Ep. 34 – Saleema Noon – The Talk: What When Why & How
- Why we want to have conversations about our bodies and sexual health too early rather than too late.
- Questions kids often ask regarding body science and sexuality.
- Resources for kids of all ages (and parents) with science based, engaging and age appropriate information on body science and sexual health.
In this episode, sexual health educator and author Saleema Noon shares with a candor, humor and humility that have earned her multiple awards and national acclaim. “All children have a right to scientific understanding about their bodies,” says Saleema, “however, parents are the ones who explain values around sex because those will differ in every family.”
Through her book Talk Sex Today, and her online courses and workshops, Saleema warmly and wisely helps children and parents navigate these potentially complicated conversations.
Saleema NoonThrough decades of study and practice, sexual health educator and author Saleema Noon has mindfully mastered ‘The Talk’. Her impactful work in what many consider a complicated and controversial topic has earned Saleema multiple awards and esteemed national coverage.
In an age when explicit and inaccurate information is only a screen swipe away, Saleema’s co-authored book, Talk Sex Today, as well as her online and in-class learning programs provides positive sexual health information that empowers kids and teens to appreciate and embrace who they are.
Website: Saleema Noon
Saleema Noon: Workshops
Facebook: Saleema Noon
Twitter: Saleema Noon
Instagram: Saleema Noon
LinkedIn: Saleema Noon
Transcript: Ep. 34 – Saleema Noon – The Talk: What, When, Why and How
Rachel Cram – Saleema, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview today.
Saleema Noon – My pleasure.
Rachel Cram – It’s so good to be with you again the last time we met I think was 2016 when you were talking to my Wind and Tide staff.
Saleema Noon – Yes. Yes.
Rachel Cram – On Sexual Health.
Saleema Noon – You’ve got a great group of educators there.
Rachel Cram – We do. They’re a wonderful team.
Saleema Noon – That was a fun night.
Rachel Cram – It was. And the response was so positive. And at that time I remember thinking I must bring you back to speak to our Wind and Tide families. And now here’s the opportune.
Saleema Noon – Here we are. Almost five years later.
Rachel Cram – That happens. And in the midst of COVID.
Saleema Noon – Yes exactly.
Rachel Cram – And that’s kind of changed your life hasn’t it. Because you are usually in classrooms.
Saleema Noon – Yes I am. For the past 20 years I along with my team of educators have spent our time traveling around visiting schools, working with parents and kids, teaching our body science programs. And then COVID came and I was literally up at night thinking, “How are we going to make sure that families don’t miss out on this important information?”
Rachel Cram – Well, and you know, that’s part of the reality of COVID. A year goes by and in a child’s life you’re missing a lot because programs like yours can’t come into schools. But you have worked with that because you’ve created an amazing online program.
Saleema Noon – Yes. So I felt really good about being able to offer that to the schools instead for the time being. And now the online platform has become a great tool given that all of our teaching has been online. We’re as busy as ever but we can use these videos to reach students and then do live Q and A’s over Zoom.
Rachel Cram – Yeah well these are some of the benefits that have come out of a very difficult and complicated time.
Saleema Noon – Oh I’ve been pivoting that for sure and the learning curve is steep but I’m enjoying it too.
Rachel Cram – Well a benefit for me was that I was able to view your online course in preparation for this conversation and it’s very well done. You’ve put a really good program together for families and we’re going to refer to that frequently through this conversation.
But before we jump into that, we often start with a question. Aristotle stated, “Give me a child at 7 and I’ll show you the adult.” And whether or not we agree with that, it’s still an interesting place to maybe know more about you. Is there Saleema, a story or an experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Saleema Noon – That is such an interesting question. Grade Five was probably my hardest year so far in my whole life. And the reason for that is that I was pretty consistently bullied by my bestie at the time and some of my other friends that became her squad. And it was a tough time and I learned a lot of hard lessons that year that still impact me as an adult. And I have to give credit to my parents because they really tried to help me. But back then parents weren’t taught about how to help your child cope with bullying. And so much of it, as it still is today, was under the surface. Teachers weren’t seeing it. You know girls can be cruel.
So despite my parents support and having a secure family to come home to, I really struggled in Grade 5. When I started my career I thought, one of the things I want to do is teach the kids the skills that I wish I had, especially when it comes to puberty and all those changes I was experiencing in my body that no one really talked about openly. So yeah, that experience in Grade 5 taught me a lot. It’s shaped who I am. I can tell you that I never want to make anyone feel the way I did, excluded and that I didn’t fit in. So I’m hypersensitive of that. It really does inform my programs because I want to teach kids all the stuff I wish I knew.
Rachel Cram – Well you know, as I watched your videos I feel your heart for kids, and maybe this is the root to that heart, comes out even in how you’re answering their questions. And we’ll get to some of those questions because the questions go from quite crazy to very profound and deep. And you respond to them with such respect. And respect is hard to find, especially in grade 5.
Saleema Noon – Well I appreciate that because I think all kids and all of their questions are deserving of respect and scientific questions deserve a scientific answer
Rachel Cram – Whether they know it’s scientific at the time or not.
