For kids to mature into adults, we parents must be adults ourselves.

That’s obvious enough. Yet all of us bring baggage into the mix, perhaps the most common being sexual immaturity. Many parents are uncomfortable discussing or exploring their own sexuality, and some of us would rather fake the flu than talk to our kids about sex.

On some level that’s okay. Nature didn’t design us to think of our offspring as sexual beings or vice-versa. (Can you imagine the genetic tossed salad we’d be dealing with if it had??) But that’s no excuse for pretending that sexual development isn’t an essential part of our children’s overall maturation.

In fact it may be the most essential. Far more than their scholastic, extracurricular, or athletic development (all of which we encourage, even prematurely coerce), what is a more natural marker of growing up than entering the world of sex: navigating its pleasures, its politics, its risks?

There are many ways parents should reflect on our role in that process, but for now let’s focus on one: how do we halt the horrible habit of slut shaming?

This is an issue with real consequences. Bullying girls about their sexual choices isn’t just mean; it’s dehumanizing. It belittles their agency (even in their own minds) and discourages them from being forthright about their preferences – all of which sets the stage for bad communication, manipulation, and sexual assault.

Now on the one hand slut shaming isn’t even logical. Why do straight males humiliate women for having sex with them? Wouldn’t they enjoy a much more active and enthusiastic sex life if they didn’t?

We’ve heard the evolutionary justification for this: males want to know who their offspring is, so they look for sexual loyalty. There may be some truth to this theory (though there’s plenty of evidence to challenge it), but in any case it’s not very helpful. So let’s look at a few explanations of why this phenomenon persists despite how far we’ve come, and what we can do about them.

Kids learn by imitating

Most every childhood game is some kind of rehearsal for adulthood. They mimic what they observe around them and by four years old identify more with role models of their own sex. If boys see men treat or talk about women in demeaning ways, they will join in as a performance of their gender.

Social displays of gender allow boys to signal that they’re on the same team. As for what a healthy display should be, that’s a whole other article – but at the very least, it should practice traits useful to the species. Anything that diminishes the value of half the species couldn’t possibly be beneficial to the species overall, so clearly the belittling of women should not have any part of it.

Don’t perpetuate misogynistic speech, especially if you’re a dad. Watch what you say about your friends, celebrities, and characters on TV. And if you catch these things being said around kids or in media they consume, call it out.

Boys are raised to fear intimacy

All sex requires some degree of trust, and great sex enables us to connect on levels both high and deep. All of which is terrifying to someone who’s scared of emotions.

We need to do a better job helping boys manage vulnerability. Our social norms handicap them early on by discouraging their need for touch and gendering a whole range of feelings as weak, unstable, or “girly.” This ties their developing identities to a certain lack of tenderness. So of course they’ll struggle to accept the actual compliment of physical affection. It’s much easier, much less stressful, to call sex meaningless and treat sexual partners accordingly.

Rejection hurts

Sometimes boys say mean things about girls simply because they’re hurt. Especially when young souls meet rejection, gendered resentment can grow. We need to remind our sons that it’s not a girl’s job to validate their self-esteem or even let them down lightly, and that different people find different qualities interesting and that’s called personal taste.

Don’t go to disingenuous lengths to shelter your boy’s developing ego. All kids should know that not everyone is going to be kind or make them feel warm fuzzies, and that’s part of life.

Show them that when someone hurts your feelings, defensiveness is not the answer. That it’s not your job to win anyone over or put them in their place. We can let people have their feelings without judging them or calling names.

They feel unworthy

Young people are under very strict biological instructions to focus on their sexual awakening, and under very strict instruction from everywhere else to ignore it. The difference is, we tend to teach girls that their sexual feelings are illusions – that they just want attention or emotional connection – and we tell boys that their feelings are not only real but dangerous, disrespectful, even barbaric.

With boys we tend to shame normal curiosity as obsession, normal urges as vulgarity, and normal attraction to various body types or gender expressions as perversity. But when we tell boys their sexual feelings are dirty, we imply that girls who engage them must be dirty, too.

Don’t punish boys for having sexual interests. Instead, talk to them about the consequences of sexual contact and the importance of consent. Work to build trust well before puberty hits, so you can have confidence in their judgment and they can have confidence in your advice.