As a sex educator and researcher, one of the more common questions I get asked is when and how to talk to your kids about sex. Case in point: a reader of the blog recently asked, “At what age should parents talk about sex to their children—or at what age do children need to know about sex?”
So when should you start? And what the heck do parents need to know about navigating this discussion? Here’s a brief guide to help you get started:
1. Initiate the talk early—and keep the conversation going. Too many parents wait for the “right” time to come along for “the talk,” only to find that it never does—and then they don’t have the talk at all, or it happens after their kid has already become sexually active, which is too late. By starting when they’re young, you have a chance to ease into things and make sure your child has the information they need when they need it.
The way to think about this is that you’re going to have a series of age-appropriate talks—you don’t need to get everything out there all at once. For example, in earlier childhood, the focus can be on learning the correct anatomical names for all of their body parts, recognizing that different people have different bodies, and understanding appropriate versus inappropriate touching. As they get older, you can talk about how babies are made and the body changes that happen during puberty. Later on, you can address safe-sex practices, sexual consent, and how to navigate relationships.
Again, the goal is to make this age appropriate and to think of it as an ongoing discussion that evolves in response to what your child needs to know. This incremental process can also make it easier on you as a parent. Instead of letting the awkwardness continue to build by delaying it, you get to open the lines of communication early and get everyone used to talking about sex and the body, which will make the subsequent conversations on more complex subjects much easier.
2. Find out when and what your kids are learning about sex in school—and be prepared to fill in the gaps. Consider attending the sex education program your kids will be exposed to (if that’s an option), or speak with your child’s teacher about what exactly will be covered in their course. Don’t assume that your kids are getting all of the knowledge they need at school (odds are, they aren’t—sex education in the United States tends to be pretty poor). You need to know what information the school is providing so that you can supplement it and be prepared to answer your child’s questions.
3. Recognize that uncertainty and embarrassment are common reactions, but don’t let those stop you. Many parents never got a sex talk from their own parents, which makes this process all the more difficult because they don’t have a model for how things should go. Don’t let that uncertainty hold you back. The truth is that there is not one “correct” way to teach your kids about sex and you can chart your own course. It’s also OK if you feel a little embarrassed at times—this is a very common reaction. But remember that kids embarrass their parents all of the time, so having a sex talk is hardly unique in that sense. If you’re worried that you won’t have the right words or that you won’t be able to describe things very well, then bring out some books to help (such as Let’s Talk About S-E-X).
4. Don’t leave all of the hot-button and serious issues off of the table. Human sexuality is complex. And it’s a heck of a lot more complicated than just penis-in-vagina intercourse. Your kid wants (and needs) to know more than simply how babies are made and how to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancy. For example, topics such as sexual orientation, masturbation, oral sex, and sexual assault should all be addressed, too.
5. Remember that not all kids are heterosexual and cisgender. Depending on your child’s gender identity and sexual orientation, they may need to know different information when it comes to navigating relationships and keeping themselves (and their partners) safe. “Sex” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to someone who is LGBTQIA. For an inclusive guide on what you need to know if you’re the parent of an LGBTQIA child, check out this guide.
For more information, check out this video on why parents should talk to their kids about sex.
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Image Source: 123RF/Mark Bowden
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