For most parents, talking to their children about sex can be uncomfortable and awkward, but an Oak Park organization aims to guide families into having meaningful conversations.
In the last five years, Oak Park Our Whole Lives, or OP OWL, has offered a series of workshops to help parents, caregivers and children explore the many aspects of sexuality. From learning about the reproductive system to birth control options and sexual consent, the workshops – which were recently offered on Zoom due to the pandemic – are meant to serve as a resource for families.
“Sexuality touches on our relationships, on our ways to express intimacy, on our emotions, as well as our biology, dynamics of power, our sense of ourselves,” said Nina Brewer-Davis, who co-founded OP OWL in 2016.
Our Whole Lives is a program created by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. The curriculum is secular and focuses on building healthy relationships and self-worth and understanding sexual responsibility and health, said Brewer-Davis.
She said OP OWL takes a holistic approach and is open to all participants of different faiths, gender identities, sexual orientations and cultural backgrounds. The course is led by trained facilitators. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, courses were held in person at the Oak Park Friends School, 1192 S. Cuyler Ave., and offered to youth, from kindergarteners to high school freshman, as well as parents and caregivers.
Brewer-Davis, a member of the Unitarian Universalist congregation and who attends Unity Temple in Oak Park, said she grew up in the OWL program, “but when I became a parent, these questions about how to talk about sexuality with my kids became more important.”
“I really wanted it not only to help my relationship with my kids, but it was really important for all the kids and all of their friends to have this kind of sexuality education,” she said.
Brewer-Davis and Aaron McManus, one of the workshop’s volunteer facilitators, spoke up about the challenges parents and caregivers may face when giving “the talk” to their children. At times, those conversations are tough because they are personal. Every person has their own story, some of which involve painful pasts and traumatic experiences, they said.
“Most of the parents I know, and including myself, want something different for their children,” Brewer-Davis said.
She and McManus said parents and caregivers play a crucial role, because they are typically their children’s first teachers.
“Our parents’ silence is also part of our education, and the way that our parents show affection – or don’t –, the way that our parents give us messages about our bodies. … How do we cover our bodies? Or are we ashamed of them? Do we wish [our bodies] were different?” said Brewer-Davis. “Those are all messages that we get from our parents and that parents give to their kids.”
McManus said discussions around sexuality “really comes back to destigmatizing” and “just learning to empower kids to make really good decisions. And that’s often not the way we were parented. That’s often not the way that we were taught.”
For McManus, being part of the OP OWL has been cathartic in some ways. McManus, who has an 8-year-old daughter, said leading the workshops have given him the chance to reflect on the pieces of his life that have shaped him today. Among many things, McManus thought back to the moments he discovered his sexual identity.
“Honestly, I didn’t understand myself as queer until I got to my 30s because I really grew up with the binary perspective that you need to be straight or gay,” he said, laughing. “I literally didn’t realize bisexuality existed until my mid-20s. I was like, ‘Wait, you mean there is no conflict?’”
McManus also shared he is a survivor of sexual assault, and through OP OWL’s workshops, he felt empowered and was able to connect with others more deeply.
Brewer-Davis and McManus stressed that these types of conversations are important, and they hope that parents and caregivers who attend the workshops can walk away feeling more confident.
McManus said he wants parents and caregivers to know that “it’s OK to just muddle through them” and to “not have the answers right now.”
Just saying “Let’s talk about it” or “What do you think? is a wonderful place to start,” he said.
Oak Park Our Whole Lives is looking for volunteers to help lead its workshops in the fall. To learn more about volunteer opportunities or the organization, visit https://www.opowl.org.