How to talk to your kid about sex? Ex-actress Jacelyn Tay and experts on the dos and don'ts, Latest TV News - The New Paper

How to talk to your kid about sex? Ex-actress Jacelyn Tay and experts on the dos and don'ts

How would you react when your child comes home from school asking with wide-eyed innocence: "What is six-nine?"

Actress-turned-wellness health coach Jacelyn Tay, 46, found herself in such a situation in November. Her 10-year-old son Zavier Wong said his friend was making cheeky jokes about it.

"I was thinking to myself: Oh gosh, how do I tell him? Because he wasn't just asking what is sex, but what is six-nine," she recalls.

Later that month when they were on a cruise holiday, she found the right opportunity to have a sex education talk with him. They were sitting at their cabin balcony overlooking the sea and it felt like the "correct mood", she says with a chuckle.

That first serious conversation about the matter with her son was her biggest hurdle because she was unsure how he would take to it.

"I'm a health coach. I'm not shy about talking about it, but how blatantly truthful should I be? Would he jump and say, 'What on earth is this?'" says Tay, who is the founder of wellness centre Body Inc.

After the conversation, she found it very easy to talk to him about sexuality and he would continue to ask her questions every now and then.

Tay did not want to go into details of their exchanges with The Straits Times, but she shared some of it on her social media earlier this month.

One question raised by her son was: "Does it really feel good when (the) penis goes into (the) vagina?"

And what should he do if he feels like having sex?

Tay replied that he had to simply "control" the urge, though she also confessed to not knowing what the right answer is.

"Oh man, it is not easy parenting at all," she lamented in her post. "In this time and age, I find it challenging bringing up a wholesome good boy."

Zavier is her only child. Tay was married for eight years to businessman Brian Wong. They announced their divorce in 2018.

Tay has since removed the post, but it is not because she regretted sharing the rather private conversation with her son publicly.

She tells The Straits Times that her beliefs about sex stem from her Christian faith, which drew divided opinions from people who read her post. "Out of respect to those who were upset, I took down the post. I don't want to argue about religion."

She went through the comments - both positive and negative - with her son.

And in case you are wondering, he gave consent to all the posts related to him. "And every single picture," she adds with a laugh.

Tay says she had put up the post to spark a conversation with other parents who may have a better solution to teaching kids about sex. She received many encouraging messages from parents, who are grateful for her candid sharing.

Indeed, the trust and openness she displays towards her son is an approach that family experts agree with.

Clinical psychologist Carol Balhetchet, who has more than 20 years of experience counselling children and teenagers, says: "It is brilliant that she lets her child know that he can talk to her about this intimate subject about sex and being aroused. Kudos to her that she even brought up this topic for discussion on a public platform."

Ms Tan Joo Hymn, project director for the Birds and Bees programme at Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), says it is important that children feel they are loved and that they can ask their parents anything.

"What was good about Jacelyn's approach is that she engaged with her son in the moment, and answered his questions, even if she admitted to not being sure of the right answer and finding the conversation challenging," says Ms Tan.

The trust and openness Jacelyn Tay displays towards her son is an approach that family experts agree with.PHOTO: JACELYN_TAY/INSTAGRAM

Experts that The Straits Times spoke to say having an honest and open talk about sex does not encourage children to try it.

"Studies show that having conversations with parents about sex helps youth delay sexual activity while preparing them to make healthy decisions about relationships in future," says Ms June Yong, a family life expert at Focus on the Family Singapore.

Ms Tan says these decisions include having fewer partners and using contraception more consistently, citing research by the World Health Organisation and United Nations.

She points out that just as Tay's son asked her questions before she thought he was ready, many children may be curious about their bodies and interested in romantic and intimate experiences when they are still "too young" in their parents' eyes.

"They are also bombarded by sexualised images which are used to promote anything from burgers to jeans. No matter how hard parents tell their children that sex is off-limits, they receive many more counter messages every day," she says.

So, for parents who are asked questions about sex by their kids or thinking of talking to their kids about it, what are the dos and don'ts?

