Give Kids Specific Language To Talk About Pleasure

My five-year-old daughter enjoys premeditated tickles. She braces herself and says, "Go!"

Photo by Matheus Bertelli/Pexels

I tickle a spot underneath her chin and she bursts into laughter for about eight seconds. Then she says, "OK, STOP!" I stop immediately and she catches her breath. I wait.

A few seconds later, she smiles and says, "OK, again! Go!"

It's a fun little game we play. But maybe it's also practice.

Last year, writer and filmmaker Sue Jaye Johnson gave a fantastic TED Talk titled "What we don't teach kids about sex". She talked about how, for so many years, she navigated the world with numbness. When she was a pre-teen, boys made fun of her changing shape, and eventually, she checked out of her own body, not having the language or skills to isolate the good feelings from the bad. "I lost access to the joy, the pleasure, the play, and I spent decades like that, with this low-grade depression, thinking that this is what it meant to be a grown-up," she said.

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Too many women know exactly what she's talking about. We live in a binary culture. Anything that isn't blatantly bad is "fine". And yet it may not be fine. A wild spectrum of feelings can be sparked by touch, but there's little guidance on how to express them.

Often, sex education focuses on the mechanics of intercourse. Teens roll condoms on bananas and are tossed statistics about HIV and chlamydia and pregnancy. Parents give kids The Talk, but often see it as a sweaty, one-time experience. ("Phew, that's done! Who wants tacos?") But by containing conversations about sex to a 52-minute class period or an awkward chat on the living room sofa, we are missing daily opportunities to teach children about the key components of healthy sexual experiences: Pleasure, desire, boundaries and consent. In all the ways we touch our kids, play with our kids and engage their senses, Johnson argues that we can teach them "what it feels like to be present in their body and to know when they're not".

These lessons can come in the simplest of forms. In her TED Talk, Johnson explained, "I realised that when I dry my daughter off in a towel tenderly, the way a lover would, I'm teaching her to expect that kind of touch." I see that. When I tickle my daughter and she's fully in charge of how far she wants to tickling to go, it reinforces the fact that her body is hers and hers alone.

Johnson shares some other ideas on how to help kids talk about pleasure:

  • Play games: Through simple word games, Johnson helps her children find the right words to express feelings that different types of touch can evoke. In her talk, she explained, "I scratch my fingernails on my daughter's arm and say, 'Give me one word to describe this.' 'Violent,' she says. I embrace her, hold her tight. 'Protected,' she tells me."
  • Trust exercises: Have kids sit back to back and try to stand up together. "It becomes a metaphor," Johnson explains. "Do you trust this person enough to completely surrender? How much can you keep your own balance in the space that you inhabit? How vulnerable can you be? It is a way that the body intuitively understands support, permission boundaries and vulnerability."
  • Increase body contact. "My kids are 12 and 13 and sometimes, I wonder how often they are touched in their day," Johnson says. "Teachers sign contracts, saying, 'I'm not going to touch a child.' But we're animals. We want touch. We want to soak it up. So when I'm sitting next to them, I'll consciously run my fingers through their hair and respond to what they want."

In this age of #metoo, Johnson says, "I often wonder, how do we parent in a way that really gives autonomy to kids so they get to explore their own desires? That's something I'm still exploring."


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