With abortion rights on the chopping block, I want my young daughter to know her body will always belong to her and that it's my job to provide accurate sex education information and support.
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Shot of a mother and daughter at home having a conversation
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It was the summer of 2021. My husband, then-8-year-old daughter, and I were out enjoying brunch when we saw a group of anti-abortion protesters marching across the Brooklyn Bridge. From where we sat, my daughter could read the words on their signs, and she asked me what they meant.

I explained to her that these people were fighting against people's right to have access to abortion. I added that our family believes in and values every person's right and ability to make decisions about their own bodies and lives, and that includes abortion.

While abortion is a commonly used word in our home, this experience solidified her understanding in a way that made sense to someone her age. She is very familiar with the concept of bodily autonomy—that her body is her own. She understands that she is the only decision-maker about her body and that she is the only person who experiences what happens to her body. 

When she was smaller and I used to claim it wasn't that bad when I accidentally tugged a tangle while combing her hair, she would say, "You can't feel me!" Her point was that only she knew how hard an accidental tug on a tangle felt. Witnessing a large group of people make it clear that they want to take away people's control over their own bodies was not a hard message for her to grasp.  

She asked how abortion worked. I explained that an abortion is a procedure a pregnant person can have to end a pregnancy by taking pills from their doctor or nurse or by going to a doctor's office to have a procedure.

She wanted to know how long an abortion procedure takes and whether it hurts. I explained that the procedure is quick—usually no more than 10 minutes. I also told her that some people might have cramps or their bodies might feel achy, but most times, people can go home, rest, and be back to their usual selves in a couple of days. 

She responded, "Oh! Just 10 minutes and back to your usual self in a couple days?! Sounds simple enough," and sipped her drink. We moved on with our day, but the conversation we had stuck with me. 

Due to the nature of my work, I'm constantly identifying teachable moments to help ensure my daughter has the skills to navigate life scenarios—even those she likely won't encounter until she's older—with confidence. In communicating with my daughter, I realized that these are the ideas I want her and all young people to know.

Sex education is about more than sex. It's about your relationship with yourself and with others. 

In sex education programs, people learn about a range of topics. And at very young ages, sex education focuses on personal skills like communication and setting boundaries, relationships with yourself and with others, and human development like the proper names and functions of body parts. Sex education ensures that all people, young people included, have the information and skills they need to have healthy and respectful relationships with themselves and others and grow up to successfully navigate consent, sexuality, and intimacy. 

Consent is an important aspect of all relationships, not just sexual ones.

Before I shared our family's learning-about-abortion-over-brunch story, I asked for, and received, my daughter's permission—her consent—to share it. Young people should not only understand what consent is, but they should experience what consent means and how it works in real relationships. By helping my daughter practice setting and enforcing her own boundaries, I'm not only setting consent as an expectation and standard for future relationships, I'm also helping her learn how to respect other people's boundaries. 

You have the right to communicate your needs, wants, and likes. 

Communication is a critical component of any relationship. Whether it's sharing something that they're passionate about or letting someone know that they've crossed a personal boundary, it's imperative for young people to feel confident communicating with peers, family, teachers, doctors, or other adults in the community. So many of the core elements of sex education—consent, values and beliefs, intimacy, pleasure—rely on active and respectful communication. I want my daughter to recognize that a trusting and nurturing relationship is one where she is able to fully and safely express herself. 

Think and talk about your body without shame. 

Since her birth, I've referred to all body parts by their correct names, and my daughter knows these names, as well as what the parts of her body do. Using the correct terminology is about reducing stigma around sex, which can also support safety. 

Sexual stigma perpetuates shame and it can make it hard to communicate openly about sex and sexual health in the future, even in healthy, trusting relationships. It can also help survivors recognize abuse if or when it happens and feel comfortable coming forward and getting help. Oftentimes we learn this shame at a young age, starting with discomfort around calling a penis a penis, or a vulva a vulva, for example. Young people should understand that there is nothing shameful about their bodies. 

Remember that you are worthy of care and dignity.  

My desire is for all young people to learn to love themselves and know they are worthy of respect, dignity, and love, just as they are. As the mother of a Black girl, I am hyper aware of how messages in the media historically and repeatedly center whiteness and masculinity, and ignore or marginalize the rest of us. Of utmost importance, I want my daughter to know that she deserves reproductive and sexual freedom, just as much as anyone else. She deserves equal access to making decisions for herself about if, when, and how she forms a family, and about her own health, life, and future. 

Young people are naturally observant and curious about their community, their friends,  and their bodies. By sharing this story, my hope is that it will be clear how simple it can be to help young people understand their world by giving them age-appropriate information, which prepares them to create and maintain healthy relationships in the future and understand what it truly means to have control and agency over their own bodies. 

You don't have to be an expertly trained sex educator to be a caring adult to the young people in your life. All you have to do is be an attentive listener, receive questions with curiosity instead of shame or blame, and provide accurate information, resources, and support.