How to Talk to Your Kids about Sex
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
Health, Wellness, & Safety
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When your child was born, you might have looked forward to teaching her to ride a bike or introducing him to your favorite movies or teaching her to play your favorite sport. You probably didn’t eagerly anticipate talking with your child about sex.
Many of us don’t have a good model for such a conversation. Not many of our parents did a super job of talking about sex with us. In fact, when we think about teaching our kids about sex we most often either have absolutely nothing to go on or we have memories of really uncomfortable conversations that ended just about as quickly as they began.
But talking with children about sex is more important than ever. Sexual imagery is all around us and is included in much of the media even small kids enjoy. Reserving a talk about the birds and the bees to just a film viewed in the fourth grade is not enough these days. If you’re a responsible parent, you’ve got to step up.
Our False Excuses
Some of the excuses we make to avoid talking to children about sex are just that: excuses. And not only that, our excuses are wrong.
- Knowledge does not lead to action. Children who know the facts about sex are not more likely than other kids to experiment with sex. There is no evidence to support this notion. But not telling your children about sex puts them at risk for believing the misinformation they pick up from their friends.
- Not telling doesn’t keep kids in the dark. Children whose parents don’t fill them in about sex are not uninformed. Kids are curious. Sex is everywhere. If children don’t think you will tell them what they want to know, they’ll find someone who will. Not telling your kids won’t keep them from finding out.
- If children ask, they’re not too young to know. Three-year-olds who are about to welcome a new brother or sister into the family quite rightly want to know how this baby got where it is and how it will get out. They are not too young to know if they’re old enough to ask. Again, by not telling our kids – at any age – we leave them vulnerable to wrong information. As parents, we are handing the responsibility for sharing this vital information to unidentified others.
So if we take on this responsibility – in the same way we tell our kids about how to cross the street and why it’s important to not eat too much sugar – then how do we do that? Here are some thoughts.
How To Talk About Sex
Start early. By the time your little person is ready to head out into the big world – by kindergarten, in other words – he or she should know “the basics.” Kids this age should know the correct names for genitals of both sexes and should know how babies are made. They should know that their private parts are indeed private and cannot be touched without their permission. If your child is older than five and you haven’t shared this information, the time to do so is now. By the time your child is nine, he or she – both sexes – should know about menstruation.
Answer questions honestly. This doesn’t mean you have to share everything you know, but it does mean that you won’t tell stories or pretty things up. If your child is going to continue to ask you questions on into his adolescence, you have to demonstrate now that your information can be trusted. Sincere questions deserve sincere answers. (And remember that young kids will think the information you share is very interesting, but not embarrassing. This is another reason to start these conversations early… they are much less awkward when kids are young.)
Make this a conversation, not a lecture. Think of your conversations about sex as multiple events – this is something you’ll talk about on and off for a long time. So “the talk” is not a one-time lecture, packed with every sort of fact. It’s a conversation that’s suited to the child’s age and ability to understand. When your child asks a question, you will answer that simply – in one sentence – and then wait to see if she asks a follow-up question. Or you’ll wait a moment, then add in another bit that fits with what you just said. Later, or tomorrow, or next week or next month, she’ll ask more questions or you’ll bring this up once again.
Be a friendly resource, not someone who communicates shame, suspicion, and evasion. Any conversation about sex will also communicate your values about family, honesty, and love.
Treat your child with respect. Never laugh at him, never tell him he’s too young to know, never tell him to go ask someone else. He’s chosen you. He asked you. Remember, if you want your teenager to tell you what’s going on in his life – including his sex life – then you must build your reputation now, when he’s little.
Teaching children about sex shouldn’t be left to chance. By putting this off, parents risk their kids learning all sorts of things, without the filter of parental values. Open the door to honest conversations about sex right now.