It’s scary, overwhelming, and oh-so-important. Here’s what you should know about how to talk about sex with your kids.
It’s not a one-time conversation. I believe the myth of “the talk” does more harm than good. It sets up huge expectations and stress for parents about the one conversation where I will give my child everything he or she needs to know about sex and sexuality and then revisit in a few years. Who wouldn’t be nervous with that kind of pressure? This is not a one and done deal. Believe me, it’s a process.
It starts young. You are giving your children sex education long before you tell them about reproduction. When you use real words for their genitals as you teach them how to wipe and clean their own bodies. When you talk about safety and teach them their genitals belong only to them and no one else. When you tell them the only reason another person might need to look at or touch their genitals is to keep them clean, safe, and healthy.
It’s more than reproduction and puberty. Eventually, yes, you will talk about how how their bodies will change and how babies are made (which in our modern world is way beyond what we were taught as children). Don’t wait. If your child expresses interest or asks questions, they are ready for answers as young as four and five. You don’t have to give them all the information, start with basics and build from there. You are preparing them for what is to come.
If you’re nervous, fake it. It’s okay to be nervous. But you are THE authority your child is going to look to about all of these things. It’s better to get used to talking about it and educating yourself now than being completely overwhelmed by your savvy pre-teen’s questions. Young children are much more forgiving when you don’t do it perfectly or have all the answers. Remember, your goal is to keep lines of communication open for ongoing conversations with your kid, not to answer everything at once.
Empower them to feel good about their bodies. Raising a child who feels positive about his or her own body and genitals will help them when they are older know what feels good, what feels right, and will empower them to make healthy decisions. A basic way to instill this is to teach them it is normal and healthy to touch themselves (masturbate), and that there are appropriate times and places to do this. Give some examples: their bedroom, the bathroom, times when they are alone.
Arm yourself with resources. I have a bunch listed in my Online Resources page. Buy books for yourself and for your kid, let them read them on their own or with you and then talk about it. Ask if they have questions. They will take their cues from you. If you give them information and never follow up, they may not feel comfortable asking additional questions either.
Some stats. There are very real reasons why talking to your kids about sex is vital to their well-being. Here are some statistics from the National Youth Behavior Survey of 9th-12th graders, including this eye-opener, almost half (46.8%) of all high-schoolers have had sex:
5.6% had sex before age 12
59.1% used a condom
13.7 % used no contraception
22.4% drank alcohol before their last sexual encounter.
Think broadly. Don’t get intimidated, remember these will be the topics of ongoing conversations over the course of years. But there are many concepts your kids will hear about from others eventually, if not from you. Believe me, I’ve taught sex-ed in high schools, they’re going to be exposed to a lot of terms they may not understand. Where would you rather they get their information from? Here’s a few to think about:
Drug/alcohol use and sex, consent, reading non-verbal cues, how to give consent, peer-pressure, sexually transmitted infections, abortion, pregnancy, sex-work, sexual orientation (gay, lesbian, queer), gender identity and expression (transgender, gender-queer), masturbation, sex toys, Viagra, condoms, IVF, surrogacy, birth control, lubricants, oral sex, anal sex, and so, so much more.
Use real world teaching opportunities. You don’t have to bring up these topics up out of the blue. Use the newspaper, news, books, television shows and movies as opportunities to talk about these issues, and more. When they come to you with questions, don’t shy away from answering them.
Don’t forget the heart of it. Kids need more than the mechanics of sex from parents. They want to know about things like how will they know when they are ready? How will it feel? What to do if they are pressured to have sex before they are ready? Or pressured to not use contraception when they are? And the most fundamental thing of all: Will you listen if they tell you or ask you something you are uncomfortable or disagree with?
Young emotions and hormones are heady, powerful things. It’s a privilege, really, to get to guide our children as they develop their own sets of values about sex and sexuality, and to share ours with them. This will help them with their future decision-making. Talking with your kids about how they might feel when strong feelings are involved helps them prepare for the inevitable that no parent likes to think about—eventually your kid will have sex.
So take heart and help them prepare. Don’t worry, you’ll do great. A parent who is willing is all your child needs.
Here are some other resources you may find helpful:
Planned Parenthood’s Resources for Parents has an amazing list of resources you should check out.
Questions? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.