Sex-Positive Parenting with Melissa Carnagey
"I can't wait until my preschooler asks me where babies come from," said no parent ever.
Except maybe Melissa Carnagey of Sex Positive Families. She joins me for this info-packed episode to talk about why you would want to raise kids in a sex-positive environment, and how to start. Nothing is explicit, though we do use the word "sex" a number of times, plus anatomically correct words for genitals, but nothing graphic or racy.
So when should you have the birds and the bees talk with your kids? How do you explain sex to young children - or should you? How do you even start, especially if you were raised in a household where that didn't happen?
Listen and find out!
Links and resources we mentioned in the episode
- Sex Positives Families website
- Great list of resources on the Sex Positives Families page
- Sex Positives Families on Instagram
- What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg
- It's Not the Stork by Robie H. Harris
- Semi Crunchy Mama Club on Facebook
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Hi everyone. Welcome to the Semi Crunchy Mama podcast. Here we'll tackle a variety of parenting topics to help you feel less alone and more informed so you can make the best decisions for your family--no matter where you fall on the crunchy spectrum. I'm your host and Semi Crunchy Mama, Stacy Spensley.
Being a mom is hard and we're not meant to do it alone. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the hamster wheel of parenting and could use a little more support, I'd love you to join my community on Mighty Networks. It's a small group for parents with a loose topic each month around life and parenthood. After one call, one mama said, "I've prioritized my self-care more than I used to. I felt empowered to do this and set more clear boundaries regarding parenting and household duties. I felt incredible support through shared experiences in motherhood, which has helped me find the confidence to make these changes in my life." If you want more information, visit semicrunchymama.com/group.
Show notes including links and resources mentioned in this episode can be found at semicrunchymama.com/ep10.
So, many of us got pregnant and had babies, the "traditional" way, which means that at some point we probably had sex.
Sex is a normal part of human behavior and how we've survived as a species. So why is it so awkward to talk about, especially with our kids? Luckily, Melissa Carnegie is here to help us! I first came across Melissa on Instagram and was immediately drawn to her content and message. Melissa Carnegie is a sex educator and social worker with over 10 years experience in the field of sexual health. She's the founder of Sex Positive Families, which offers sexual health education workshops and support for youth, caring adults, and professionals to strengthen sexual health talks within families. She lives in Austin, Texas with her partner raising their three sex positive children between the ages of four and 19. Thanks so much for being here, Melissa!
Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
So can you explain what exactly a sex positive family is?
A sex positive family is all about creating a home culture where talking about topics like sex, the body, consent, and relationships is done in a taboo-free, shame-free open dialogue -- early, ideally, and ongoing. It's just about creating that sense of openness and safety so that no topic is taboo.
So why do you think that's important?
I think that when we're thinking of our children, many times the common thread is a desire for them to have safe and fulfilling lives. But that's not something that we can really control. We can't control their actions and the outcomes, but we can certainly influence their decisions. And, really, what a lot of us strive to do when we're parenting is to create a good foundation so that our children can experience better outcomes than we may have had while navigating this world. In order for them to best achieve that, they have to have the tools, they have to have the knowledge, and they have to have support. Those are the ideal pieces. And so when we're parenting with an attention to sexual health, that really does provide for them that strong foundation that helps with their sense of self, their confidence, their worth, their body autonomy, and how they navigate relationships in this world. It really provides a lot of general life skills and affects their ability to live life fully and authentically.
So what do you think some of the biggest obstacles are to people having a sex positive approach in their own homes?
I've found there can be many things. Whether people are aware of it or not, sometimes trauma that they've experienced can affect their parenting. So, sometimes just these topics can be triggering for parents or caregivers, or certain life events or milestones, as they see their children moving through them, can be triggering. There are many examples of levels and layers of that trauma that could have existed in their own sexual health journey.
So, trauma is one potential. And then also religion, and the type of education, nurturing, or support that a parent may or may not have had along their journey. So many of us are doing this job of parenting on the fly. Not all of us may have had the best examples firsthand, especially when it comes to sex education or sexual health. And then we have a greater society, definitely within American culture, that sends a lot of mixed messages when it comes to sex and bodies, genitals, and relationships. So there's a push and pull. There's a lot of misinformation out there, a lot to be rightfully concerned about or fearful of. There's a lot of sexualization that happens of bodies and especially when it comes to girl-identified children and women. So we have a lot we're battling against or that we're constantly trying to work alongside, and it can make the job a little more challenging.
