Kristen Bell is right – nothing should be ‘off limits’ in parenting

Kristen Bell has revealed that when it comes to the family warts-and-all, it really is warts-and-all. Big time: the actor has been so forthright with her kids that she’s even told them about their father’s struggles with drug addiction.

The Frozen star said that she and her husband, Dax Shepard, parent with total honesty – and have had conversations with their two young daughters that might be “shocking” to other people. She also said she isn’t scared to discuss “hard” topics with Delta, eight, and Lincoln, nine.

“I know it’s shocking, but I talk to my kids about drugs, and the fact that their daddy is an addict and he’s in recovery, and we talk about sex,” she told Real Simple.

As I read this story, I found myself nodding approvingly – something that probably wouldn’t be the case at the school gate. But to me, Bell and Shepard’s approach is entirely correct: and more than that, it’s healthy.

I have two children too, of similar age to theirs, and as I write I’m reminded that about a month ago, my six-year-old son was asking me all about menstrual cups.

“When will I get my period?” he asked me, with a tinge of frustration. (I had to break the bad news to him).

My son first learnt about the concept of menstruation when he was two – he had to, for I don’t hide a thing. We live in a family unit of three, after all, and he’s outnumbered. He’s going to see sanitary products in the bathroom because he will be sharing his childhood with two people who menstruate. He’ll never be one of those boys cringing at the back of the classroom and sniggering in PSHE or biology lessons – I’m doing him a favour.

What I’m floored by is how different my feelings are on this to some of my (liberal, tolerant, yet ultimately shy or squeamish, I’m not sure which) peers. I have friends who have daughters approaching puberty who haven’t tackled the subject of periods with them yet; I had a friend with a child at the same nursery who panicked when her son asked if “girls have willies too” – and didn’t know what to say; so she said “yes”.

I have friends who are so embarrassed, or shy, or nervous, or unsure of how to talk to their kids about sex and bodies and drugs and booze and prejudice and self-esteem and eating disorders and online safety that they do the worst possible thing: they avoid it entirely. In my opinion, this isn’t “protecting” children at all – it could even be harming them. Kids need to know this stuff; it’s vital they are aware of the risks. If they have no awareness of consent or of bodily autonomy, for example – then how will they keep themselves safe? You can’t flag what you don’t understand.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy; and I’ve had to have tougher conversations, too: about porn. When my daughter was seven, a friend of hers told her she’d looked at an iPad at her own home – and had seen “pictures of naked ladies with their legs open”.

My heart sank. I became hyper-vigilant, in that startled, deer-in-headlights way, where you’re trying to act normally but your heart is racing and you’re wondering what on earth to say next. “Oh?” I responded, as casually as I could muster. “What else did she see?” My daughter’s eyes grew wide as she lowered her voice to a whisper. “She saw men kissing the ladies – down there.”

And there we were. Unexpectedly, reluctantly, talking about porn. But rather than shut down the conversation, I knew how important it was – no matter how horrifying – to keep the lines of communication open.

Research already tells us that two fifths of parents shy away from using the word “vagina” with their daughters, preferring euphemisms such as “bits”, “front bottom”, “flower” or “fairy”. I’ve been militant in using the anatomically-correct names with my kids for body parts, even when it’s landed me in hot water. I decided there and then that porn mustn’t be any different.

The statistics are sobering: 28 per cent of children as young as 11 and 12 admit to having watched porn online, with a report by non-profit organisation Internet Matters revealing they access it through friends, pop-up ads or simply by accidentally stumbling across it. Recent research showed that half of children have seen porn by the age of 13, with the Children’s Commissioner warning the consumption of pornography is “widespread” among children.

I chose my words with my daughter carefully. “What your friend saw isn’t meant for children,” I explained. “It can make you feel upset, or angry, or confused.” Then I thought about what I’ve read about porn addiction, the long-term effects of porn on the brain, the impact of porn on women’s bodies and self-esteem, about the negative effects porn can have on intimate relationships. “It can make grown-ups feel like that, too,” I added.

“You’ll learn more about what those people were doing when you get a bit older. It’s nothing to be frightened of. But it’s not good for you to see things like that, right now. And if anyone tells you they’ve seen it, you should tell me, or daddy, or a teacher.”

Certain parents feel very differently (we’ve seen it with protests against sex education in schools, we’ve even seen one Christian mum try to sue a primary school for putting on a Pride parade). They seem to think that they can keep their children in the dark about… well, life.

That if they wrap them in cotton wool, stick their fingers in their ears and go “la la la la la” then all those elements of everyday adulthood: having healthy interpersonal relationships, sexual or gender identity, dealing with peer pressure over drugs and drink and sex, understanding pregnancy, birth control and abortion, maintaining a healthy body image, cyber-bullying, eating disorders – (the list is endless) will suddenly cease to exist. That it won’t happen to their child. That their child will be somehow different; immune.

Well, I’m sorry but Kristen Bell is right – and they’re woefully wrong. Of course kids should be aware of so-called “tricky” topics: that’s how they learn to make good decisions.


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