Saleema Noon – Exactly. Exactly.
Rachel Cram – You know, thinking about your parents, ‘the talk’ as we call it, it’s changed so much in recent decades, how we’re going to deliver that to children, whether it’s about bullying or body science. And I think the Internet is a big part of that. What would be key reasons for exploring sexual education in particular with children before they reach their teen years? Why do we want to share this information earlier rather than later?
Saleema Noon – Hmm. That’s a good question Rachel and there are so many reasons why we need to start talking about this stuff early and they all have to do with protection and prevention and preparation.
Rachel Cram – Ah, three ‘ps’. Alliteration works well. I’m with you!
Saleema Noon – Yes, exactly. So first, the little ones are easiest to teach. They’re so excited to learn about their bodies. When I tell them I’m going to teach them how to be body scientists. I’m going to teach them scientific words that doctors use. They’re like, “Right on! Let’s do this!” You know? There’s no silliness, there’s no giggling because to them, it’s just really interesting body science information and it’s not until they’re older that they start to learn from their peers and from media and from our generally sexually immature society that this is something we should be embarrassed talking about.
So it’s great if parents can seize that opportunity when their kids are young, when they can start these conversations, have fun with it and in doing so not only give really important information but at the same time normalize the conversations about sexual health so that when their kids move into that more grossed out phase the conversations will be easier and they can continue.
Rachel Cram – So, start talking before it becomes an awkward conversation.
Saleema Noon – Yes. Another reason why we need to start talking early is that, you know, I think we all agree that our kids are exposed to more and more at younger and younger ages. They’re sexualized at younger and younger ages. And while we can and should put reasonable boundaries and limits around what they’re consuming and what they’re exposed to, we can’t control everything. What we can do as parents and as educators though, is stay one step ahead of the game with accurate information, so that when they do hear things on the playground or from a friend’s older brother or they come across something online, and we never know when that’s going to be, they’re armed with what they need to understand what’s coming at them. They can think critically about what people tell them or what they read or hear and they know because we’ve started talking already that they can come to us when they’re not sure about something or need answers to their questions.
And the key at a young age, as early as possible, is for parents to establish themselves as their kids number one source of sexual health information. But if we don’t start talking early, our kids just aren’t going to come to us when they’re 16, 17 or even 13 because they’ve long got the message, even if it’s unintentional, that for whatever reason parents don’t want to talk.
Rachel Cram – Well, and then it almost becomes like this secret, this mystery, almost like a taboo subject.
Saleema Noon – Exactly. And there’s one more very, I think the most important reason that I want to address in terms of why we need to start talking early, and that is that studies from all over the world consistently show us that children who are educated about healthy bodies and healthy sexuality at an early age, from reliable adults in their life, are at reduced risk for sexual abuse.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Meg Hickling?
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Well you’ve written a book with her.
Saleema Noon – Yes. She’s the co-author of my book Talk Sex Today. She’s amazing for many reasons but she really was the groundbreaker, not just in teaching sexual health to kids but involving parents in that process. And before she retired she used to go to visit men’s prisons every year. She went whenever she was invited because the inmates taught her so much about how they trick and trap and seduce children into exploitative situations. And one thing offenders know, because most have been abused themselves, is that if a child is aware and knowledgeable and has vocabulary, chances are an adult has taught them and has also instructed them to report should something exploitative happen.
On the other hand a child who doesn’t know anything, probably hasn’t been taught to report and is therefore an easy target. So this really does come down to safety and prevention and preparation. It’s about teaching our kids scientific terminology for body parts and it’s about teaching consent from day one. The idea that they are the boss of their body. They say who goes on it and who and who does not. So that as they get older and move toward relationships, they don’t have a problem saying no. They don’t have a problem expressing their boundaries. They know that they have a right to their personal space, to decide what they’re into and what they’re not.
So a lot of this is setting the stage right, for when they have more independence and they’re going to be making a lot more decisions about their body by themselves.
Rachel Cram – That’s a compelling description. Thank you.
Musical Interlude #1
Rachel Cram – Now, for so many parents, it is a really awkward conversation though, and I think it’s also because we didn’t experience that conversation when we were younger. I wonder, do you know if there’s a correlation between our experience in learning about our bodies as children and our own sexual comfort as adults even?
Saleema Noon – Well it’s almost too early to tell because we, as parents today, didn’t typically grow up with open conversations from our parents. Nor did we have any semblance of comprehensive sexual health education at school right. But our kids. So where I think we’re really going to see the difference, is when our kids have kids. My hope is that we’re moving toward not just some kids but all kids getting comprehensive sexual health education in Canada. So we’re moving in the right direction. And I think we’re really going to see that benefit in the next generation.
Rachel Cram – That’s so important because I know when you talk to marriage counselors, sex is a huge problem in marriage and relationships. And I’m glad to hear you say that because I think for my children too, I’m seeing them come at life very differently than I did because of the education they have in how they’re moving into their own relationships.
