How to Talk To Your Children About Sex

The keys, say the experts, are starting early, keeping talks short and simple, and building a bond of mutual trust and respect.

“Mommy, do you have sex?” the 6-year-old asked her startled mother.

Yes, dear.”

“Does Daddy have sex?”

Yes, dear.”

“Does everybody have sex?”

“Pausing for a second, the mother replied, “Well, mommies and daddies have sex.”

“The girl digested this information, then asked, “What's sex?”

Like many parents of youngsters from tots to teens, this mother was caught off guard by her child's questions about sex. Yet such inquiries should be expected. “Unless they don't watch TV, don't go to movies, and don't talk with friends, children will be curious about sex,” says Nancy Adler, professor of medical psychology at the University of California at San Francisco. “Even if they're completely sheltered, they'll probably still want to know about sex.”

But that doesn't make it any easier for parents to talk about it. “The most sophisticated parents get tongue-tied talking about sex,” observes Marguerite Kelly, author of Marguerite Kelly's Family Almanac. “If it didn't make them uncomfortable, they'd discuss it as easily as nutrition.” Parents hesitate, she notes, not because they know less about sex than food, but because they're afraid their children “will ask more follow-up questions than they'd ever ask about broccoli.”

How much information is enough?

With young children, parents wonder how much information is enough and how much is too much. As youngsters approach their teens, some parents fear that even broaching the subject of sex might be interpreted as encouragement or permission to go out and do it.

“That's the knee-jerk reaction,” says psychologist Robert Selverstone, a sex educator in Westport, Connecticut, and consultant to Children's Television Workshop, “but on reflection, most of us believe that the more we know about anything, the better prepared we are to deal with it.” In fact, researchers have found that children who are armed with information, good self-esteem, and a sense of values tend to delay sexual activity. If they do become sexually active, these youngsters are more likely than their peers to practice safe sex.

While some awkwardness may be inevitable, parents can master the art of honest, open, and comfortable conversation. The keys, say experts in sex education, are starting early, keeping talks short and simple, and building a bond of mutual trust and respect. “You want to let kids know they can talk with you about sex and to tell them that sex is a normal part of life that's done responsibly by two people in a loving relationship,” says Adler.

Why parents need to talk with their children about sex

“All children learn about the birds and bees eventually, but what they learn and how they learn differs greatly from one child to another,” observe Charles Schaefer and Theresa DiGeronimo, coauthors of How to Talk to Your Kids About Really Important Things. “That's why talking about human sexuality with our children is so important—if we don't, someone else will.”

From their earliest years, children are bombarded with sexual images and language in commercials, television shows, and movies. “The message that the media send about sex is that it's okay to be casual and careless,” says Adler. “Parents, from the beginning, have to put sex in the context of relationships to offer some balance.”

Children also hear a lot about sex from schoolmates and playground peers, who, as Adler notes, “may have a lot of strange ideas. It's good for youngsters to know that their friends may well be wrong about what they're saying. It's also important to go beyond the physical aspects of sex and convey your family's values. No one else can do that for you.”

Should parents wait for youngsters to come to them with questions? Not necessarily. “Too often kids pick up cues from their parents that sex is not a suitable topic for conversation, and so they don't ask,” observes Selverstone. “I don't know any parent who waits for a child to say, ‘Should I look both ways before I cross the street?' We determine that there are certain things that our children need to know. Since sexuality and sexual issues are important, we have to initiate conversations about them early on.”

Although schools may incorporate some discussion of sexuality in the early elementary grades, most such classes focus on correct anatomical terms and reproduction in animals. Even when they offer more comprehensive discussions, classes should be viewed as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, conversation. “You could leave the job of sex education to the schools,” Kelly notes, “but parents are the ones who can emphasize values most effectively.”

Unspoken lessons in sex education

Even before they speak, children absorb their first lessons in sexuality. The way parents clean a baby's genitals, their responses to toilet training, their looks of approval or disapproval in response to a youngster's words and actions contribute to a child's self-image and sense of sexuality.

“Much of what children learn about their own sexuality and the sexuality of others comes from the ways their parents behave, not from what their parents say,” observes psychologist Larry Kutler, author of Parent and Child. “The sexual values and beliefs that express themselves forcefully in adolescence and adulthood are rooted, in part, in children's early concepts of themselves.”

A child's very first lessons in sex education may not have anything directly to do with sex. “The mechanics of sex are probably the least important aspects of sexuality that children learn,” says Kutler, who points out that the bad outcomes of sexual activity that parents fear most—unwanted pregnancy, rape, sexually transmitted diseases—do not come about solely because of sexual behaviors.

They all involve issues related to how people feel about and treat others and how they handle issues of responsibility. Far more critical to children than learning the details of intercourse at a young age is understanding that they should think of others as independent and worthwhile human beings. It is especially important that they learn to think of themselves as worthy of others' respect and capable of making their own decisions, for that will inoculate them against many forms of sexual exploitation when they become older.”

The most effective way for parents to impart these qualities is by modeling them in their everyday interactions. By taking good care of their own bodies, parents demonstrate the importance of healthy behavior. By encouraging children to express their feelings and opinions, they show that they're interested in their youngster's point of view. By listening without judging, they encourage open communication and trust. And by emphasizing sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others, they instill in their youngsters an understanding of responsible, caring relationships.

