I remember the first time I was swept away by a book. I was reading Gone With the Wind as a young teen, and noon became dinnertime in what seemed like five minutes. I still recall my delight at finally understanding why people said that reading could be magic; I felt like a grown up secret had been revealed to me when I experienced the sense of being transported through time and by developing what seemed like a real emotional attachment to the characters.
Later, while reading the wildly popular “Flowers in the Attic” series of books and I felt torn as themes of love and longing came into the story, confounded by the fact that the attraction was between siblings. The female protagonist in the book describes her powerful, new-found feeling by saying, “I was coming alive, feeling things I hadn’t felt before. Strange achings, longings. Wanting something, and not knowing what is was that woke me up at night.” And no doubt, those same feelings were happening to me and millions of other readers.
As a parent, I relied on ratings when evaluating media my child might consume. The young adult specialists at the American Library Association use the “YA” or Young Adult designation for books they deem appropriate for readers between the ages of 12 and 18. There is a world of difference among kids at either end of this age group and YA books deal with some very mature themes. So-called ‘coming of age’ stories are prominent in this genre and often include a theme of a young person experiencing a grown-up challenge or experience for the first time. Young love and first romance are common and a young reader’s reaction to detailed descriptions of strong feelings and romantic interludes—even the ones that don’t involve actual sex—may be surprisingly intense. Many kids experience their first stirrings of sexual arousal while reading.
Discussing books with our kids can provide a drama-free opportunity to discuss sexuality; you’re not asking them to do something or forbidding them from something else. A shared interest in a book can be a great conversation-starter to help guide your child toward healthy attitudes about gender roles, intimacy, respect, love, relationships, communication and other areas. We can share our own feeling about books and characters we’ve loved: “One reason we love a book is because it makes us feel things,” you might explain. “A murder mystery might scare you, an adventure story may get you excited about something and a romance may stir up sexual feelings.”
This conversation might feel awkward if you’ve never broached the issue of sexual feelings with your child, but it’s a good place to start. This conversation can be especially important for our daughters; sexual arousal is way less obvious for them than it is for our sons and it’s good for them to have a name for that warm feeling they get when reading about love or romance. Boys and girls both reap lifelong benefits from the knowledge that arousal is a reflex, something their body does in response to stimulation, whether they want it to happen or not… but that’s a topic for another blog!
Books are a tool for connecting with our kids of all ages. They learned about love and intimacy during cozy toddler moments as they drifted off to sleep in our lap listening to their favorite story. As they enter the “YA” phase, they stand to learn many more lessons about love and intimacy, and we can continue to help make sure they understand the lessons!
Dr. Janet Rosenzweig drew on her experiences as a sex educator working with child abuse prevention to write The Sex-Wise Parent: The Parent’s Guide Protecting Your Child, Strengthening Your Family, and Talking to Kids about Sex, Abuse, and Bullying (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012). She has been a professor, public administrator and researcher and currently works with Prevent Child Abuse America. Rosenzweig holds a BS in Family Studies and an MS in Health Education from The Pennsylvania State University, where she has returned in recent months to conduct workshops for parents. She earned a PhD in social work while working and raising a son as a single mom.
Like Dr. Roseznweig’s take? Check out Dawn’s review of The Sex-Wise Parent.
Thanks so much for contributing this piece, Dr. Rosenzweig! Much of what you said here hit home for me as I think back to some things I read as an adolescent. (I still to this day can feel guilty for feeling the way I did about the Flowers in the Attic series– as a young teen, I couldn’t imagine anyone else reacting the way I did to those books. Ha!)
Now as a parent, I feel responsible for making sure my children are more informed and less prone to feeling shameful or guilty about aspects of their natural development than I was. Thanks so much!