Saleema Noon – I agree.
Rachel Cram – Well I’m wondering if we can look at how you start this whole process with children when they’re young, in that stage where they’re not embarrassed and open to being body scientists, as you call them, which is a fabulous term. You teach about private parts of our bodies. How do you explain the reasons for privacy? And maybe even what are those parts?
Saleema Noon – Yeah, so the first thing I teach kids of all ages is that there are three private parts on the human body; being the mouth, the breasts and the genitals. And by genitals I mean everything between the legs, from the belly button, through the legs and up to the lower back.
So we talk about how these private parts belong to them and although they can look at or touch their private parts anytime they want to as long as they’re in private, because sometimes that feels good, other people are not allowed.
Rachel Cram – And actually even right there, that comment that we can touch our own private parts. That was a conversation that never happened when we were young. Super important.
Saleema Noon – No. It is so important because we do not want kids to feel any shame or guilt around masturbation. And so it’s never too early for them to understand that their body is theirs.
Rachel Cram – In fact you want them to be figuring out how it works.
Saleema Noon – Well exactly. Exactly. This is very natural curiosity. Right. So the message around masturbation at any age is, it’s normal and healthy. You can look at or touch your body anytime you want to, as long as you’re in private and that private piece is really important. So it can only be done, for example, in the bedroom or in the bathroom where no one else is around. And that again is around safety.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. So in those early years, K to grade one, you’re really introducing those three private parts and the accurate names for them.
When you move into Grade 2 you’re starting to talk about puberty, which I think to some people can sound surprising because you think, “Really? Puberty in grade 2 or 3?” But I think science is showing us that puberty is starting earlier than it used to in the past. Do you think that’s true?
Saleema Noon – It is yes. More of the reason though is that we want to make sure that we are giving these kids information too early rather than too late. And something that parents of younger children always find comforting to know is that there is no such thing as telling a child too much. They’ll absorb whatever they’re ready for, whatever is interesting to them, whatever’s on their radar or relevant to their life and everything else will just go right over their head. They will not even get it.
Just quickly, I want to tell you, one time I was in a grade 3 class and I spent about 20 minutes talking about typical boy bodies versus typical girls bodies and we look at pictures of the reproductive systems. I bring up my pop up book and we talk about privacy and safety and the genitals. And I said at one point, “Does anyone have any questions before we move on?”
And one of the students raised their hand and very skeptically said, “Yeah I’ve got a question. If babies are born with no hair, how would they know if it’s a boy or a girl?” So, the genital conversation went right over their head.
Right. But the thing is, at the very least, just in talking about bodies, regardless of what they get, talking about bodies, showing pictures, being lighthearted, using scientific terminology, we’re sending that child a really positive powerful message that bodies aren’t a secret. And just like she would have a right to learn about any other system in the body, she has a right to learn about the reproductive system.
Rachel Cram – Well and what I love about how you do your work is that when children ask questions like that, it’s still a great question. That kind of environment is so important for this kind of learning.
Saleema Noon – It is, I agree.
Rachel Cram – I know for many kids, especially if puberty starts early for them, it can be really scary if you don’t have the information. If a period starts or you have a wet dream and you don’t know what that is, that can be really frightening.
Saleema Noon – Yeah. So we introduce kids to puberty in grade 2 or 3 by explaining those changes; periods and wet dreams. And the reason for this is that although the average age for these things to start is around twelve or thirteen, it’s not unusual for someone to experience a period or a wet dream as young as age 8 or 9. So like I said, the key is to give the information too early rather than too late, knowing that there is no harm in doing so. We would never want a 9 year old for example, to experience a first period and have no idea what was happening. So the idea is to give the information early.
Rachel Cram – Some of the questions that kids ask and you list, are questions like; Who can see and touch our private parts and who can’t? You give quite in-depth discussion on that. Can boys have babies? Does it hurt to have a baby? Do periods hurt? How do you know when you’re getting a period? Do wet dreams hurt. And just knowing that all those questions are building in a child’s mind, how difficult if you don’t know the answers to those questions.
Saleema Noon – Yeah and one of the things that parents of younger children grapple with is, “OK, but if they’re not asking me questions, they don’t seem curious, do I really need to start talking about this?” But a lot of kids do have those questions but for whatever reason they’re just not asking.
Rachel Cram – Or maybe they don’t even know how to articulate them.
Saleema Noon – Exactly. Or they’re getting information from another source. Whether that source is reliable or not, we don’t know. But we want them coming to us so we can just tell them the truth. And they have such amazing questions from such a young age. And again they’ll just take in whatever is relevant to them.
In the preschool stage of development, so kindergarten grade one, we provide kids with the foundation of sexual health information and that includes giving very clear information about how babies are made and where the baby grows and how it’s born. Baby grows in the uterus not the tummy because it’s important they know. But it’s amazing because I can explain in intricate detail, in terms of how actually it happens within 30 seconds, how babies are usually made and what sex is. And I always stop there when I’m with kindergarteners and grade ones and say, “Does anyone have any questions about how babies are made?”