The importance of tone in discussing sex with your children

When a discussion does turn to sex, the tone parents adopt is as important as the content. Parents should be respectful, never laughing at a child's questions or comments, or dismissing them as silly or trite. Children who learn early that they can bring up sex without fear of ridicule, rebuke, or embarrassment develop a trust that can endure into adolescence.

Because sexual attitudes and values are highly personal and can provoke deep emotion, parents should think through what they most want to communicate to their children. In addition to providing basic birds-and-bees information, they may want their youngsters to grow up with positive feelings about their bodies and about being a boy or a girl. Or, remembering painful or embarrassing experiences of their own, they may want to reassure children that sexual thoughts and feelings are normal or to warn youngsters about the dangers of sexual exploitation or abuse.

Prepare for the discussion

For parents who find even the thought of talking about sex with their children intimidating, preparation can help. There are excellent basic books about human sexuality, as well as guides for talking with youngsters, available in libraries and bookstores. Practicing what you'd like to say, either alone or with a partner or friend, often is useful. “It also may help to put an emotional distance between you by pretending for a few minutes that you're talking with someone else's child,” suggests Kelly.

If you still feel nervous, admit it to your child. You might say, “I know this feels kind of awkward for both of us. But when I was growing up, I wished I could have talked to my parents about sex. Even though it may be a little embarrassing at first, I want you to know that in our house, it's okay to talk about sex, and I'll try to be as open and honest as I can.”

Look for teachable moments

One of the best ways of introducing sex into the daily conversation is by looking for “teachable” moments. Often family pets offer opportunities for explaining basic sexual biology. When psychologist Selverstone brought home two gerbils—which he believed to be males—his family was surprised by the birth of five babies. “It was a wonderful teachable moment, and we talked about how gerbils make babies, about the penis and the vagina, about the fact that human beings have babies in the same way. And our daughter, who wasn't ten yet, just went, ‘Yuck!' and ran away. But she came back in a couple of weeks and said, ‘Remember you were talking about the penis and the vagina? Tell me some more about that.'”

Such conversations show children that sex is woven into the fabric of daily life and that they needn't be afraid to ask or talk about it. If children aren't yet ready to absorb what parents have to say, at least they learn that they can turn to you when they do want to know more

Watching television with children also can provide plenty of chances to converse about sex. If there are comments about virginity, for instance, you might explain that a virgin is a person who has never had sexual intercourse and that many young people remain virgins until they're more mature and involved in a committed relationship. If a man and a woman go into a clinch, you might ask what your kids think (under-tens will find such displays gross). Ask what a girl seems to find attractive about a boy and vice versa, how your child might feel in a similar situation, if it would make a difference if he were a girl or she were a boy.

You also can use characters on a TV show to introduce the concept of sexual decision-making and responsibility. If two teenagers on-screen talk about having sex, you might comment that you hope that your youngsters will wait until they're older before taking such a big step and raise questions about birth control and safe sex. Rather than lecturing, try to draw youngsters out so they can start thinking about these issues.

Brief, simple answers for preschool children

Sex education may begin informally with the naming of various body parts, including sexual ones. Children invariably notice when parents don't mention their genitals or use special names for them. Most sex educators advise teaching the correct anatomical terms in a matter-of-fact way. However, such terms can sound disconcerting coming out of the mouths of babes.

To avoid the embarrassment of a curious preschooler asking Great Aunt Martha if she has a vagina, parenting advisor Marguerite Kelly suggests using the correct terminology in conversations at home but allowing more euphemistic language in public places or with people other than immediate family members. However, as children mature, using precise terms to explain sexuality makes the subject less difficult, confusing, and awkward—for parents and youngsters.

When preschoolers ask about sex, they often choose less than perfect places or times. While you don't have to respond in the supermarket line or a crowded restaurant, let your child know that you will answer his question just as soon as you get to the car or arrive home. Once you are in a quiet spot, bring up the subject. If you don't, children may assume you don't want to talk about sex—or that they did something bad by asking.

One of the most common mistakes parents make, say sex educators, is telling very young children more than they can understand or ever wanted to know. “Children understand sex the same way they understand anything—according to the level of their thinking,” Kelly notes. At 3 or 4, when children start asking where babies come from, their minds are incapable of grasping the complex process of reproduction.

Explaining that a baby grows inside a Mommy usually suffices. Listen carefully and answer only the questions they ask. A 4-year-old who asks where he lived inside Mommy doesn't need a lecture in anatomy, but a simple explanation that he grew inside a special place called a uterus. “You need to spread out information in many small talks, repeating what you've already said several times, so children can assimilate what you've said before you give them more,” Kelly says.

Talking with an older child

At 5 or 6, children will ask for more detailed explanations of their origins. This is an ideal time for parents to explain and to talk about taking care of babies, thereby introducing the concept of sexual relationships and responsibility. At 7 or 8, children will want more specifics about sex: How does the sperm get inside the vagina? Is it like going to the bathroom? How does the baby get out? