Monday, September 09, 2013

Sexuality Without Shame

We have four teenagers in our home.

The topics of sex and sexuality come up a lot.  That, and also discussions on how to get rid of whatever is making their shoes smell like death and decay.

There has never been a time we have not talked about our bodies, development, friendship, connection and love.  Sexuality has been a thread that has been woven throughout our conversations from the time the kids could point out body parts.  We've never had "the talk."  We just, ya' know ... talk.

Michael and I are partnering in this as two adults who were teenagers when shame-based Christian teachings were prevalent.  We have since grown our family and learned a great deal about shame over the last four years and why it is something we want to try to avoid.  It has been difficult for us to realize that we, like most people, were exposed to this type of teaching and authority models throughout our lives so much so that we don't even realize we're doing it.  When it is all you know, it can seem impossible (and maybe wrong?) to do it another way.

So, why do it?  And what the heck does it look like?

First, we had to understand that guilt and shame are not the same.  Guilt deals with behavior and leaves a person thinking, "I am not happy about what I did.  That thing there - that decision - was a bad idea.  I should do something about that.  I should make a different choice next time."  Shame attempts to change or control behavior in a person by creating negative thoughts and feelings about who they are.  It is based on how the person feels about themselves instead of the impact of their actions.

(photo by Broadwaybabe120 Photography and Art) 
Shame can cause a lot of damage to those who are on the receiving end.  Now, you may be saying, "But I changed my behavior when I was a kid, if I felt ashamed about something.  It works!"  I can absolutely agree with you that shaming someone, many times, will change their behavior that is happening in front of you.  You betcha'.  And sometimes there is no real change or thought or understanding that goes on afterward, and the feelings continue and the child/person just finds a way to hide their feelings and behaviors.  They then can start to internalize that they are bad (based on feelings that just are - not bad or good).  They also know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they should never come to you when they are again struggling with the same thing.  They will avoid hearing the same words that made them feel so awful about themselves.

Michael and I, when stressed, fearful and experiencing anxiety over the massive task of leading five other humans through life, want to stop and change their negative behavior.  We want that bad.  Like ... crazy bad.  In all honesty, yes.  That is exactly our goal in that moment.  Thankfully, because of the challenges we have been faced with and all of the learning we have done over the last four years, we can be vulnerable with this. These are our thoughts in the moment.

Yet, if we look at the big picture, that is not what we actually want.

We want our children to love themselves fully and completely.  We want our children to accept themselves.  We want our children to look into our eyes and know they are receiving love and acceptance from us and there is nothing that they can ever say or do to change that.  We want them to never doubt our response or reaction and know that any thought, any feeling and any behavior has a safe place to land.  We want our children to always know we will help them find a way to repair any damage they ever do to others or themselves, and see that as a positive thing (even when they're not looking forward to it).

So, here is what it looks like when we talk with our kids about sexuality while avoiding our natural tendency to shame.

There are a lot of "We do not's" and "We do's."  Let's start with we do not dare to imply that we don't mess this up.  We do catch ourselves and correct when we fall back into shaming patterns.  

We do not say, "You should not look at the bodies of the high school girls at the pool.  Especially if they are wearing very revealing swim suits.  You should do everything in your power to look away, and if you have to talk to them focus solely on their eyes."

We do talk about how all people find certain things visually appealing in a sexual way.  That is wonderful.  Our eyes can be the gateway to lighting up our entire body.  How amazing is that?  The human body is fascinating and a work of art.  Our kids talk about how they notice the bodies of others when they are in public or when they have noticed others looking at them.  We guide the conversation to questions like, "In feeling attraction and noticing someone that makes your eyes do summersaults, how do you balance those feelings with also being kind and respectful?  To yourself and to others?  Can you balance that?  What would it look like?"  These conversations allow our kids to find their own answers by asking more questions and considering all sides.  When it is their thought process and their discovery, it's real.  Not just something mom and dad are dictating to them.  This is also a way to help them hear it is perfectly normal and acceptable to find others sexually attractive.  In fact, we celebrate it.  It's a wonderful part of growing up.

We do not say, "You need to cover up as much as possible.  Boys are sexually stimulated by sight, and it is mean and cruel to flaunt yourself like that and force them to have to work so hard to look you in the eyes.  Besides, you don't want people to think you are easy or a slut.  And if you dress a certain way, people are going to think that about you.  Is that what you want?"

We do talk about feeling sexual, feeling sexy, and wanting others to find us sexy.  These are normal feelings that everyone has at different stages in their lives.  We guide our kids with questions about those natural feelings and how they can determine the best way to present themselves based on where they are in their body, heart, mind and soul.  My girls are able to talk openly about the desire to use their bodies sometimes for attention.  We discuss, at length, why those feelings arise.  Those feelings are feelings.  They are not bad or good.  They are feelings, and you cannot help how you feel, but you do have control over what you do. We talk about how society and normal peer interactions can trigger that within us. Our kids think through how they can be sexual beings and also make choices that fit their bigger picture.