Most of the time someone will raise their hand and say, “Yeah. No, I don’t have a question about that but what color is the atmosphere?”
Or, “Are aliens real?”
Rachel Cram – Their mind’s somewhere else.
Musical Interlude #2
Rachel Cram – Knowing that you can explain in 30 seconds how babies are made, can you do that for me right now?
Saleema Noon – Absolutely. Here’s the gist. We start by explaining that there are lots of different ways that people can become parents. For example, some people become parents through adoption. Others become parents with the help of a doctor and as a result all of our families are unique, which is a great thing because differences are something to celebrate. But what usually happens, let’s say when a man and a woman want to make a baby, is they put the penis inside the vagina to deliver the sperm to the egg. And we call this ‘having sex.’ Doctors call it ‘sexual intercourse.’
Rachel Cram – But Saleema, and I know this is a question that you get asked, how do you get the penis into the vagina.
Saleema Noon – That question does come up sometimes.
Rachel Cram – I know. I saw it in your notes.
Saleema Noon – Well there are different ways that that can happen. But typically what people would do is they would go somewhere very private like a bedroom and they would remove their clothing. And what’s interesting is when the penis is ready to deliver sperm it goes hard, it goes erect. And when the penis is erect it can be inserted inside the vagina. Now this is something that partners would talk about together and decide on what feels good to them. But it’s always done in private.
Rachel Cram – Do you have to have sex?
Saleema Noon – You never have to have sex if you don’t want to. For a child who says, “I don’t want to do that.” Great. You might change your mind but that’s your choice. Or even more commonly is kids ask me, “Ok, I want to have kids but I don’t want to have sex and I don’t want to go through the pain of birth.”
And that actually hits home for me because I remember distinctly, I was walking home from school in grade 2 and I had an aha moment and that aha moment was that I could adopt and wouldn’t have to have sex and wouldn’t have to give birth. Problem solved.
Rachel Cram – I had that same thought in my head.
Saleema Noon – And I just, I felt so much relief
Rachel Cram – Because you want to be a mom but you don’t want to have to go through that.
Saleema Noon – Yeah. And luckily as we get older that perspective usually changes right. But we have to honor and respect what kids are telling us. You know it’s like when a kid says, “Well, you know, I want to marry another girl.” Cool. When you’re an adult you can decide who you want to marry.
Rachel Cram – I was fascinated by some of the questions that grade four and five kids ask, just as a realization of how much they’re already aware. Questions like; Why do people get sexual feelings? How do you know if you’re gay? Why is sex mentioned on TV so much? Do you even just want to address that? Why is sex mentioned on TV so much? How do you answer that question?
Saleema Noon – Yeah that is such a good question and I would typically just say, “Well, because sex is still kind of a taboo subject in our society, we don’t talk about it as openly as we probably should, it gets people’s attention. And so people use that to sell things.”
Rachel Cram – Good answer. Other questions; How do babies come out? This, I love this question and I want to know your answer to it. What makes a belly button an outy or an inny. I’ve always wondered that.
Saleema Noon – Well I’m glad I can teach you something.
Rachel Cram – You are! You’re teaching something. I always wanted a good inny and I didn’t get one. Why not?
Saleema Noon – I explain to kids that the belly button is our first scar and after it’s snipped, when we’re born, the little piece that’s left after a few days just dries up and falls off. Now, whether a person has an inny belly button or an outy belly button or a combination belly button is just a fluke. It really depends on how it heals. If it heals poking out, the baby has an outy, if it heals poking in the baby has an inny. So it’s nothing we can control. I’m sad to report.
Rachel Cram – That’s a great answer. Other questions they had; How do you put condoms on? When do I have to start wearing a bra? How do you get an erection to go away?
Oh, that question breaks my heart because you just think of boys at that stage and how complicated that is.
Saleema Noon – Yeah, which is why from a young age, like in grade 2 and 3, we need to talk about practice erections and the fact that this
Rachel Cram – Practice Erections. What
Saleema Noon – Practice Erections.
Rachel Cram – Ok, describe that.
Saleema Noon – So, I explain that the penis can only deliver sperm when it’s hard or erect. So even before someone’s born, like in the uterus, the penis practices erections several times a day. And so, as people with penises are growing up, the penis can go hard for a few moments and then soften up again. It has nothing to do with what they’re thinking. It’s just an automatic thing that happens and it can happen anytime, like when they’re walking home from school, or writing a math test, or playing basketball. It’s just a good sign the penis is healthy and is working properly.
Now as we get older, a practice erection can be an indication of being sexually aroused and that’s equally as healthy. So it’s not OK to make fun of someone for it, or point it out and it’s not worthwhile to stress out about it either because it’s just a good sign your body is healthy.
When I explain this to a grade 1 class they’ll all be high five and everyone because they all have healthy penises. It’s like this celebration.
One time I was at a school and the head of school popped in into a grade 2 class just as I was explaining about healthy practice erections and when I said this, “You know it’s a good sign your penis is healthy,”
this one student turned to the principal and said, “I get those!” you know just to share the good news. And luckily the principal just took it in stride and celebrated a ride along with them.
