Our kids' sex education begins the moment they tune into the world around them. Numerous gateways introduce them to our highly sexualized society: smartphones, tablets, laptops, television, supermarket tabloids, and sometimes our own jokes and language.
With so much exposure, not educating our kids about sex is like high-fiving sexual standards in the media. And this is nothing new.
Long before the Internet, a kid would discover his dad's stash of Playboy in the garage while looking for a baseball. These days, a kid might land on a pornographic website or see provocative pictures on her parent's iPhone while looking for a game app.
What happens next depends on the parents' attitude towards sex education.
1. When sex education is absent from the home, darkness descends.
My childhood experiences reflect this truth: Children are the best recorders of information, but the worst interpreters.
I grew up in an uptight religious community that regarded sex as taboo and it was not talked about. So, my playmates shocked me when they gleefully passed around pages from a modern day Kama Sutra. What was I supposed to do at the age of 9 with this new information? I had no filter to process what I was seeing, no way deal with the images burned into my memory.
Who could I talk to? No one, but possibly God — and he was really ticked off by what I had done. I had seen pictures of people doing what could not be talked about, and I felt shameful. That was my faulty interpretation, and I had no adult to challenge that shame.
So with my childhood obsessive-compulsive mojo, I developed mental games to transform the images in my mind into acceptable objects. I lived in fear that if I failed, I would go to Hell. And sex became even darker to me.
As a teen, I failed to properly understand physical reactions in my own body. I listened to my cousins and peers use words and expressions I didn't understand. I was a lifeguard who felt guilty if men or boys looked at me. I learned to confuse appreciation with lust. I feared going to Hell by causing someone to lust.
The whole sex thing was really dark for me until the arrival of my knight in shining armor. The man who became my husband taught me what I needed to know. He helped me understand my body and its very normal reactions.
My late arriving sex education peeled back a curtain of shame that had darkened my life. But I had to work hard to unlearn erroneous interpretations.
2. When sex education in the home is minimal, vulnerability expands.
My friend Mindy's experience reflects this truth: A book about sex provides insufficient protection.
Mindy was also raised in a fairly restrictive religious community. Her parents pulled her out of Family Life Education Class in fifth grade, not wanting the school to educate their child about sex. They gave her a book to read when she was an adolescent, explaining changes in her body and what to expect as she finished developing.
Her sex education had three clear commands: Read this book, don't have sex until you're married and don't talk to us about it.
So off to college she went, where she started making her own choices. But Mindy abruptly faced a problem: What happens if I don't toe the party line? What if I choose to become sexually active? How will or should I protect myself?
The book she had read years before only offered an abstinence solution. Mindy knew she couldn't discuss these questions with her parents. They would think she was terribly wrong.
Just as her own values were taking shape, Mindy was sexually harassed by one classmate and raped by another. She wasn't at fault for either experience, but Mindy felt ill prepared for the world of sex that awaited her in college.
Looking back, she realizes that she was sexually vulnerable before she took one step on university grounds. While working through her trauma, Mindy completed the sex education her parents' book had begun. As a result, she's committed to educating her own children about sex in a more complete way.
3. When parents educate their kids about sex, communication opens up.
My clients Bill and Sandy's experience reflects this truth: Sex education at home creates important lines of communication.
Bill had worked overseas for years, and the family had just returned stateside when their youngest daughter entered adolescence. Sandy announced that she wanted to take her daughter to a restaurant for The Talk.
Sandy told her daughter what she thought was important. They had a nice chat. But Sandy says that the most amazing part was what she learned because her daughter revealed some things about herself that Sandy had not known.
That conversation set a precedent. Sandy was a mother who was open to hear what her daughter wanted to share. She became this mother by being willing to educate her daughter about sex.
Through sex education, Sandy was able to communicate her own values, provide practical information her daughter needed, and lay a framework for discussing the sometimes murky waters of sex.
So why should you educate your kids about sex?
Because if you don't, you risk them drowning in erroneous interpretations, feeling vulnerable in a highly sexualized world and isolated from communication with you.
Sex education at home is not a magic chalice, but it will point your children toward sexual health. What they do with that navigation is up to them, but putting it in place is up to you.
If disagreements about sex education, or anything else, create distance with your partner, I encourage you to reach out for help. A relationship counselor or coach can help you sort out your differences without losing your love. If you're in Northern Virginia, contact me, I've lived the struggle, and I'm here to help. For instant help to jump start relationship change, grab my FREE guide, How to Make Your Relationship Work.