We do not use questions or phrases like, "You don't want to be like that, do you?" or "You're dressed in a way that says you are ready for sex," or "If you do that, you know what people are going to say about you."

We do tell our children who they already are.  They are beautiful and creative.  Funny and delightful.  They are human and raw. They are worthy.  So very worthy.  They are struggling through life and feelings and sexuality like everyone else.  They are perfectly capable of making mistakes (like everyone else) and thinking through how they want to change course.  They deserve love, and will always deserve love.

We do not tell our kids what they will or will not wear.

We do ask our kids to think through all of this ebb and flow and balance.  We encourage them to decide what is right for them, based on who they are and the types of interactions and connections they want to have.  We remind them that it is okay to feel jealous when the other kids are getting more attention (maybe they got their boobs first?) and it is perfectly natural to want to use their body, also, to receive equal attention.  Our kids then have a safe space to sit and rattle around through all of that.  Determine how to have these feelings while still being true to what they want for themselves.  Not on the way out the door.  Not at the store when we're buying clothes.  But here and there, spattered through conversations, as we live our lives.  We make a plan together.  And when it is time to buy the clothes or walk out that door, we can help them evaluate their decisions based on the plan they made for themselves.

We try very hard to not respond in anger and fear and a desire to control.  We get to be human, too, and this is something we seem to still have to keep in check constantly.  When we see one of our kids struggling with making a decision, or making a decision that we vehemently disagree with, we try very, very hard to remember that all behavior has meaning.  There is a reason they are behaving that way.  Shaming, calling names, labeling other kids, or trying to instill fear in them will not help them work through those feelings.  It will not bring connection between us.  It will not create a safe space for them to be human.  It will not help them make a good, positive decision.

We do try to remember to ask, then listen.  We acknowledge their feelings, instead of judging them for existing.  They need a place to say them out loud so they can then determine what to do.  If they believe we view certain feelings as "bad," they will most certainly stop sharing them with us.  If they believe we think their feelings are bad ... and they can't seem to just stop feeling those things ... then they will start to believe they must be bad.

We also completely understand why so many of us continue to parent using shame as a focal point.  It's what we know.  It can happen without having to stop and think it through.  Sometimes it even feeds an unhealthy desire in us.  Having the desire to respond in this way is just a feeling - not good or bad.

Well, look at that.  This works for us, too.  No reason to judge a desire to want to control our kids.  That is a feeling that is there.  We can look at it, evaluate it, try to figure out where it is coming from, think through our options and then determine what we want to do.  See how this works?  We can walk through these steps ourselves, and then be an even better guide to our kids as we are asking them to do the same thing.

We can lead by being vulnerable.  We can lead by listening and hearing.  We can lead by being honest without judging the things they cannot change.  By doing that, we can better understand our kids, and they will feel safer to draw close to us.


"'Good' Children - at What Price?  The Secret Cost of Shame" by Robin Grille and Beth Mcgregor

"On respect, responsibility and Mrs. Hall's open letter to teenaged girls" by Kristen Howerton

For more ideas on how to be a better coach for your teenager, check out all of Paul Saver's videos:


Anonymous said...

This is PERFECT timing for our family right now. Thanks Christine!

Cathy Givans said...

You and both need a "print this post" button on your blogs. Seriously! <3

lisa j said...

I like all that you have said in this post and it has made me think about things in a different way. I have one question. In your post it says something such as we do not tell them what they will or will not wear but that you discuss things at times when your not at the store picking out clothes etc. If one of your children picked out an outfit that you did not think was appropriate for their age or any other reason how do you handle that?

Christine Moers said...


We make a plan ahead of time. And I ask my girls, "When you find yourself choosing something that doesn't fit with this plan, what would be a good way for me to approach it? How can I help you make the right decision for you in the moment? Especially if, in that moment, you're pretty sure this plan is the dumbest thing we've ever done in the history of ever?" It's pretty amazing when it becomes a dialogue like this and our kids can be a part of helping US help them.

And then, when it happens, we all already know what we talked about, they are not surprised and I am able to approach them in a way they have asked for.

lisa j said...

Thanks for answering my question. I appreciate it and wish I could be a fly on the wall to see how you interact together and have these dialogues. :)

Marie Bryan said...

Thank you for this post! Although I don't have children and have never planned on having children I was still able to relate to the message. It made me think more deeply about how I was raised and how shaming, to a certain degree, was used as a tool to get me to behave "like a lady". But, more importantly, after watching Brene Brown's TED video I realized that "shaming" wasn't necessarily what one did to others but something that we can do to ourselves. Hit me in the gut. Hard. Had quite the "a ha" moment and had to rewatch the video a few times. I, obviously, needed to hear that for various reasons so I thank you again for posting on this topic. Gave me plenty to think about and chew on. :)

Echota Keller said...

This is such a beautiful and thoughtful post.