Those are really great points. Some of them I've thought through, because again, I do follow you and I read your content and think it's really helpful. But I hadn't thought of all the layers, because personally they don't all apply to me. So that's a really helpful perspective. So thank you for that. What are some of the very first steps that we can take to having sex positive families for ourselves?
I say that the first step would be definitely taking a look at our own sexual health journey and what sexuality really means for you. That's going to be very different for each individual person. Again, raising children can lead to some self-reflection or some triggers. It's good for us to get a sense for what our values are as individuals, and then to define family values and what expectations we may hold when we think about the kinds of futures that we would like for our children. So, I say that the first step is always that introspective work. And then if you're in a partnered scenario, if you're raising children with a partner or other care givers, then it's good to have conversations and to check where we're all at when it comes to different topics. When we talk about sexual orientation or gender or when we talk about pleasure, you know, what are our viewpoints in these areas? What are some experiences that we've had that have played a role in shaping how we navigate our own sexual health and sexuality?
I love that. I'm working on scheduling another interview with a therapist who works with kids about gender and sexual identity. So I'm excited to talk to her about that, too, more in depth. What about people who might think or might be concerned that talking about sex is part of sexualizing children and that they should wait, because their kids are too young to know about these things? What would you say to them?
Yeah, so there's a difference between sex education and sex as entertainment. And unfortunately our society tends to show us a lot more that's meant for entertainment or that is sexualizing versus the education part. So think about what our young children are learning in school-- they learn early about their body parts. So we may sing songs like "head, shoulders, knees, and toes," right? So they may learn about the functions of the body and then as they continue to get older they learn very intricately about the inner ear and the nervous system. But somehow in our culture, again, because of this fear of sexualizing and demonizing sex, it completely dismisses the other parts of the body that have to do with genitals.
And so, we then are sexualizing these body parts, when truly they are their body parts, just like any other part of our body. They have functions. They are good. They serve us in good and positive ways. There are sexual behaviors that are choices that people can make, and that's completely different than the actual body parts and their functions alone. So children need a good and solid foundation, an honest and medically accurate foundation, when it comes to sex education and learning about bodies. Then that's where we can get more easily influenced into thinking and believing that we may be sexualizing or projecting adult sexuality onto children. But young children are going to explore their bodies because it's a part and it has feeling, often, and it's not something that they are equating to eroticism or something that adults may think of from an adult sexual perspective. It's purely just about exploring their body and what may feel good or what may be soothing. And we don't want to shame them for that. We don't want to send them confusing or mixed messages, but we do want to inform them. We do want to make sure that they know the names of their body parts. Just like they will know their eyes, their ears, and their nose. It's a part of helping to keep them safe as well.
That's a really great explanation. Both of my kids are boys, and I definitely found when my oldest had a possible UTI that it was so much easier to go to the doctor. He was a toddler, but he was talking, so he was two or three. It was so much easier to get information out of him because he knew what hurt. Yeah. It wasn't just "down there" or anything like that. There's a lot of different stuff going on that could be hurting and his doctor was like, oh thank goodness.
Absolutely, that's so important. That's a great example that when we give them the knowledge and the tools, because language is a tool, we normalize it just like we would talk about any other body part, then it makes them even more powerful in this world and even more capable. We want that for our children. I love that example. My eight year old, same thing, he has no qualms about it. He's very in touch with his body because we set that space for him to do that without any kind of shame or projecting anything onto him from that sexuality lens. He bathes himself and so there are times where he's kind of paying attention to his body and he's like, "Hey mom, can I show you something real quick?"
And then I say, "sure." We come into the restroom and he's like, "can you take a look at this?" He may show me an area of his penis or something near his penis and he's like, "is this okay? Is everything okay down here? I'm feeling like there may be a little bump or something," and so I say, "may I take a look?" And he's like, "sure." And so then I looked, again, just like if he had something on his arm like a weird bump on any other part of his body. The only difference could ever be if I or anyone else were to make him feel as though there was something wrong or inappropriate. Also, it's important to help them to understand what privacy means and how they can utilize that when it comes to different parts of their body, and what may be appropriate or not appropriate in different social settings. We can help them develop that understanding and that context over time.