Rachel Cram – That’s great. And that’s how you want it to be really.
Saleema Noon – Yeah.
Rachel Cram – So then looking at Grade 6 and 7, you start to talk about a really important topic, and that is, what does it mean to give sexual consent towards any of our private parts. And I feel like our understanding or even our attention to consent has really emerged in recent years. Why is that important to learn about it at an early age?
Saleema Noon – So yeah, I mean the thing is we are teaching our kids about consent from a young age. We may not always use that term, although you’re right more and more we are which is a good thing. But it’s when they get to be preteens, on their way to high school, that they really need to start thinking of consent in terms of a sexual relationship.
Now when our kids are younger. Consent can be taught in all areas of their life.
Rachel Cram – Can you give some examples?
Saleema Noon – Yeah. I don’t know what your experience was but when I was young and my parents had dinner parties before I went off to bed. I was expected to go around the room
Rachel Cram – And give everyone a hug and kiss right?
Saleema Noon – Yes! Whether I know them or not. Whether I felt like it or not. It was just the polite thing to do.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, it was a sign of your respect for them almost, or your care.
Saleema Noon – Exactly. And I don’t have memories of being traumatized by that but I think it’s so important for kids to have a choice. There’s a way that we can teach kids good manners and respect for others but at the same time respecting their personal space and giving them that agency that they are the boss of their body.
So teaching about consent really does have to happen at an early age not just with good night kisses but even earlier than that. There’s no reason why let’s say a 2 year old can’t choose who changes their diaper or can’t decide if they want their diapers changed lying down or standing up. As our kids get older we need to listen to them when they say that they’re full. I know this is a tricky thing for parents right because it can be easily manipulated but we need to show them in all aspects of their life that we are listening to them and we are reinforcing that they are the boss of their bodies. So this teaching happens throughout the elementary years and then as they near High School we need to kick it up a notch to approach consent in the form of sexual consent in the context of a relationship.
Rachel Cram – So how do you begin that conversation with kids and are there guidelines or are there points that you want to make sure that you cover so that they even have a list of what they’re looking for for consent.
Saleema Noon – Yeah. And we need to make it understandable and realistic and digestible for them right. So to give you an example, when I’m in the classroom we start by doing some role plays around ‘the enthusiastic yes’. And what that looks like and sounds like and what it doesn’t.
We then talk about how if someone consents to one kind of sexual activity it doesn’t mean that they’re consenting to anything else. And just because we consent to something once doesn’t mean that we consent to it forever. So, because it’s our body, we can change our minds as many times as we want and it needs to be that ongoing conversation as the relationship progresses.
It’s also important for young people to understand that consent needs to be given of one’s own free will, meaning it’s not coerced. And coercing someone is presenting a situation in a way that gives the other person no other choice but then to give us the response that we want.
And then just the fact that if someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol or is unconscious or sleeping, they’re clearly not in a frame of mind where they’re capable of giving informed sexual consent and so in those situations, it’s just game off.
Rachel Cram – It’s such a complicated topic. It’s complicated I think for both the giver and the receiver, not only to determine what kind of consent you’re getting from somebody else but even what you’re feeling in yourself. And I think as a parents in this generation I think because we didn’t grow up with this awareness ourselves, it’s hard to even know how to role model that sometimes because I don’t think for myself as a woman I spend the time that I should be thinking on, “What do I actually feel and want for myself?”
Saleema Noon – Yeah it takes practice to express that.
Rachel Cram – It does. It does. Have you seen the analogy of A Cup Of Tea?
Saleema Noon – I have. Yeah
Rachel Cram – I know there’s one that’s a little bit more harsh and then there’s a cleaner version too.
Saleema Noon – Yeah. They’re excellent. And you know, actually I’m glad you reminded me of that because I explained how I might teach consent in the classroom but for parents at home, there are some really great books and online resources that they can use to broach the topic and tons of others.
Like anything else, it’s not about giving the talk. Right. The ideal is to give lots of talks and to bring up conversations about consent or whatever the topic is, in little snippets, to normalize it. Even a two minute conversation is valuable. And so parents can use these resources to do this. One of my favorite Websites is called amaze.org and all it is is a series of animated videos on all things to do with sexual health. They’re only two, three minutes long, most of them. And they used to target age 10 to 12 but now they’re producing videos for parents as well as younger kids and older kids too. It’s just such a useful way to get the information across.
So it doesn’t have to always be a face to face heavy conversation. We can use these tools and we know that younger children in the primary grades, there’s nothing like you know to be able to read a body science book for a few minutes before bed every night because you know they’ll do anything to stop you from turning out the light and walking out the door. So you’ve got them captive. Right. So a lot of this is just using resources available to parents and being courageous enough to use those opportunities when they come up naturally, even if it’s just for a minute, it’s still valuable.
Musical Interlude #3 – Thanks for listening to family360, I’m Rachel Cram, today with guest, educator and author Saleema Noon.
