Sara Pic was born and raised in Uptown New Orleans (McMain ‘96!) and is a mom to twin toddlers and a stepmom to a teen son. She lives in River Ridge with her kids, her spouse, and her dog, Goobie.
Who Wants to Talk About Sex?
For many parents, “The Talk” is their greatest fear. They will speak in whispers or innuendos around young kids and studiously ignore it around older ones, even though any child who has access to the internet also has access to pornography. Experts in child and youth sexual health education advise that, rather than leaving discussion of sex to one conversation, parents instead start early and often. But even for parents who want to be open and honest with their kids, knowing how to talk about topics that their own parents likely didn’t talk to them about when they were kids can be rough.
Several years ago, my spouse and I enrolled our then-11-year-old son in a course called Our Whole Lives (OWL), a 10-week sex ed course offered through First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans and Community Church Unitarian Universalist. OWL is “opt-in” sex ed—not a required school course but rather a program offered to local parents who choose to enroll their kids (whether or not they are affiliated with the churches). OWL, I had read, promotes self-worth, responsibility, consent, sexual health, justice, and inclusivity. This is especially important in areas where the surrounding culture may not be supportive of people with LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized identities. My spouse and I both remembered how we had only received a few hours of sex ed at school and that it had focused mostly on mechanics of pregnancy and disease and very little on consent, respect, and emotional health. We wanted to do better by our son and give him the tools he needed to grow into a healthy, respectful young man. Admittedly, we also wanted to outsource “The Talk” with our tween son a little as well! We didn’t feel totally comfortable raising some of these topics, and didn’t know where or how to begin. OWL, a weekly class for kids our son’s age, seemed like a great place to start.
We were surprised, to put it mildly, when we learned in the first session—a required orientation for both parents and kids—that, as Melanie Davis, OWL program manager with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), puts it, “Our Whole Lives views parents and guardians as their children’s primary sexuality educators, building knowledge within the context of loving relationships and family values.” Fortunately, the OWL curriculum was there to help and support both parent and child. Week by week, we went through the readings with our son, trying to keep a straight face as we read together at our kitchen table about masturbation and looked at cartoon illustrations of naked people. To be clear, none of the illustrations were pornographic—but we aren’t used to seeing straightforward depictions of naked people in our culture. It wasn’t exactly easy! But nothing in parenting is easy—and yet we do it anyway, because we are trying to raise kids that are emotionally secure and have a positive body image and a life full of healthy relationships.
I was so impressed with the curriculum, and so concerned about the current state of reproductive health access in our country, I decided to look into becoming an OWL teacher myself last year, through my church. Having absolutely no experience in this area, it was required that I take a course in order to facilitate the classes, a “teaching the teacher” type of training. The UUA and the United Church of Christ (UCC) developed the OWL curriculum. Though it is offered through two religious groups, it is a secular program and is developed with national experts in health, education, and sexuality for specific stages of human development. The training I attended in particular emphasized the importance of confidentiality and boundaries. The goals of OWL are to build self-acceptance and self-esteem, foster healthy relationships, and improve decision-making in children and adults at all stages of their lives. I was approved to facilitate OWL for K-1 (5 to 6 year-olds) and 4-6 (9 to 11-year-olds). Yes, K-1! Because OWL really is “our whole lives” sex ed—and there are developmentally appropriate ways to talk to kindergarteners about sexual health and bodily autonomy.
I taught my first 4-6 class this past fall to a group of 12 tweens who impressed me every week with their insights and thoughtfulness (and yes, sometimes silliness!). One of the hallmarks of OWL is “The Question Box,” a place to ask anonymous questions. All students must write something to keep it really anonymous (but if they don’t have a question, they can just draw or write “Hi!”). They frequently used The Question Box to ask important questions related to bullying, pregnancy, LGBTQIA+ identities, and peer pressure. I learned as much from them as I hope they learned from me and my co-teacher. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are much more likely to know someone who is or identifies themselves as transgender/gender expansive, queer, or asexual. They are also dating people they meet online through kid-centered video games like Roblox and social spaces like Discord. And, like all of us, they are receiving misinformation about health and wellness from sources online and from their peers.
The OWL course for tweens is 10 sessions. Though one session does focus on sex specifically (and was perhaps the quietest of all of our sessions!), just as important as learning the mechanics of sex and reproduction is understanding the media’s impact on our body image, what gender is (and isn’t), and consent and peer pressure, which are all part of the curriculum. Children who are grounded in their values and who know how to critically evaluate information they receive are more likely to make healthy decisions for their bodies and lives.
A key component of OWL that is highlighted frequently with the kids is to consider who the “trusted adults” are in their lives. Many kids in class would volunteer their parents as their trusted adult, and this certainly should be the goal of every parent. But my co-teacher and I also helped the kids to consider other trusted adults—aunts, uncles, teachers—who they could turn to with questions. When the OWL course ended, we even made sure to reach out to all the parents and ask them to remind their kids that we, as the OWL teachers, would always be here for them as trusted adults, if they needed us. Ideally, you want to be an “askable parent,” but no matter how open you are, sometimes kids will want or even need to talk to someone else about their struggles and questions about sex and sexuality, and that should be supported by us, as parents.
A new book titled Yes, Your Kid: What Parents Need to Know About Today’s Teens and Sex reminds us right there in the title that yes, your kid is hearing about sex; yes, your kid may even be sexting or having sex; and yes, your kid is still a kid and needs their parent. They need us to help guide them and give them accurate information. It’s our responsibility to reach them in a way that will give them the best chances to hear us. As Melanie Davis says, “It’s essential that parents not leave sexuality education to schools, peers, or the internet. Without guidance, youth and teens may enter into relationships they aren’t developmentally ready for and may make sexual choices that put their emotional and physical safety at risk, as well as their planned futures.”
A parent of a child in my class commented, “These days, when most kids learn about self-esteem from TikTok and sex from porn, OWL is like a lifeboat. Our son had a safe, comfortable place to learn, laugh, question, and think about his body, about his feelings, about who he is. Most importantly, he learned—in a group—what it means to truly respect himself and his desires, and those of others. Shame and stigma keep us from talking openly. OWL does the opposite, with care and emotional support.”
Though many parents may want to outsource this education, as I did, they may not have access to an OWL class with instructors. Fortunately, the OWL curriculum can be purchased online, and many materials are even available for free.
- Free videos for parents of K-1 children: uua.org/re/owl/videos-k-1
- Free guide to parents and caregivers and sexuality educators: uua.org/families/sexuality-educators
- Recommended books and websites: uua.org/re/owl/facilitators
New Orleans metro area parents! Want to share your experience with ANTIGRAVITY readers? We’re always looking for a wide variety of parenting voices and circumstances to explore each month. If you’re interested, please get in touch with Erin Hall or head to our About page to fill out a contributor form.
illustrations by Victoria Allen