How much should you divulge to your children about your sex life? Some parents are happy to tell more than most would be comfortable with, but Rashida Tayabali thinks it shouldn't be discussed at all.
Around the time I hit puberty at age 13; I was finally allowed to hang around the adults and not shooed away when my aunties came over. Amidst cups of tea on such occasions, I would often hear them discuss intimate details of their sex lives. On a few occasions, when I protested, I was told that the information would come in handy when I was married. Well, it didn’t. In fact, I remember feeling a little apprehensive about sex back then and even after I got married.
There wasn’t any clear benefit to this ‘early education’ that I can see even in hindsight – it was definitely a case of too much information too soon and made me extremely uncomfortable.
At that young age, I recall feeling that the aunties had crossed some type of boundary in their relationship with me. We had moved away from niece-auntie to a woman-woman type of relationship. I had been given a glimpse into a big part of the adult world - it unsettled me and I didn’t like it.
Years later, I now refuse to participate in ‘social lounge room sex chatter’, preferring instead to stay out of this “secret women’s club” which some of my thirty-something friends also seem to delight in.
I believe that whatever happens between me and my husband in the bedroom stays between the two of us; we are a couple first and parents second. It’s also about drawing a boundary between the kinds of information that my child can access in a respectful manner. Similarly, I will not ask for details from my adult children about their intimate lives unless there’s something that’s affecting them emotionally and mentally – and without asking them to divulge the gory details.
This doesn’t in any way mean I’m ashamed of being sexually active or it’s something to be spoken of in hushed whispers. I am not. Sex is an important part of a strong and loving relationship. If a parent wants to share certain details with an adult child, with the mental capacity to understand the context because they have experienced sex, then that’s different to sharing the same information with a pubescent or pre-pubescent child who has no frame of reference or ability to understand the complexity behind sex and sexuality. Experts have recommended for example, that the birds and bees talk be adapted to the child’s mental development age – the explanation given at age ten should be and will be very different to that given when the child is five years old.
How parents handle each stage of a child’s sexual development sets them up for healthy or unhealthy relationships with sex as adults according to Joyce Penner, author of Sex Facts for the Family. She goes as far as to advise parents to keep their doors locked to prevent being discovered accidentally which can actually traumatise the child. “Oversharing” of intimate details by a mum or a dad with their child can be harmful in the long run even if the parent thinks they are preparing the child for the real world or believes the child needs to have an open relationship with mum or dad.
By all means, encourage open communication channels, but keep in mind the child’s age and maturity levels. The exposure to details of sexual relations (positive and negative) between mum and dad can be emotionally and rationally perplexing, because of the filial love they also feel at the same time towards both parents.
In my opinion and own experience, children and early teens do not have the capacity to understand complex adult sexuality and relationship issues. I remember being confused about things that my female relatives mentioned related to sex; most of which seemed completely random and disconnected. There were a lot of undertones and innuendos that left me feeling like I had accidentally wandered into a place where I couldn’t completely understand the native language.
When a parent ‘overshares’ certain information about their partner or sexual relations in the marriage with their child; experts call this ‘giving your child the role of marriage counsellor’. Eventually the child will be forced to take sides. It also moves the parent from a role of guide or protector, to being vulnerable and emotionally dependent on your child. Because pubescent children might be struggling with their own issues and identity – they will end up receiving mixed messages.
Some parents view their children as a part of them, not separate individuals, so boundaries and appropriateness don’t apply. But parents need to redefine these relationships as the child grows older – sharing intimate details about mum and dad’s sexual relationship in my experience definitely hinders this process.
Rashida Tayabali is a freelance writer and founder of Project Mum. You can follow her on Twitter @projectmum or @rashidawriter