What you need to know:
- Sex educators say sex talk should start when a child is two years old and should continue evolving.
- Irrespective of whether parents address the topic, children will naturally progress through various stages of sexual development.
Some parents feel reluctant and awkward to discuss sexuality and their children pay the price. Open communication between parents and children can lead to delays in sexual debut and promote positive relationships, studies have shown.
But in Africa, sex and sexuality talk remains taboo topic, with parents leaving their children to learn from peers and social media. Anxiety about modern sexuality and new sexual freedom has also complicated the talk for parents.
Nation Lifestyle explores how and when parents should initiate sex and sexuality talk.
Eunice Wanjiru, 37, is a mother to an 18-year-old who believes that children should be taught about sexuality from an early age when their young minds are receptive to learning and retaining information. The ICEA Lion Group Financial Advisor gives an example of Sunday school in her childhood days, and how the religious teachings instilled then have shaped her character in adulthood.
“As a single mother of an 18-year-old boy, I started speaking to my son early enough.
Even now, I continue educating him further. I know this is the age where they want to experiment and experience what sex is.
“When I first realised he had started engaging in relationships, I called him and we sat down for a conversation. I explained to him how to go about sexual relationships.
I explained to him that it is possible to control his sexual urges until he reaches 25 years and above. At this age, he will understand himself better and can take responsibility for his actions,” says Ms Wanjiru.
She adds that she does not scare him off relationships or sex.
“I know I will say all of these but at the end of the day maybe he will [engage in sex and relationships]. He’s still a human being; he has feelings, he’s a young man and young men like to explore. So instead I encourage him to come to me whenever he needs help,” she says.
Sex educators say if you wish your child should wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity, or not, it is up to you as a parent to pass these values to them. If you shy away from having ‘the talk’, then you leave your child exploring sex in the dark.
The absence of clear morals and guidelines leaves children feeling confused.
Sherlene Nyabugei, a young mother, says children should grow up knowing and understanding the things that happen around them without the fear of confronting them, including sex.
“I had the sex talk with my parents at an age that made me feel embarrassed. Now that I am a mother, I will start the conversation when my child reaches the age of five. I plan to create time and engage him in these talks, encouraging him to open up so that we can converse freely and I guide him,” she says.
The mother-of-one adds that she would even consider sexuality therapy sessions for her children if need be since we live in an uncontrolled society with deviant sexual behaviours.
But do children also wish their parents spoke to them about sex?
Mary Wangari, a 19-year-old student at Moi University in Eldoret, says despite occasional awkwardness, she finds it necessary to have open conversations about sex with her parents.
“I am completely free with my mum; she is my number one adviser. She started talking to me about sex when I received my first period at the age of 14. The safe space my mum has created encourages me to be responsible and reach out at any point of my life even when having relationship problems,” says Mary.
The university student adds that although she discusses topics around sex with her peers, often she never gets a solution and has to turn to her mother.
Karen Wasomi, a final-year student at the University of Nairobi, says she received limited or vague information from her parents on sex when growing up.
She believes that open and comprehensive discussions about sex not only safeguard children’s health but ensure they have the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions.
“There are many aspects to sex that unfortunately children and young adults are introduced to and they’re not aware of what it is -- and in most cases, it is sexual abuse. Being taught about sex early will help them know things about consent,” says Karen, adding that now that the ship has somewhat sailed for her, she is unlikely going to bring up the topic with her parents who believe in sex in marriage.
Consequently, she would opt to see a sex educator.
“My parents are Christians, so they find it awkward to have the conversation. Many parents and guardians shy away from the topic of sexuality.
Most times, they let you source information on your own, which is very difficult because not all sources are trustworthy. I also think it depends on what exactly about sex the parent and child are talking about. If the talk is deep about sex, I too will feel awkward talking to my parents. I would rather get a sex educator,” she says.
What experts say:
What is the right age to start the sex talk?
Carmilla Edalia, a psychotherapist from Endeleo Counselling Therapy in Nairobi, says sex education should start when a child is two years old and should continue evolving.
If you do not start it early, she says, it can be hard to introduce the concept in the development stages.
Ms Edalia says parents need to be the initiator of this conversation, not the child.
To be well-prepared to address their children’s questions, parents should educate themselves about sex and sexual development. By staying ahead and being knowledgeable, parents can provide accurate and age-appropriate information.
Parents should also create an environment where children feel comfortable asking questions and expressing their curiosity about sex. Encouraging discussions without judgment or censoring allows children to seek guidance and clarity from their parents, Ms Edalia says.
Parents often worry that discussing sex may encourage their children to engage in sexual activities prematurely or expose them to information they may not be ready for. However, irrespective of whether parents address the topic, children will naturally progress through various stages of sexual development.
Akinyi Ochieng’, a family sexuality educator, says honest conversations about sexuality with your children have a lot of benefits.
“It opens up the space for the child to know I can go back home and have a discussion about everything troubling me around my sexuality or even that of my friends, without fear,” she says.
Ms Ochieng' points out that if your child has a question, they are ready for an answer because they have been exposed and are trying to understand the issue.
“As a parent, try to start with the basic principle, which is to keep it very simple. Start with very simple explanations. If you see they understand, then proceed to the next phase. As you progress, you can add content to it.
“Layer sex conversations as children grow. For example, let’s take the basic one -- where do children come from? This is a question asked by children of all ages, right from three years old. So, you keep it very simple by giving the basic information they need to know at that time,” she says.
Ms Ochieng' says the early years, zero to five, are more about a value system foundation than sexualised conversations.
“At this age, you’re equipping your child with basic things -- what respect looks like, what privacy and autonomy of the body looks like, what boundaries look like,” she says.
At puberty, engage in open dialogue and ask questions without fear. Different parents have different levels of comfort discussing certain topics, but ask and support where needed.
“For example, if your daughter is experiencing late puberty, involving a doctor can help. Similarly, if your son has low testosterone levels, consulting a doctor can provide guidance. It is crucial to understand how to best support your child’s overall health, considering factors such as sleep and nutrition, as malnourishment can affect growth during puberty,” she says.
During adolescence, children’s brains develop more, and they become better at understanding things. This is an ideal time for parents to start candid conversations about sex and relationships with their children.
In terms of language, which words should you use or not use?
“I don’t think there’s a rule as to which word you should use or not use. The basic thing is to try to see how your child reacts. And the more open you are with them it means the easier it is for you as a parent to have those very difficult conversations,” Ms Ochieng says.
Parents should also train their children about self-control during young adulthood and the teenage years. They can introduce mixed scenarios that show where a child may have a desire but needs to exercise restraint.
Parents should become familiar with the culture around sex. For example, groupies, friends with benefits, and swinging are some of the trends that parents need to understand.
How can parents find reliable and accurate sources of information about sexuality to help their children evaluate the information they encounter online or from peers?
“I know this is one of the biggest challenges that we have in Africa is getting reliable sources because we don’t have printed resource materials. Most of them are westernised. So as a parent, even when you’re buying books written by different authors, it’s really important to reflect and read them or just see if they are culturally relevant. Ask yourself, ‘I’m okay with that information the way it is’,” she says.
Another way that parents get information is through educators, listening to podcasts or reading medical reviews and books. Educational documentaries that tell stories can be foundational.
“Sexuality conversation is a must-have. The other alternative to not having sex education is children getting information from pornography. They’ll get it from whichever source that is not healthy for them. The dangers to children aren’t just the sexual intercourse but it’s all other factors that affect their sexual health,” Ms Ochieng’ says.