Our next episode looks at Adults on the Autism Spectrum, and a conversation with Mom, teacher and actor Kim Zeglinsky, who discovered her own diagnosis of Autism through the diagnosis of her young son. Please join us!
And now, back to our conversation with Saleema Noon who is about to describe the role of schools versus home for instilling values.
Rachel Cram – Yeah I think for many parents the dialog is just changing so much over the years and it can leave you feeling a bit frozen for a number of different reasons. One of the things I think concerns some parents, and this would even be with sex education being taught in school, is there’s the worry that the values that will be expressed in school may not be the values that they share as a family. Do you experience concern with parents when you come into a classroom with that regard?
Saleema Noon – Absolutely. And that’s why I’m really clear when I’m working with parents as well as kids is that, you know, we believe that it’s their right to have the scientific information about their body and how to take care of it and how babies are made and all the truth about that. And I’m happy to explain it all to them. What I can’t do though is explain to them the rules about sex. They have to talk to their parents about that because the rules are different in every family. In a lot of families you need to get married before you have sex. In other families you need to be a certain age. So I always encourage them to check in with their parents to find out what their rules are so that they can be respectful of them.
Rachel Cram – And then with parents as well, the whole conversation of LGBTQ communities is so important to understand now.
Saleema Noon – Absolutely.
Rachel Cram – And that’s really new information for a lot of parents.
Saleema Noon – Yeah. We didn’t grow up in an inclusive environment. Right. So it is new for a lot of parents. We need to help kids understand that there are many different gender identities and there are many different sexual attractions. And whoever you want to be in a relationship with or whoever you feel you are in your heart, regardless of how your body looks physically, is perfectly OK. In fact it’s more than perfectly OK. It’s fantastic. It’s amazing because we’re all unique that way.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I think for some parents there’s a lingering concern that talking about these things, even talk about sexuality for example, gives permission for these things or it might lead down a road. And some parents absolutely would not want their children for example having sex before they’re married. Some parents really do not want their children identifying into the LGBTQ community because they don’t think it’s right or other people are very fearful for their child’s well-being in that world. And then a lot of us are still unaware or confused about all this.
Saleema Noon – Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s a lot
Rachel Cram – It’s a lot. So how are you moving forth with that in your practice educating parents?
Saleema Noon – Yeah that’s a great question. You know In terms of, ‘If we give kids this information are we giving permission for them to..’ I don’t know, or whatever a parent would say; have sex, come out, turn into a boy.
Rachel Cram – Explore a different way
Saleem Noon – Explore. First of all we know from research that’s not the case. But also, when we’re giving scientific information or when we’re teaching values even we’re also giving them guidelines and boundaries. So there’s nothing wrong with a parent to say, “I want you to have this scientific information about how babies are made and what sex is and what people at any age would want to consider before entering a sexual relationship. I also want you to know that in our family we prefer to get married before having sex or to be a certain age or whatever it is. So any of those, you know; When’s a good time for me to have my first kiss? Or, When’s a good time for me to start dating? That would be an ask your parents question because I can’t teach values.
Now in terms of parents worrying about, OK well hearing that there are transgender people in the world and that this is an OK thing in fact it contributes to the great diversity that we should celebrate. Worrying that that is going to cause their child to want to experiment or change. There’s just no validity to that. I mean, I don’t know of a parent who would want their kid to feel the deep shame and guilt that comes with knowing who you are and not being able to be open about that. Especially with your parents who arguably are the closest people to you, especially at a young age.
But it’s the fact, we know from research there are many different genders. Kids know this at a very young age. Kids know who they’re attracted to at a very young age. We can’t change it. What we can do is embrace it and support our kids the way they deserve to be supported.
Not only that but in Canada we believe as a country, as a humanity, that our kids deserve to be included and seen and respected and heard and be safe, especially while they’re at school. And so I’m happy to see that the resistance, and it comes from fear, I get it. It comes from fear. But I have seen a greater understanding among parents, how important it is that we are open about this and recognize that we do have these differences in who people want to be in relationships with and how they identify when it comes to their gender.
Rachel Cram -I really appreciate how you explain this because I think when we really think about it for any parent the alternative to not allowing your child to understand this is to know that they can be very lonely and very isolated and needing to live a life that is very hidden from you as a parent.
Saleema Noon – Yeah and for youth who are transgender or identify as non binary or not heterosexual. These kids they’re at huge risk. The suicide rate is just way too high especially compared to other populations. And we know that parental support is the number one determinant of well-being among transgender youth.
Rachel Cram – How would a parent know if a child was maybe needing to explore those kind of questions with them?
Saleema Noon – Well kids are pretty open so a lot of them would just come right out and say you know I’m wondering about this or I want to be a boy or I want to dress like this. And especially at a young age whether it amounts to anything or not. I mean the thing is in our society gender stereotypes are also still very powerful. Right. So I think parents can easily freak out when their son wants to wear a princess dress to school and assume that this is some kind of foreshadowing that they’re gay or transgender, well this is just not the case.