Do start early and keep talking

Take a factual, age-appropriate and incremental approach.

Says Focus on the Family Singapore's Ms Yong: "It is best to start young and start small, tackling topics such as the proper names of body parts and biological differences between male and female."

Ms Tan of Aware says children can also learn the differences between safe and unsafe touches, and who to approach if something feels wrong.

Books are helpful resources to jump-start the conversation.

Ms Yong recommends titles such as Who Has What?: All About Girls' Bodies And Boys' Bodies by Robie H. Harris and I Said No! A Kid-To-Kid Guide To Keeping Private Parts Private by Zack and Kimberly King.

However, ex-actress Tay says parents should not force the topic on their kids if they are not ready. She tried finding opportunities to talk to her son about sex when he was in lower primary, but he was simply not interested.

"But when our kids start to ask us, that's when we have to face the topic and really address it."

Don't feel awkward about the topic

It is likely that children aged 10 and older will start asking their mums and dads questions similar to those asked by Tay's son.

"As parents, it's useful to first think through our own attitudes and perspectives about sex and relationships, and then plan what we want to say to our children," says Ms Tan who has three kids aged 10 to 17.

Parents have to overcome their shyness talking about sex and relationships.

"Children are very good at sensing our moods. If we are terribly awkward when talking to them, they may conclude that they should not bring up such topics with us anymore," she adds.

Instead, they will find other means to find the answers, including from friends and the Internet.

Do explain what happens during puberty

At primary-school age, it would be helpful to explain to kids what happens during puberty, so they are not caught off-guard. School-based sex education begins only in Primary 5 and that might be too late for some children, says Ms Tan.

Ms Yong advises parents to take time to help their kids understand the changes they will experience, and encourage them to raise concerns or questions.

For instance, a girl will start developing breasts and menstruating. A boy's voice will deepen and he will experience an increase in height, muscle mass and the size of his penis and testicles.

Parents with sons can also have conversations about the possibility of erections and wet dreams.

"We can talk about what these are and when it can happen, for example, during a full bladder, sexual arousal and sleep. Assure them that erections are a normal part of being a male teen and not something to be embarrassed about," says Ms Yong.

Dr Balhetchet, who has over 20 years of experience counselling children and teenagers, adds that parents should be "relaxed and factual" in talking to their son.

Don't instil shame or use fear-based tactics

Holistic sexuality education does not just comprise talking about the physical aspect of sexuality, but involves the whole person, including the intellectual, emotional and relational aspects, says Ms Yong.

"Most people associate sex with acts of intimacy with a partner, but wholesome sexual attitudes actually begin with loving and accepting yourself and being comfortable with who you are.

"Parents should be mindful not to instil shame about their children's bodies or use fear-based tactics to turn them off sex, such as perpetuating the myth that sex is dirty or messy."

Do attend parenting programmes

Look out for workshops run by Aware and Focus on the Family Singapore to help equip you with evidence-based knowledge about consent, relationships and sex, and tools to begin the conversations with your kids.

For example, Aware has a workshop titled Birds And Bees next month.

You can also get useful tips from the Talk About Sex column on the website of Focus on the Family Singapore.

A 2020 survey of parents that Aware did with Blackbox Research found that only around half of respondents felt comfortable having age-appropriate discussions with their kids about sexual health, intimate relationships and sex.

The highest percentage of parents were comfortable discussing topics of sexual health (57 per cent) with their children, followed by romantic and intimate relationships (51 per cent), with sex coming in last (49 per cent).

For those uncomfortable discussing these topics, the reasons given included embarrassment or a lack of confidence (25 per cent), a lack of the appropriate tools to begin the conversation (35 per cent) and the worry that the discussion would encourage their children to have sex (26 per cent).

Says Ms Tan: "Many who attended Aware's Birds And Bees workshop for parents said they had not talked about sex in their families when they were young or were given the message that sex was dirty or taboo."

Do teach your child about respect and consent

Tay reminds her son not to engage in "dirty talk" about women's bodies or believe other boys if they say that he is "not macho" for never having sex before.

