Talking to Vulnerable Kids about Sexual Values

Jan 5, 2022

by Camille Everett

Creator of Be That Place

Handwritten notes and lunchtime chats from students kickstarted Camille's mission to help families teach sex ed at home. She is a graduate of Utah State University with a bachelor’s in Secondary Health & English Education. She loves having real conversations while devouring bowls of chocolate peanut butter ice cream.

It’s no secret that kids are very easily influenced. They are intellectually vulnerable — easy to persuade or mold. As an educator, this is both wonderful and alarming. That’s why I’m focused on helping parents understand how important it is to talk to kids about sexual values. Kids need these conversations — and want them — because the messages they are getting everywhere else can be really confusing.

As a teacher, I know that kids’ brains are still making connections between choices and healthy outcomes.

In fact, in The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, it says, “The adolescent brain makes important new pathways and connections, but the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of judgment, don’t mature until around age twenty-five.”1

That’s a lot of brain development that still needs to take place.

Because of this vulnerability, did I as a teacher have the authority to talk to kids about sexual values? I was in a position to influence after all. Or did it remain a parental right to actively shape these developing thoughts, feelings and actions?

I could give statistics about behaviors that contributed to particular outcomes like teen pregnancy or alcohol use and sexual activity. But looking at information through the lens of personal sexual values would have a bigger impact on quality of life. And quality of life is the reason I pursued a degree in health education in the first place.

My struggle may have been affected by the inexperience of being a new teacher. It may have been influenced by the cultural norms in the community I lived in. Or maybe I made the situation more complicated than it needed to be. Either way, it was a dilemma. 

Parents working with sex ed teachers

Every kid deserves to learn about bodies and love and sexuality in a safe environment. For some kids that safe environment is a school setting. For others it’s at home. And for some kids it’s a combination of the two.

Parents and sex ed teachers actually can work very well together when talking to kids about sexual values. But it takes effort.

Let me give an example of two different students.

One student, presumably not yet sexually active, would eagerly engage in conversation with me after class. After asking, I quickly came to learn that her parents talked to her regularly about what she was learning. Since I knew that, it was delightful to see her engage full circle in the learning process. We’d discuss health related information and her questions on a more personal level, I’d mention that her question would be a great topic to talk about around the dinner table that night, and she’d tell me the next day about her conversation with her parents.

On the other hand, I had another thirteen-year-old student that would often stay after class to chat. She left me a note one day saying that she needed to go to the clinic for another pregnancy test since she’d started dating her sixteen-year-old boyfriend. The fact that she was reaching out to me and casting her uncertainty in the form of a note made it very clear that she didn’t know what she felt about her actions. She didn’t think her parents would want to know what she was doing either, so she wouldn’t tell them.

It’s easy to see the difference between these two experiences. I know which student I’d want my own child to be.

The ideal situation for a student in the school system would be to learn good, accurate information at school and then to talk often about it at home with parents. 

But this is a combined effort that only happens when both parties make it happen.

The outcome? Kids learn how to interpret information in a way that aligns with emerging sexual values, all in a safe environment. This is what I want for my kids. How about you?

Talking about sexual values

What was the difference between these two students?

To put it simply, one of them came to understand sexuality information through the lens of her family’s values. This understanding guided her own developing values to inform her personal thoughts, words, and actions. She was aware that her decisions could affect her quality of life.

When our thoughts are clouded by unclear values, we find it hard to make decisions that lead us to where we actually want to go. We lack objective or purpose. We lack understanding of the consequences of our actions. In effect, values teach us the why. Limits teach us the how.

Kids need multiple opportunities to talk it out. They need to hear parents’ perspectives and they need to hear parents ask them what they think.

In The Self-Driven Child, both authors say that it surprises them “how many kids have never asked themselves what it is they want, or have never had someone ask it of them. . . But they need to think for themselves about themselves.”1

The authors weren’t speaking about sexual values here. But their comments about inner drive and motivation go hand in hand with why we choose to define personal values in the first place.

Open and healthy conversations play a vital role in kids using their developing judgment to make choices that get them where they actually want to go.

An easy place to start, is by asking them what they’re learning in school. Doesn’t matter if it’s Health, English or History class. They all include various messages about the many aspects of sexuality.

Or start the conversation by telling about a news story you listened to, some song lyrics you heard, or an advertisement you saw. Ask them, “What would you do in that situation?” or “Do you think that’s what the person actually wanted?”

Sexual values are unique to each individual

We’re all unique human beings and will most likely come to diverse conclusions about the same issues.

Which brings up a good point: people have different opinions even with the same information and similar values.

This is exactly why you, as the parent, need to keep these conversations going. Talk to your kids about sexual values. Help them understand what choices will achieve the quality of life they want.

You maintain that important role. Educators simply help out.

  1. William Stixrud, PhD, and Ned Johnson. The Self-Driven Child. Penguin Books, 2019.