Let’s allow our kids to wear the clothes they want to wear and to explore this at their own pace and whether or not it actually turns out to be anything, it doesn’t matter. But as parents we just need to go with the flow here and support our kids in the best way that we can.
Rachel Cram – Well that’s back to part of that autonomy and consent. You’re talking about.
Saleema Noon – Exactly.
Musical Interlude #4
Rachel Cram – So much to ponder. And if we can just ponder our way into what might be the last part of our conversation because time is going by so fast. And that is how does social media affect sexual and mental health in our society? And I’m just gonna jump right into topics surrounding pornography because I’ve heard you say this. You’ve said, “I worry that for your typical teenager who has never been in a sexual relationship, they might watch pornography and mistakenly believe it reflects a typical healthy sexual relationship when really it doesn’t.”
So can we just jump right into that big topic? Because I think that carries on from what we’ve been talking about, taking such care and interest to tell kids about the science of their body, to empower them to be these kind of body scientists, but then when they move online you can feel like you lose so much ground.
Saleema Noon – Yeah yeah. And you know even in the past 10 years so much has changed. And social media has just become such a huge part of our kids lives at younger and younger ages, right. So it’s something relatively new that parents need to contend with.
We also know that kids can access pretty much anything online, either accidentally or purposefully, at younger and younger ages including pornography. And the key here is to really be proactive. And so I suggest to parents that when their kids are even as early as grade four or five, address it head on and say you know when you’re online you may come across some images or videos of people who are engaging in sexual activities. It’s called pornography and sometimes kids come across it. Now regardless of what you see or how, even if you’ve searched it up yourself because you’re curious, I want you to come talk to me about that because I want to help you make sense of what you’ve seen. You won’t get in trouble but just let’s have a conversation. So being proactive in that way can at least hopefully give our kids permission that if they do come across this they can talk to a parent. That would be the ideal situation.
Rachel Cram – Well I think that when we make it a you must not do this, kids either have to sneak and lie or they have to really wonder and it builds this whole mystery draw towards it.
Saleema Noon – And the thing is, porn is entertainment. It doesn’t reflect in any way a typical healthy sexual relationship. For example, the consent piece. Even in the porn industry more and more this important conversation is happening but you don’t see it.
Rachel Cram – No because it happens before they start.
Saleema Noon – It happens before they start rolling because it’s not sexy, it’s not interesting to people. It’s not that entertainment. Right. So it isn’t real. And we also want to say that yeah, the reality is there’s a good chance you’ll come across pornography and we don’t want this to be your first exposure to a sexual relationship. And so it’s a better idea to wait till you’ve got a bit more life experience under your belt so that you can look at pornography with more of a critical eye. And so after you’re 18 you can decide as an adult whether or not you want pornography to be part of your life. So it’s not about forbidding it. It’s about recognizing that there’s a good chance they will watch it. And here’s what you need to do. It’s harm reduction.
Rachel Cram – You have a really good analogy for this using the movie Fast and Furious. I think they’re like on the eighth addition of that movie.
Saleema Noon – I’m happy because I can keep using it.
Rachel Cram – I know, I know! My kids were talking about it at the table the other night. I was like,”Oh, that movie is still out. Saleema’s metaphor still works for this generation.” Can you share that because I think it’s very effective.
Saleema Noon – Yeah. So when I’m working with great sixth and seven students, and older students as well, I say, “You know, watching pornography and believing that it reflects a typical healthy sexual relationship, would be like watching Fast and Furious and believing that it’s like a driver’s education video. That’s how ridiculous it is.”
They get a kick out of that.
Rachel Cram – It works really well. Now I was surprised to hear you say that research is showing that teens are now waiting longer to have their first sexual experience. You said that only roughly 20 percent of kids in high school.
Saleema Noon – yeah
Rachel Cram – That surprised me and encouraged me. Really.
Saleema Noon – Yeah. There’s reason to be optimistic now that those stats refer to vaginal sex, incidence of other kinds of sexual activity are higher as you can imagine. But parents are always relieved to hear that. And it’s also important that grade sixth and seventh understand this so that when they go to high school they know that they don’t have to have sex to fit in or be cool or because everyone else is doing it. In fact most teenagers, even by the time they graduate, are not. And they are waiting longer for good reason.
One time years ago I was in a Grade 6 class and I said, “So why do you think it is that teenagers are waiting longer than ever to have sex for the first time.?”
And one of the students said, “Because the economy is weak?”
I will never forget that.
Rachel Cram – That is priceless, and maybe they were onto something with investment and risk analysis in relationships, but anyways,
Saleema, as we start to wrap up. I’m just reflecting back on your comment that parents want to be approachable. We want to create an environment where children can come to talk to us about these things. How do we invite those conversations? What’s our posture that allows that to flow?
Saleema Noon – Yeah. And my experience with parents tells me that parents do want to talk. It’s just hard to know what to say. And when. And how. And beyond just saying, “I’m here for you if you ever want to talk,” we need to dig deep and have the courage to start the conversations, even if it doesn’t feel like the right time.
