I thought this was going to be about sex. My daughter’s teachers provided us with Deborah Roffman’s book Talk to Me First, to give us insight into how to talk to our kids about sex. Roffman’s book about “becoming your kids’ ‘go-to’ person about sex” is so much more. It’s a spot-on framework for parenting in general.
Roffman offers what she calls the “Five-Piece Suit” of parenting-the five jobs that parents have in order to fulfill the five corresponding core needs that every child has.
So what are these 5 jobs/needs? Affirmation, Information, Clarity About Values, Setting Limits, and Anticipatory Guidance. Roffman gives examples of each and breaks them down into subcategories. I’ve put together a brief-ish description each along with their subcategories. This will lay the ground-work for approaching parenting issues and hopefully inspire you to read more about it, especially when considering how to tackle touchy subjects like sex.
Roffman posits that affirmation is the number one core need because it’s “the foundation on which all of children’s other needs rest.” She explains that through affirmation, children form “trust in the world, which starts with faith and confidence in us as representatives.” Affirmation is broken down into equally important types or subcategories: Attention, Unconditional Acceptance and Love, Validation, Taking Perspective, and Developmental “Knowing.”
All kids need attention, and we know that if they don’t get it one way, they’ll find another not-so-good way to get it. Roffman states that “our attention tells us that they exist and that they matter.” She also argues that children need nurturing but are less likely to seek out adult nurturers if the adults in their lives are too preoccupied with other things. If they don’t get attention from us, they are also less likely to pay attention to us. If they are not paying attention to us, how will they learn from us?
Unconditional Acceptance and Love
Roffman explains that acceptance does not equate to approval. You can “criticize the conduct, not the child” and “praise the behavior not the child.” This is consistent with what we know about fixed vs growth mindsets (which you could read more about here). Roffman reminds us that “children need to feel adults’ love and total acceptance for who they are at all times, even when their behavior is deplorable.”
Validation meets the “need to be noticed, valued, known, and accepted.” It engenders trust and open communication. Active listening is a form of validation, which everyone in any relationship could benefit from using. It involves paying attention to and acknowledging one’s emotions and what they are trying to communicate, by repeating what they are communicating in your own words to show you understand or to get clarification so you could understand better. For kids, even asking questions and showing interest in their work, rather than stating an opinion like “That’s a pretty picture” is an effective form of validation.
It’s important to be able to see the world through our children’s eyes. We need to empathize with how they might be feeling and remember that kids don’t think the same way we do and don’t have the experiences that we do.
In order to answer their questions, whether it be about sex (her main focus) or anything else, we need to understand what exactly they are asking. We often get caught up in our own emotions as parents that Roffman says “can easily lead to misinterpretation, faulty projections, or even denial of our children’s own reality.” We need to be able to put our ego on the back burner so we could better empathize and see through their eyes. In my experience, this is often easier said than done, and takes a lot of practice and mindfulness to achieve.
As children grow, they pass through unique developmental stages. Besides knowing your individual child well, it’s important to be aware of where they may be on a typical developmental timeline. Roffman encourages parents to read up on their child’s upcoming year and what developmental stages (emotional, physical, cognitive, etc.) when they celebrate a birthday. This way, you’ll be prepared to support them and their changing needs and probably even be reassured that what they may be going through is normal and expected and just as importantly for a lot of parents-this too shall pass! And if not, you’ll know when to be concerned and consider finding resources for help and intervention.
It’s our responsibility to impart all of our vast knowledge and wisdom (ha!) to our children. We are their most important educators, as we usually have them right from the beginning. The world is complex and we instinctively teach our kids on a level that we think they would understand. Context is helpful as well as understanding where they are developmentally. The way we hear their questions and the way they mean them may be different. Talking about sex is no different. Roffman explains, in the context of sex education because that’s what this book is based on, that each age is at a slightly different place developmentally. She gives examples of typical questions children ask at ages four, five and six and how to answer them in a way that they are age-appropriate and not answering a question that is not really being asked (and giving away more than necessary).
Roffman also lists ways of “folding in the facts” or ways to organically work the information into conversation. She describes this as a “logical and comfortable ‘way in’ ” to a discussion and lists examples of ways you can work in an important discussion.
Regarding sex, the words you use and how you teach your kids how to talk about it and their bodies are important. Rather than using slang terms or euphemisms like “playing with yourself” or “going #1 or #2” or using baby words like “tush and “pee-pee,” Roffman argues the importance of using proper terminology for body parts like “vulva” and “penis.” This is helps avoid confusion when learning the scientific facts of life as well as serving as protection when teaching boundaries and (god forbid) reporting sexual abuse.
Clarity About Values
Roffman challenges readers to think about their values and how they want to convey these values to their children. Not every answer may be readily available to our children, but if raised with the morals and values with which you have imbued them, they will have a useful framework for decision-making and behavior throughout their lives.
Roffman first offers questions for parents to consider so that they are clear on their own values (ideally both parents would discuss this and be on the same page) like “What does sexuality have to do with morality?” and how to incorporate those values into your child’s life choices (sexual or not).
Ethics around sex is a key component of clarifying your family’s values as we realize that our young boys especially need to be raised in a way that respects women and boundaries. This is where we teach our boys what is acceptable behavior in interacting with women (as an example given current events, but this applies to everyone). Imagine a world where boys grew up valuing women as equals rather than objects or possessions, or where they are raised with high enough expectations of their own behavior that “boys will be ‘boys'” is a lame excuse of the past, that hurts our boys AND girls.
You’ve heard it before. Kids want and need boundaries. Don’t let them fool you. Roffman reminds us that we need to set “safe and reasonable limits around [our kids’] behavior and choices.” She reminds us also, that we need to remember where our children are at cognitively and developmentally in terms of rules and limit setting. She offers some simple tests, or questions, that you could ask your child to determine what plane of development they may be on,what privileges they might be ready for, and what restrictions they might still need. She reminds us that independence should be earned.
Setting clear limits will also help children navigate boundaries and intimacy as they get older. Technology use is another area where limits should be set and you could imagine where this could come in handy in relation to teaching your kids about sex as well.
We need to act as our kids’ frontal lobes. Home to our executive functions, including but not limited to: organization, thinking ahead and planning, switching tasks smoothly, prioritizing tasks, self-regulation, emotional control, and self-monitoring, the frontal lobe is not fully matured until our 20s. It’s the last part of the brain to mature. That’s right, even young adults are running around without fully matured brains. As parents, it’s our job to plan ahead for them and consider what might happen and anticipate their evolving needs. First we set limits then, Roffman explains, we transition them to guidance. Little by little, they start to learn that their actions have consequences. We need to be there to walk them through it, ideally giving them more earned independence as they go so they can eventually make wise choices on their own.
Roffman does a good job of tying her 5 parenting roles into a mindset that will teach your kids about sex in a healthy and positive way. But my biggest take-away was the usefulness of having this framework for parenting in general. Even the aspects of nurturing that may seem obvious are still helpful reminders to keep us on our game. Talk To Me First is full of real world examples and stories. Roffman walks the reader through potential pitfalls and typical problems parents face and provides guidance on how to evaluate the situation, which role you might need to fulfill at that moment, and what you might say/do. She’s not just lecturing; she makes it interactive by giving you the questions, giving you a chance to think about the scenario and only later gives her take on the right way to approach an issue.
If you are looking for inspiration, guidance on parenting in general, or just a reminder of what you may already know, pick up this book. If you are looking for specific guidance on how to talk to your kids about sex and related issues, definitely pick up this book.