Definitely. And that interaction is also a really great example of body autonomy. His asking you if you'd look and you asking him if it was okay, asking for permission the whole way, is consent. There's so much talk these days for good reason about creating a culture of consent. Can you share why bodily autonomy is important, and explain where we can start teaching this and at what age?
Oh, I love this. Yeah. This one can be challenging because, when we have very young children, they start off in infancy very dependent on an adult or a caregiver for their basic needs. Right? And so, as the caregivers, we become in the habit of being really responsive to that and taking charge. And sometimes it can get difficult for folks to determine, when and how to start letting go a little bit so that they can have that autonomy and take care of their bodies more independently. And so what I highly recommend is that we do that incrementally and as soon as they're reaching toddlerhood and they're walking around and developing their language. Most often, then we want to start allowing them to get an understanding of their own wants, their own needs, and their voice that they may use in order to assert those things.
So then it's up to us to give them feedback, to be responsive to their wants and needs, and to choose how to respond to those things and not to minimize them. And also it's important to assert and model for them what boundaries look like, what setting healthy boundaries may look like, so that they can learn through observing how we assert boundaries. Around three is when I see parents usually allowing them to do things like bathing themselves and clothing themselves-- picking out certain items of the clothes that they wear or being aware of the foods that they want to eat and how much of it they may want to eat. And that can be hard because we can feel like they need to have a certain kind of diet or they need to be this level of presentable in public or they need to have a certain cleanliness and-- sure, these are things that are definitely important and that we want them to have an awareness of.
But it's also important that we allow them to take some risks and that we allow them to get a feel for what these activities of daily living look like for them. So that means that, maybe, as they get to ages four and five, we're allowing them that space to brush their own hair, to brush their own teeth, to bathe their own body. And we're not there to be encouraging. We're not there to tell them that they've done something wrong or offer to do it for them. When we do those things, we may be well meaning, but it can also send them the message that, that they're not enough and that their way is not enough. Or when we talk about eating, for example, if we are telling them that if they saying they're full, Or they they're done, or that they don't want any more, or don't like that particular item and we're telling them that they must eat more or no, you do like that, you liked that last week-- that's consent.
These are the early messages that we can send to them that can help them build a foundation and an understanding of what yes means, what no means, what it's like to give say these words, establish boundaries, and how to receive them gracefully. We have to model that. We have to respect that. And we have to allow them that space to develop an understanding of how to trust of their own instincts and trust their own body. So common examples of course, are when it comes to affection, whether they desire to give affection to other people in their life, including their own parents. We want to help instill in them an understanding that their body is theirs. And not just saying no means no.
We have to actually follow through with action. And so in our home, for example, it's very common: I ask my children, I ask my partner, "May I give you a hug?" That's me expressing my desire and my intention, and then opening up that space for them to have their own feeling, their own desire. And there definitely have been times that my eight year old has told me, "No thank you, not right now." And I say, "Okay, I respect that," and we go about our day. And then there have been times when he's said that and then maybe 20 minutes or an hour later he says, "I'm ready for a hug now. May I have a hug?" And I'm like, "yes, absolutely." And then we go in for that hug and that sends him a message right there.
Like, look at that power that he has. He is clear and aware of the autonomy that he has over his body. We build that trust over time, right? This is important as they start to navigate relationships as they get older-- they get into their tween and teen years and certainly into adulthood. If they were not able to say no to those people that they trusted most-- their parents and their caregivers-- if they had trouble saying no or with any level of confrontation, then how can we expect them to navigate those other relationships effectively?
I love that you brought up food because I teach two classes around food. I teach an Introducing Solids class for babies and I teach a Toddlers at the Table class about navigating the kind of that intersection between nutrition and behavior and toddlers and our expectations based on Ellyn Satter's division of responsibility in feeding.
I talk about bodily autonomy in my infant feeding class, and people are often surprised, but I was like, "Well how do you know if I'm hungry right now? How do you know if your baby is hungry?" Because sometimes they give us signs, but how do we know that they're full? If they're refusing food and we're just trying to shove the last two bites in so we don't waste it, what are we telling them? Starting at six months old, we're telling them that they they shouldn't trust their body and that they should listen to somebody else. And it sounds like translates later on into their adult relationships. And this is why we have the #metoo movement happening right now-- because there are many adults who did not grow up with early foundations that were rooted in consent messaging.