Talk about things at dinner. Share news stories and Facebook posts. Watch TV shows together and pause the PVR to say, “Did you understand that joke?” So use opportunities when they come up naturally to really again have those snippets of conversations.
It’s also really important for parents to use scientific terminology and model things like consent.
Rachel Cram – How would they do that? How would they model that with their partner in front of their kids?
Saleena Noon – Well it’s about how we communicate with our partners. So using lots of ‘I’ statements, listening, using respectful language, asking before touching, just things like that because you know our kids are watching and listening. Right.
We also have to be careful to not exert power over our kids, and I know this is a whole other conversation.
Rachel Cram – What do you mean by that?
Saleema Noon – If we take a, “Because I said so,” mentality, what we’re doing is teaching our kids that in relationships one person can have power over another. When really what we want them to have is equal relationships. Now I know that two people in a romantic relationship is different from people in a parent-child relationship. But if we take power over our kids we’re modeling that the way to get what you want is to take power over someone but there’s a better way to do that. Right.
Rachel Cram – I think that just ties into a whole new way that we’re realizing we need to parent as well much more respect based than power based.
Saleema Noon – Absolutely.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Ok, I’m going to try and slip in one last question and then we will close. Are there ways that we can model healthy sexuality with more awareness in our relationship with our partners in front of our kids? You know, there’s all the jokes around, ewww, when you think your parents only had sex four times because there’s four kids.
Saleema Noon – Exactly. Exactly.
Rachel Cram – I sense that to live this in front of our kids we have to let that mindset go a little bit. We have to be sexual beings in front of our kid.
Saleema Noon – Absolutely. And it’s not that parents need to divulge every secret or share information with their kids that they’re not comfortable with. Absolutely not. It’s important to respect our own boundaries too. But we can do that in a way that still celebrates sexuality and celebrates the fact that we’re sexual beings. And so even if kids are going, “Eww, gross,” when partners kiss,
Rachel Cram – Yeah. You know I always think my kids are kind of overall really happy to see that happen. Even though they go, “ooow,” and, “Get a room.” I think there must be something, I know there must be something deep down that makes them feel secure when they see that.
Saleema Noon – Absolutely absolutely. So we have to be sure not to hide that because we want the good feelings we get from physical connection with others, we want that for them as they grow up.
Maybe I can finish off with this story. My stepdaughter is giving me permission to share this. When I got married and Kate the little one was around seven, the day after the wedding in the extended family chaos she approached me and said, “Saleema, I’ve got to ask you a question.” And I knew it was big because typically she would just blurt it out. So when I had a few minutes I pulled her aside and said, “Yeah, OK, what’s going on? What are you wondering?”
She said, “I was just wondering, now that you and my dad are married, are you going to sex him?
Now, honestly I can’t remember what I said but it would probably be along the lines of, “Well, yes because we’re married. And when people love each other sex is one way that they show love and affection.” Something simple like that, remembering that usually one sentence will do the trick because then I said, “Anything else you’re wondering?” And I’m kind of bracing myself for the next one.
She thought about it and she said, “Yeah, I was wondering too, do we have to return our dresses or can we keep them?” Because she saw all the groomsmen returning their tuxes.
Rachel Cram – That’s fabulous.
Saleema Noon – So, it’s just such a good example of especially when they’re young, they need less information that we sometimes think they do. And even in our response to those awkward questions we can model positivity around sexuality, even our own.
Rachel Cram – Well it’s a bit of relief to know if you can just get one sentence out, start with that.
Saleema Noon – Exactly and it will get easier as you go, for sure.
Rachel Cram – That’s reassuring. Saleema, I know you have so many amazing resources for parents. Can you just give a quick shout out? What’s available online and through your books.
Saleema Noon – Oh sure yes. So, I have an online learning platform called Body Science Online that includes all the workshops that we’ve talked about today. And they’re available on my Website.
Rachel Cram – We’ll put a link to that on your family360 episode page.
Saleema Noon – For sure. I also have a newer program which is exciting called Growing Up Game Plan. It’s a six week masterclass for preteens on navigating life. So it’s an online course where we support preteens around things like honoring and expressing emotions, being assertive in difficult situations, coping with puberty and coming to terms with how their body is changing. We talk about Internet safety and how they can have fun and stay safe online.
In addition to that I have a book for parents, a good old fashioned book, it’s called Talk Sex Today. I wrote it with Meg Hickling. And it’s a guidebook for parents to know what to say and when and how when it comes to sexual health but also related topics right from when their kids are in preschool all the way through high school.
Rachel Cram – Yeah I’ve got it actually right in front of me here and it’s so user friendly. So, highly recommend that.
Saleema Noon – Thank you.
Rachel Cram – Well Saleema, thank you so much for the time you’ve given us.
Saleema Noon – My pleasure. Thank you for having me. The time has gone by so quickly. So much to talk about.
Rachel Cram – I know there’s so much to talk about and you’ve given us a lot to think about and I feel like I’ve learned so much too. So thank you for your time.
Saleema Noon – Good. I’m glad. Thanks for having me.