm and nonjudgmental, and actively listen to them. "I implore parents (and anyone) not to use shame-inducing language around sexuality and sexual orientation."
Educate Yourself Relentlessly
"As a co-host on the only LGBT radio show on the FM dial in Washington, D.C., I have come to believe that fear and lack of information are the primary causes of prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination," Leonard Olsen notes. So before you speak to your kids about open-mindedness and acceptance, make sure you brush up on the appropriate language and actively get involved. And do keep in mind your child's age, as "the talk" will definitely look different depending on how old they are.
"I believe it is supremely important to educate one's self about what information is age-appropriate for children at various stages. I highly recommend It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health and the other books in its Family Library series. My son is gay, so I spent much time informing myself on issues in the gay community," she adds. Specifically, "I joined PFLAG, explored their helpful resources, and sought out books on dealing with emerging sexuality in gay children. The book This Book Is Gay by James Dawson was particularly helpful in increasing my understanding," Leonard Olsen says.
Start Before the School Does
"I felt it was important to discuss sexuality with my children before the sex-ed classes at their schools," Leonard Olsen says. Not only can this help your kids feel more supported when they enter the classroom—sex-ed class or otherwise—but it can also help them sort fact from fiction. For example, "I remember much misinformation my friends spread when I was young. And when I first discussed sexuality with my son, he revealed that he believed his friend's declaration that lesbian couples make babies by rubbing their breasts together," she states. Her rule of thumb is to ask yourself this: "Whom do you want to be the source for your children's information on sexuality and related topics?"
Cast Your Fears Aside
It's perfectly common for parents to be intimidated by the topic of sexuality, whether it's because they didn't have open and supportive communities in their own home growing up or even if they just feel awkward. As Leonard Olsen notes, "People unwittingly carry the baggage of their youth," and "fear and embarrassment also produce inaction on this front." Even someone as experienced as Leonard Olsen relates. "My mama bear instincts first suggested that if I told my children about sex, they would be more likely to engage in it," she explains.
But "I educated myself and accepted the fact that sexuality is human. My desire to equip my children with information that could protect them outweighed my fear that they might engage in sexual activity prior to emotional readiness. It took me a few weeks to become comfortable with seeing the large bowl of condoms in the health room lobby at my son's high school, but I do not want to stick my head in the sand and pretend sex among high school students does not take place. I prefer safety over ignorance that can have fatal consequences."
Think About Your Child's Personality and Needs
"I have one daughter and one son. One is straight, and one is gay," Leonard Olsen shares, and "each child is individual and required different approaches. I suspected my son was gay when he was four years old. He came out during middle school. I wanted to foster an atmosphere of acceptance in our home. It helped that we had friends and family that are gay, so being gay was not considered aberrant in our family's culture (at least in our nuclear family). I tried hard to assume a matter-of-fact approach to conversations around sexuality to normalize the seeking of information in our household."
"My daughter is in a relationship with a biracial boyfriend. My mother was not open to my dating black men. That, I believe, was not a helpful message to receive from a parent, especially one who had experienced discrimination based on her own brown skin. My children know that I do not carry that sort of baggage and accept whomever they choose to be in relationships with, if healthy and loving," she continues. Her experiences reflect the importance of listening to your child and keeping their personal needs in mind, but the takeaway is always the same: Love is love, and all sexualities and relationships should be celebrated as long as they are healthy and safe.
Turn Your Words Into Action
Aside from having a conversation with your child, there are plenty of other things parents can do at home to teach celebrating and leveraging differences, being open, and practicing kindness and advocacy. "While I am not gay, I am an ardent advocate and ally for the LGBT community. My participation in pride events, going to PFLAG meetings, volunteering as a co-host on the Inside Out LGBT Radio show on WPFW-FM 89.3, and fostering an accepting attitude with my children, I believe I am continuing to build trust and maintain approachability with my children as they progress through different stages in life," Leonard Olsen says.
In other words, it's important to practice what you preach. Simply telling your child you will love and accept them no matter what can go a long way, but it takes things a step further when you actively learn how to become an ally if you yourself do not identify as LGBTQ+. A big part of that process is through education.
Foster Open-Mindedness and Teach Boundaries
As Leonard Olsen reminds us, "Children are naturally curious. They want to know about body parts and how babies are made. If such things become shameful or taboo to them, it is only because that message was conveyed to them. I have found that directly and simply answering questions asked (with a sensitivity to what is age-appropriate), leads to more trust and dialogue."
However, "We must teach our children appropriate boundaries, however, at all ages and stages. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. I want to do my best to protect my children by arming them with information, giving them a safe place to talk, and acknowledging that they need to learn how to protect themselves throughout their lives," she explains. "Had my parents been more approachable on this subject or had found a way to supply me with this much-needed information, personal pain around sexual abuse and assault likely would have been lessened in my life."
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