They learned early on that there that their body was for others' pleasure of different forms. That may not have even had anything to do with sex, but they grew up understanding that their body was for someone else to direct for them. They may have waited to be told whether to do this or to do that well past toddlerhood in many contexts. So yeah, I love hearing that's part of the work that you're doing, because it's so important that it starts early. I get a lot of first time parents with very young children in my classes, and I always give a disclaimer like, "I realize this sounds like a little bit of a slippery slope, but I swear it's important. And the earlier you start, the easier it is."
I have sister and my husband has sisters. So when we were having boys, the first few times I said, "Don't wipe food on your penis," it was hard for me to keep a straight face because that just wasn't a normal conversation for me. Now it is because I have two boys and, as I say, penis management takes up a lot of more of my life than I ever anticipated. But I think that's an important point: like you said, it's not awkward for children to talk about their bodies this way. It's awkward for us because we've been conditioned to think that it's awkward, and then we project that awkwardness onto them. Some of the arguments that I hear are:
You can't give babies complete body autonomy because they're completely dependent on us. But what about when they're a bit older, during the toddler or preschool years, and they don't want to take medicine or get in their car seat or resist other things that could make them unsafe? How do you balance your desire to give them bodily autonomy without, for example, letting them run into traffic?
We are charged with helping to keep them safe and we have to be good stewards of that and also need to regularly assess their ability to do that independently as they get older and develop more skills. And so we can support that by incrementally introducing different levels of choice. One thing that came out in recent media had to do changing babies' diapers and whether we would ask their permission every single time. This was from an educator in Australia who works with younger children around consent and sexual health, and, depending on the news outlet, her words and the interview were twisted in different directions to meet different agendas.
But if you actually listen to all of it, she says we should get into the practice, as the caregivers, of encouraging two-way communication with our children, but also that there are certain choices that we need to take control of until they are developmentally ready. And so we can still talk through that though with them-- we can say, "all right, we're about to cross the street. What do we do when we cross the street?"
We hold hands, we look both ways. So, we can involve them in these processes incrementally, instead of just grabbing their hand and pulling them through. We can be more mindful about how we are interacting and how we're creating more of a collaborative relationship with our children through everyday interactions. Again, that can start very early. For example, I've worked with parents who had children who had to take medication-- insulin shots, for example. And they were really struggling because it can easily become a power struggle.
It was a fight. The child was maybe five years old. The parents felt that they couldn't have the child independently administering the medicine; they're not ready for that. And so we explored some choices that they could give their child. So, when you start opening up and moving away from the mindset that you have to give your child this insulin shot and instead, expand your perspective a little bit to find ways to give them control of the situation. We know that this is a routine experience that they have to take part in every day. Are there certain toys that they can have with them? Is there a certain place that they can choose where they want to have their insulin shot? Maybe it's happening in your bathroom, and instead you could give them a choice of where they'd like to receive their shots.
Maybe it's a certain part of their body that they'd like to receive the shot. Maybe it's a certain bandaid that they want to put on afterward. So, there are options that can be offered to make it much less of a power struggle, since the powers struggle is often what they're reacting to.
That's really helpful. I feel like we could just talk about body autonomy this whole time, but you have so many resources to offer. I feel like body autonomy and consent is such a good foundation, but I want to move on from that. At what age should people start discussing sex with their kids? Again, a lot of the people I work with have younger kids and so they don't necessarily see how this applies to their life when they're not yet ready to have the traditional "birds and the bees" talk.
So, the birds and the bees talk, as many of us have known it, isn't really a great example of sex positive parenting. Ideally, we want to have early and ongoing talks. That's going to include a lot of incremental and teachable moments over the years, and they can start as early as ages three, four, and five. Oftentimes at those young ages, it's going to be contextual and situational. So, if you have a very curious three- or four-year-old who's asking questions because a parent or another person in their life is pregnant--
Those are the earliest conversations about sex. Is it going to be about erotic sex or sex from a pleasure perspective? No. It's going to be more about biology, anatomy, logistics. A lot of the "where do babies come from?" discussions. So you are talking about sex as in general, but you're framing it based on what their immediate concerns or needs are when they're that young. Our answers are going to be short. They're going to be direct. They're going to be simple. They're going to address either the situation in the moment or the particular question that was asked. It's easy to set the foundations because we really don't have to go into as much depth.