According to Ms Tan, many parents are predominantly approaching sexuality education by envisioning their children as potential victims of sexual violence. Far fewer consider the possibility that their kids might be the potential perpetrators.

But in a study done by Aware in 2016 in collaboration with a tertiary institution in Singapore, one in five young persons said they had verbally harassed someone, and one in 10 had touched, kissed or had sex with someone without the latter's consent.

Four in 10 said they knew someone who had harassed or initiated unwanted sexual contact with someone.

"These numbers are not insignificant," says Ms Tan. "Therefore, talking about sex and relationships with young persons is important not just to protect them from sexual assault, but also to protect others from being assaulted by them."

Do talk about pornography and the sex trade

During the course of her work counselling children, Dr Balhetchet has seen boys who had access to Playboy magazines and porn sites.

In fact, according to a 2016 survey by Touch Cyber Wellness, nine in 10 boys between the ages of 13 and 15 in Singapore have watched or read sexually explicit materials.

If you think they had accidentally stumbled upon the porn sites, you would be surprised that 54 per cent of boys intentionally sought these out.

In order to protect their kids, Dr Balhetchet says parents should not shy away from talking about pornography "because we do not live in a pure world".

Tay says she has been educating her 10-year-old son about porn.

"I even talked about prostitution," she says. "He was watching Crime Watch and an episode mentioned 'extra services'.

"I think we need to address all topics related to sex completely because, if not, they will go onto the Internet and search for it.

"It's unavoidable because they are exposed to it online. No matter how you lock up the access, there will be kids in school who will talk about it, like how my son heard it from the others."

To help make the discussion easier, Ms Yong suggests that parents read Good Pictures, Bad Pictures: Porn-proofing Today's Young Kids by Kristen A. Jenson.

Do continue to engage your teenage children

Teenagers tend to shy away from awkward conversations with parents. They are also at an age where they think they know a lot, says Ms Tan.

A useful way would be to talk about characters in shows or books, ask them what they think about a certain character or whether they would do the same thing in a similar situation. This makes the conversation less personal and therefore less threatening to a teen.

Ms Yong adds that parents may want to approach the topic of sex and romance from the perspective of wanting to understand what they think, while also helping them to learn more about it. "Your teen will want to know the 'why behind the what', so take your time to explain the reasons behind your beliefs," she says.

Don't lose your cool

Most importantly, make your child feel safe that he or she can ask you anything. "And you should respond in a non-judgmental way," says Dr Balhetchet.

Ms Yong agrees. "Value connection more than correction. This means that when they do approach you and admit to seeing or doing something they shouldn't have, you'll have to keep your composure and not lose your cool.

"When you are connected to each other, sex can be just another topic you talk to each other about."

"Mum, dad, I'm in a relationship"

When children confess that they are "in a relationship", it is easy for parents to imagine the worst and jump to conclusions.

Sometimes, younger children mimic what they see without understanding, and for them, "being in a relationship" means going to recess with the same person every day, says Ms Tan from Aware.

"We should remember that our children have just entrusted us with information that is close to their hearts, and that this is an opportunity for us to have a conversation with them to understand them better," she adds.

Some questions that parents can ask in such a situation are: What do you like about your boyfriend or girlfriend? What do you enjoy doing together? How do you feel when you are with him or her?

Ms Yong from Focus on the Family Singapore says some teens may think that being in love means having sex with their boyfriend or girlfriend.

"Help your teens process this by not just talking about sex as a pleasurable act, but by placing sex within the context of a loving, respectful and committed relationship."

Dr Balhetchet suggests that parents ask their child to invite the boyfriend or girlfriend home to meet them. She says: "Tell your kid, we're not judging here. We just want to know him or her."

For parents whose kids have not entered a romantic relationship yet, she cautions against setting rules that they cannot date until a certain age.

"Won't they start lying to you when they have a boyfriend or girlfriend before then?" she says. "Instead, why not set rules such as: Whenever you have something troubling you, come talk to me. I'll be here."

This way, you can keep the communication open with your child and be able to see his or her world.

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