When I was growing up, in the context in which I grew up (in the 1970s and 1980s, in an area of lily-white folks of mixed economic class), if someone used the phrase “the talk,” they were referring to the one about sex. You know the one. In that time, if you got it at all, your parents sat you down, maybe with a book, and from a place of mortified near-incapacitation, explained “the birds and the bees” as briefly and cursorily as they possibly could. If they got to you early, maybe they told you something you didn’t already know. More likely, the talk happened because they could no longer avoid it after you got a hard-on at the pool, or got your first period and assumed you were dying, or your mom (or worse, your DAD) found your stash of dirty magazines. The 70s being the 70s, some of my cohort were fortunate enough to get a couple of books and a couple of talks.
I am the daughter of a woman whose 38-year career as a sex educator brought her a modicum of notoriety and an appearance on Oprah. And I have news for you: “The Talk” was never supposed to be a one-off.
AASECT, the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, asserts in its position paper on sex education that it should be factually accurate, age-appropriate, and culturally competent. Now, particularly with regard to that second one, doesn’t it stand to reason that it’s not possible, much less desirable, to have a one-and-done “talk” and believe you’ve covered the topic adequately?
Indeed, I had my first “age-appropriate, factually-accurate” sex education “talk” when I was 3. It consisted of learning the names of all the parts of my body — no skipping over the middle bits and no cutesy nicknames. The subtext of all of the “talks” (and really, it’s not accurate to call them that, because they weren’t formal meetings) that happened over the years was that Mom was a trustworthy, reliable source of correct information and as little judgment as she could manage and still be Mom. That no question would go unanswered, even if she didn’t know the answer, and that no topic was off-limits. She would always tell me the truth and if I stumped her, we’d figure it out together.
And, far from the experience a lot of my peers were having, I never felt ignorant, uninformed or confused about sex (at least not about the facts or the objective stuff — personal experience was another whole can of worms, but that’s a different article). I grew up with a healthy attitude about my body, about my sovereignty over my self and my choices, and confidence that wherever my brain or body took me in terms of gender or orientation, I would be loved and accepted. This in turn helped me to accept and love the LGBTQIA+ people in my life, and I like to think it’s part of the reason I’ve accepted and loved folks of different colors, ethnicities, ages, religions, political leanings and physical abilities too.
Which brings me around to the other “Talk.” As a lily-white girl living in a lily-white world for much of my life, I had been living on this rock for several decades before I learned that people of color have a different “Talk” they have with their children — a talk about racism, discrimination, and the risk of violence they would face throughout their lives.
I don’t have words that adequately express how sad, and how furious it makes me that this “Talk” has to happen in 2021. But it does, and because it does, it’s a Talk that every parent needs to be having with every kid, just like the sex Talk. And, just like the sex Talk, it’s not just one Talk. Just like the sex Talk, it needs to be age appropriate, factually accurate, and culturally competent.
I am of course in no position whatsoever to make any recommendations to BIPOC parents about how to go about that talk, beyond that very general suggestion that the same things my mom did right with sex education would serve all parents pretty well in talking about racism. Be a trustworthy source of accurate information. Answer every question as honestly as you can. Be “askable” — no topic off-limits. Commit to teaming up to find out the things you don’t know. And teach kids to have a healthy attitude about their bodies, their sovereignty over themselves and their choices, and confidence that they will always be loved and accepted.
Now for the white parents in the studio audience, I have some additional thoughts. The first one is that being white does not exempt you from this conversation. Far from it. It is at least as essential for white kids as it is for other kids, because the white kids and their parents are the entire reason this Talk is necessary for the other kids!
The Talk for white kids starts at age 3, just like the sex education process. It starts with language — respectful, correct words (not “politically correct”, just correct) rather than cutesy (or cruel) nicknames. Every person is unique. They come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. No one of them is better or worse than another, and we don’t use words that are hateful or hurtful any more than we hit people or throw things at them.
As they get older, it gets more complex, just like sex does. For white kids, it’s about how sometimes people get treated unfairly because of what they look like, and that is wrong, no matter who is doing it. When you have this part of The Talk, be honest about the reality that it’s a whole lot more common for white people — including their teachers and other trusted adults — to mistreat people of color and get away with it, than the other way around. Help them understand that it’s not OK, even when people they’ve been taught to respect (like teachers or police officers) do it. Come up with healthy responses. Make sure they know to tell you (probably instead of directly handling the situation if we’re talking about young kids) if an adult is saying or doing something harmful to another child. Again, there’s a strong parallel here with the sex Talk, right? You want your kids to tell you if their teacher is touching another student inappropriately, whether that’s a caress or a slap, and you want them to tell you if the teacher’s words are harmful, too.
As they enter their teen years, it’s time to talk about microaggressions as one nasty subset of all the ways teenagers are horrible to each other. Talk again about language, revisiting all the epithets (perhaps learning the latest batch that social media is spreading), including the ones that reference race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, age, religion, and physical ability. Remind them that hateful and hurtful language is not acceptable.
Now is also the time for you to look hard into the mirror and decide how you are going to deal with your child’s first date. This is when issues of race, gender, and orientation bias get very personal. The time to get ready to welcome your son’s new boyfriend or your daughter’s non-white date is not the day they bring them home. If you have meant everything you said up to this point, the day you meet your kid’s first date will be joyful, fun, and just your ordinary, garden variety “they’re growing up too fast” bittersweet, no matter who they are or what they look like. Those connections, those relationships, where we close the artificial and arbitrary divides and really love each other, are how we are going to beat this “-ism” thing once and for all.
Before they leave home, make sure they’ve also had some accurate history, geography, and sociology lessons. Encourage them to read outside the school curriculum, especially the unvarnished history of America. Help them learn to be really good listeners. Remind them frequently of the wise truth we all (myself very much included) need to remember: when you’re not sure, or when you’re feeling defensive, angry, suspicious or hurt, start by asking open-ended questions and really listen to the answers. Make sure, too, that they know they are playing the game of life on a lower difficulty setting than their BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ friends. Remind them that they can approach this reality with care and humility, and work every day in ways large and small to correct it.
You get the idea. Please have The Talks — both of them — with your kids. Have them early. Have them often. Think of it as being the change you want to see in the world.