Early on, books can be really helpful. We don't necessarily want them to be crutches and to solely communicate through books, but they can definitely help to set the stage. For example, It's Not the Stork is one that I always highly recommend and it's relevant as early as age four. It covers a lot of topics, so it's a great one that you can carry through over the years. If you're reading it with a four year old, you may not get through all of the topics or read the entire book-- certainly not in one sitting-- but it can be a great reference. It can provide you both with the language and really cool visuals to help them process and understand what sex and reproduction are.
So, in the early years, it's just going to be really direct and simple and as it relates to their world in that moment. The conversation should not not be complex. As they grow to be seven, eight, nine years old, they're better able to process the details, plus their exposure to media will have expanded, and they likely will know what the word sex means even if you have yet to have that direct conversation with them. By having these conversations to introduce the concepts and the information, we can position them to navigate competently and from a more secure place: a place of knowing.
Okay. Definitely. It's funny because I've known about It's Not the Stork for years and finally realized that we never actually read it, so I just got it from the library the other day. And--
What'd you think?
It's good. I feel conflicted because it's very binary, but that's the easiest way to explain it at the moment with young children. So we're working on that and we definitely use it as a conversation point. But it's helpful because we have started with that foundation-- my oldest knows the anatomical terms because he went to the midwife with me when I was pregnant with his little brother. He actually had a student midwife as a nanny for awhile and would always ask to see placenta pictures and umbilical cords. It was a weird phase, but he's a very curious kid. He's starting to read now and he's been flipping through the book himself, and I just let him do it because the pictures aren't graphic. They're cartoons.
Yeah. They're cartoons. And like I said, there's a lot of information in that one. I love the fact that you brought up the binary component of It's Not the Stork.
An even better book that I love so, so, so much, by Cory Silverberg is What Makes a Baby. Cory Silverberg also wrote Sex is a Funny Word, which is a wonderful book for an older age-- around age nine and certainly into the tween and teen years. The book to start out with if you have little ones, though, is What Makes a Baby. It uses gender neutral terms and gender-neutral images. If you have not checked that one out, it's a great one to start with as well. It literally just answers the question of what makes a baby. It's not covering the consent messaging and safety and all of those other components.
Perfect. I was going to ask you for some book recommendations and you just gave them to me. Thank you! So my son was kind of paging through the book himself, and so I just left him alone. When he would ask me to read it, I would, but it's a little long. We have talked about actual sex, like the mechanics of it, and we've talked a lot about genetics. He has red hair, so we talk about genes a lot because he gets petted at the grocery store. And so we talk about, you know, where the genes come from and how they combine and all that kind of stuff.
But he actually skipped the page about sex, which I thought was kind of funny because I feel like that's the one he thought we'd probably talk about the least versus the stuff he wanted to read. I think he might have just been more interested in other stuff or maybe it was a refresher. I'm not sure. We haven't talked about it since then. It was literally the other night. It would just happened to be funny timing, with this recording coming up.
That's so awesome that you're in the thick of it. You're in the process right now and seeing what his reactions are and, and where his curiosities are falling. That's a really fun time.
For me, it just meant normalizing everything. Like I have a good friend who's a midwife and she'll have pregnant patients come in who don't understand their own physiology and don't know what hole the baby comes out of. And stuff like explaining periods to my boys... because that's really important!
There's a lot of shame around menstruation for women I think. You know, everyone was birthed out of a person. Menstruation is an important part of fertility, and it's so important that all children, regardless of identity and genitals, know about and understand menstruation. And, it is definitely common that, when we are talking about our boy-identifying children, our penis-having children, that they have questions because they see mommy managing her period, either with feminine hygiene products or they may literally see the blood and think there is something wrong.
