By Barb Flis | May 23, 2019
Founder, Parent Action for Healthy Kids
I am approaching my 15th year of helping parents talk to their kids about sex. It’s hard for me to fathom that this equates to several hundred workshops, impacting thousands of parents and supportive adults. The parents from those early years now have adult children and, in many cases, even grandchildren.
I’ve been fortunate to have had contact with some alum who tell me how much our workshop affected them. Did it make them sex education experts? Nope, not in the professional sense. Did they master the art of conversation and relationship? Highly unlikely.
So what’s the magic formula? Why, for 15 years, have 98% of our participants recommended the workshop to other parents?
You can learn more about the workshops offered by Parent Action for Healthy Kids at their website. Click on the “Events” pull-down menu.
It’s really quite simple. It’s because we believe in them! This focus on individuals’ resourcefulness and self-determination is foundational for effective work with parents—or any humans for that matter. The professional lingo for this is “strength-based approach.” But to us, it also carries a quality of enchantment, delight and surprise which we like to think of as magic.
Our magic formula has four ingredients which we invite—even encourage—you to use in any work you do with parents.
From the time parents arrive until they leave, we show them love. The environment is calm, nurturing and supportive. There is no hierarchy. The facilitator’s role is to allow the parents’ inner wisdom to come forward.
When creating an atmosphere of love, words matter—a lot! So, for example, we have discarded the word should in our workshops. We believe that every time we use the word should, we are making someone wrong. In effect, we are saying, “Not good enough,” or “You have failed,” or “You might fail.”
We replace should with the word could, which offers choice. Choice is freedom. And when you see freedom at work in an atmosphere of love, it’s magical!
In our workshops, we are a tribe of people who want to improve outcomes for children and adolescents. We join with others who are raising kids. This levels the playing field. We (both parents and facilitator) share and learn from each other. There is no one-size-fits-all way to talk to our kids about sex, so all ideas get shared with the assumption that they come from a place of positive intent.
We encourage parents to tell their stories rather than give opinions. Our stories are our truths. We don’t need to “correct” or disagree with someone else’s truth. Parents enjoy hearing about the range of experiences others have had. They learn from these stories They hold one another’s stories with compassion, and they support one another for making the effort to be better parents.
Bringing this philosophy of mutual sharing and support to the workshops creates a community where parents feel a sense of belonging. It’s incredible to watch (magic!). By 15 minutes into a workshop, parents have started to settle in, join in, feel that they belong, and give and receive to the benefit of themselves and others.
About 80 percent of our workshop time is for parent dialogue. This is in the form of skill-building activities, idea sharing and reflection. Twenty percent or less is the facilitator presenting information, guiding an activity or facilitating reflective moments.
This 80 percent principle of parent dialogue is pure magic. If you listen in on parents’ conversations, you see that they have an innate knowledge of what professionals call “best practice.” Here are some examples from parent conversations.
By devoting the majority of our time to parent dialogue, everyone in the workshop has an opportunity to realize that we truly are all on the same page when it comes to teaching our kids and helping them make healthy decisions now and in the future.
The information explosion about adolescent risk behaviors is at an all-time high. Yes, this data informs and guides professionals. But for parents, it often adds another layer of fear and anxiety. Breaking things down into smaller steps keeps the experience from being overwhelming.
When a human faces a serious threat, the brain goes into a fight, flight or freeze response. We are in survival mode. Parents readily admit that raising an adolescent feels like constant survival mode. If you ever wonder why parents procrastinate on talking to their kids, or don’t say anything for fear of saying something wrong, or obsess about one area of growth and development rather than taking a broader more comprehensive approach—I can pretty much guarantee they are in survival mode.
In that fight-or-flight state, the brain is distracted, focusing most of its energy on the perceived threat. Fewer signals get through to the “thinking” part of the brain. People may feel anxious or more aggressive. It can be difficult to concentrate, think clearly or build social connections.
This isn’t what we want when parents are talking with their kids. Instead, we want them to have the ability to access all parts of their brain, including the parts that support emotional bonding and social connection. We use the baby step approach of having them practice a skill (say, responding to a question their teen might ask) and then reflecting with their peers on how they did. This not only builds their confidence. It allows them to choose from a whole menu of options from the brain that weren’t available when they were in “survival” mode.
Watching parents together, building their confidence and boosting their skills for talking with their children about sex—well, yes, it’s magic. If I could wave a magic wand, I would wish for everyone to believe in parents! Parenting can be a lonely place, and parents don’t get nearly enough positive reinforcement.
This magic formula has worked for us not only in sex education but in all areas of family engagement. So how about getting out your own magic wand? I guarantee it will bring out the believer in you!
Barb Flis was an invited participant in the 2018 Kirby Summit IV convening. Her post is part of a series addressing the ways parents, teachers and other adults can support adolescents in developing healthy relationships—a process called “scaffolding.” Learn more about scaffolding here. Watch for additional resources in future posts on our blog.
Barb Flis is the founder of Parent Action for Healthy Kids and creator of Talk Early & Talk Often, a workshop to help parents develop the knowledge and skill to talk with their kids about sex. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@ParentAction) and Facebook (Parent Action for Healthy Kids). She can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.