They may worry, "Are you hurt? Is everything okay?" That's a teachable moment. I think it is common that parents feel caught off guard and dismiss it or change the subject. But it is definitely a moment and a question that we want to take advantage of and we should prepare for and embrace the questions. And you can just tell them the truth: Once a month I bleed out of my vagina and that's because I have a uterus and I make an egg, and this is all part of producing babies. And you can just stop there and see if they're curious to know more.
Sometimes it ends there and you can carry on with your day, and sometimes it leads to another question and you can just follow their curiosity.
I love the point about following their lead. Like I said, I explained it relatively recently to my oldest because it came up and I'll usually follow up with a question like, "Does that make sense? Do you have more questions? Should we get a book about it from the library?" That helps me figure out if he's still curious or if his curiosity's been satisfied. And always, if they've asked a question, it's important to affirm for them that you're so glad that they asked that such a great question. You can even ask them what they have already heard about that, too, just to ensure that you're not making assumptions about what they are wondering about.
So, there are lots of ways that that we can help support their curiosity and ensure that they walk away knowing that we're safe people that they can talk to and that there's no shame in asking us questions.
Definitely. And I love the follow-up question: what do you already know about that topic? Because my next question is about people who were raised to believe talking about sex was taboo or shameful, or maybe they have trauma that makes this is a really difficult topic for them. So, what if their kids are a little bit older and they haven't had started having these conversations? Do you have tips for them, since there might be a lot more information for them to provide to their children at one time?
Right. And it may be more time sensitive because perhaps they have a daughter who may start her period soon, or if their kids are in school and they're hearing things from their friends. Yes. Yeah. Great question. So, think about your why: Why is it that it's important to give your children this information, regardless of when you're coming to it? We can't change the past. It's so important to be compassionate with yourself in that moment and just think about why you want to start the conversation now. So usually, parents want their children to have this information so they know how to care for their bodies and they know what to expect as they get older. You can lead with that! You can start the conversation by saying something like, "I realized recently that there are some important things that we haven't talked about yet and I've been feeling..." Really use the I statements.
So what have you been feeling? Think about that as well ahead of time. Are you feeling scared about this? Are you feeling nervous or anxious? You can be honest about that. It's part of that relationship building. So you can say, "I realize that we haven't talked about a couple of things that are pretty important. I've been feeling a little nervous about having the conversation because I didn't have the best example of this, but I think it's important. I'd love to talk with you about sex or -- whatever it is. About puberty or about periods." So, I'd just recommend leading with vulnerability and honesty and making sure, of course, that the moment, the space that you've chosen and that you're sharing is one that feels comfortable for you both.
And then you can talk about it and, if needed, seek out more information together, whether that's a book, or a video, or a website. It's also helpful, especially in their preteen and teen years that we consider our own journeys and sharing, anecdotally, some of our own experiences to help them connect the dots and humanize and normalize the experiences that they may be having.
And that's regardless of of your genitals. So let's say you're a person that's never experienced menstruation firsthand, right? You still know what it's like to have experienced puberty and to be of that age range that your child is. So, you can come from that place and have the tools with you or on hand where it can fill in the blanks about the actual facts, but you can come from the relationship. You're that thing that bridges the facts and injured, you know, with your child. The relationship is what's really important.
That was fantastic. That was a really, really great approach. Thank you. I have two more specific questions and one is one I saw come up in my Facebook group the other day: people ask what at what age is it inappropriate to be naked in front of your own kids? And again, a lot of those are parents of toddlers and at that age, kids are getting more talkative, more communicative, and suddenly the parents think, "oh hey, when does this get weird?" And my slightly flippant answer is that I'm 35 and I go to the Korean spa with my mom. But also, I do have boys and so my oldest is only five and so we will get to this one day. It's awkward. So, what kind of guidelines do you think are reasonable to have in place? How to families decide that age?
Yeah, so it's really going to be different for every individual and every family. There are folks that feel really comfortable with nudity and being in their naked form. And then there are other people who do not feel comfortable with that at all. So, there isn't really a definitive age. It's very much about the individuals involved in the home culture that you're creating and also the community that's around you. That can vary culturally, geographically, in terms of how different communities approach nudity and approach bodies in the naked form. So consider all these things. Each person just really needs to take a look at how they feel, personally, in their nudity.
So let me give an example of how this can happen and how it can even change and shift within the same family. I grew up with a family that was not nude around the home. I think maybe like in passing, I may have seen my mom run to the bathroom a time or two, but definitely not my dad. That was not something he did, not ever. I don't even think I saw him in a bathing suit. My sister and I are just a few years apart in age and we were also in the habit of covering our bodies, wearing towels, and all of that. Nudity was not something that was a part of our home culture and I was very aware of that. Like I said, our children pick up on the home culture and the patterns of what's considered right or wrong in their family.
So then when I became a parent, I ended up raising my first-born, who's a girl-identifying child, in the same way that I was brought up during the early years. She knew she needed to cover her body up when she would get out of the shower. It wasn't until I started to develop in my career and in the work that I do, that I started to think about that a little bit differently. And because as I'm raising a daughter, I think it's super important that she feels comfortable with her body as it is, that she knows all the parts of her body, that she's feels very confident and very comfortable.
And I started to realize I had been sending some mixed signals because, I realized, I had received mixed signals about the goodness of my body and my naked body growing up. And that really became apparent to me in relationships and how comfortable I was with showing my body, my genitals, and all of that. So again, sexual health is very much a journey. It's not a destination. It's very much a journey for all of us. And it can evolve and it can shift and it can change. So now as I'm raising an eight year olds and this is a son. So I've really assessed how I approach these different topics and I want him to be really confident. I want him to be really comfortable when it comes to his body.
I've made shifts in the years of parenting him and we talk very openly about bodies, in terms of their functions and the diversity of bodies. And when it comes to my own body, because this feels comfortable to me, I no longer am diligent about shutting the doors if I'm getting dressed or having towels wrapped around me. I realized that was something I was doing because I was told that I needed to, not because that's what really made me feel comfortable. I feel more comfortable now, actually, just kind of free. And that's just me. That can be different for everyone. I share this to just say that it's an evolving process and it's something that you can choose your own adventure for.
And so, it's not at all wrong. There's nothing sexual about my son or my children seeing me in the naked form or me seeing them in the naked form. Again, these are bodies, these are body parts. There's no sexual act or sexual behavior that's taking place now as he gets older, as my daughter gets older. As I evolve and change, if at any point any of us are uncomfortable with what's happening and then we've created a culture where we can talk about it and we're allowed to change things. Again, that's consent, and that attention to consent is important. We're allowed to talk about it and we open up that space. So I would say keep checking in with a certain frequency and just making sure your children are comfortable with your home culture, and also pay attention to their nonverbal cues as well. If you start to notice that your child is doing something like turning very quickly or wincing or saying that they're uncomfortable, then that's a moment to pause and talk about it and listen to them and figure out how to act in the future. If you need to shift the culture a little bit to ensure that everyone's feeling safe and comfortable, then be willing to do that. Communication is a really big part of this. So, there's not a set age and there's not a set standard or guideline. It's all about the culture that you create and the relationships that you create that feel most comfortable to you and your family.
I think that's a great point is that it's okay to have boundaries, but also, for those of us who didn't grow up in a family that was comfortable with nudity, we should think about why we want to build a more sex positive environment for our children, and examine what boundaries we might like to hold onto.
Exactly. Yeah. So, even if you have a very open home culture and you've checked in and everybody's really comfortable with that in the present day, but there's still maybe a world around you, the culture around you, a community that is not comfortable with that. So this becomes part of the conversation too, right? In our home we may feel comfortable enough to walk around casually in certain undergarments. That may be our home culture, but it's important to help them to understand that that may not be someone else's. When they go visit someone else's home, like a friend or a family member, what are the norms that they may observe in those settings? Give them that context. Again, none of this has to do with sex. It's not about sex. It's very much just about bodies and feeling comfortable and confident, whether you're clothed or not. You can feel very confident with your clothes on. You can feel very confident with them off. It's really an individual thing.
We have a lot of nudity by the boys at our house, but we have a rule that you have to wear underpants outside for safety purposes and at dinner for hygiene reasons. We've tried to never make it about shame.
All right. I try to keep these episodes under an hour. So I have one more question. I'm curious because my oldest is only five, but it sounds like you have a wider range of ages in your family. How do you see this kind of sex positive environment playing out with your older kids?
Let me make sure I understand. Do you mean like, how am I sex positive with my teen?
Yeah, like if you raised them all in the sex positive environment, I'm wondering what it looks like with the older kids, since, like you said, you shifted your perspective partway through raising them.
Exactly. Yeah. So, I made shifts with my daughter. My daughter was nine when I entered the field that I'm in now in terms of sexual health. And so I didn't raise her in this environment from the beginning. With my son, he's definitely had more of a whole life journey so far with it. The best part of sex positive parenting an older child is probably the open talks that we get to have about sexual decision making, about relationships, about her values.
And that's part of that autonomy piece, right? Helping them to understand their own power and their own way of making decisions. We have to help them understand that we're not going to have all the answers for them. They possess their own answers. We can create that space that can help them process how they are going to navigate relationships, how they're going to navigate things like consent and boundaries with people around them, and social media, among other things. So, with teenagers, there are lots of opportunities for conversations and again, it really isn't too late to begin these conversations with teens. You can still start to have those conversations. You can create that sense of support. And just saying, "I'm listening" is really important as they get older because they have a lot to share.
They have a lot to say. If you notice that they're not sharing, then consider how you can create the spaces and let them know that you're plugged in and you're curious. We don't want to be detectives and we don't want to helicopter parent our children. We really just want to empower them to make informed choices on their own. And sometimes that involves risk. Sometimes they're going to make different choices than we may want them to make. But if they have a touchstone in us, someone that they can come back to and say, I messed up, or, you know, this has happened, I need some support, then a great response is, "How can I support you? How best can I help you right now?" And just open up that space for them to problem solve and to navigate the world and their relationships.
Well, I would just want to ask you, what's one thing you wish all parents knew that you can talk to your children about?
Parents have so much wisdom and the potential for connection is so valuable. You can talk about anything with your child. It is about how you approach it. The work really starts with opening up our own minds and getting vulnerable and letting go of control.
Isn't that just the hardest part of parenting though? Someone said our job as parents is to make ourselves obsolete. And it's so true and so beautiful and so... like a knife in the heart at the same time.
Absolutely. I'm experiencing this with my oldest. They're not always going to be right there, like a puppy dog, you know, right by your side constantly. But guess what, you have your own life. You have your own big goals and dreams, and things that you're continuing to pursue and live out. And through that example of living your best, most authentic life, you give permission for them to do the same. And so that I think is the best thing that we can do: live fully within ourselves. So we set that example and open up that space for them to do that as well. So there's, there's letting go that we have to do in parenting.
Oh, whenever you're ready to write your book, I will be the first in line to buy it.
Oh, thank you so much and hey, I will be ready to read your book as well. So I love this.
I said we could keep this conversation going for three hours, but that a little long for everybody listening. So, I know I've sent the resource page on your website to a number of friends already, but can you tell us where we can find you online?
Yeah, so sexpositivefamilies.com is the website and I keep it well resourced with content that I create and content that I curate. That way a one stop shop for strengthening sexual health talks within your family. And also I'm on Instagram, @sexpositive_families. I find community really important, so I try to share content that helps to keep us thinking and get us talking there. I'm also on Facebook and Twitter.
And then can you just really briefly summarize some of the programs that you have online for people?
Currently, I have a 4-week-long online group program. It's a little bit of an intensive four weeks of course content in a Facebook group that also incorporates peer support. I have a September cohort that is coming up. And then I also have a five-lesson free course on the foundations of sex-positive parenting that folks can take online. That's just five lessons that come to your email and teach you those foundations of raising sexually healthy children. And I have lots of of guides and free material on the website covering different topics like safety and how to talk to your kids about porn, what happens when your kids walk in on you having sex, et cetera. So I try to cover a lot of different topics to support families.
Perfect. I was thinking that I wish I could ask you about all that stuff here-- but you've already answered it. How convenient!
Melissa, thank you so much for your time. You have so much information that's really important for parents to have and I'm really grateful that you took the time to talk to me today.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
Show notes including links and resources we mentioned in this episode can be found at semicrunchymama.com/ep10
Thank you for joining us for this episode of the Semi Crunchy Mama Podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, leave a review so other people can too. Make sure to subscribe through iTunes, stitcher, or Google play for new episodes and check out the show notes semicrunchymama.com for all the links and resources we mentioned today. Until next time you got this mamas.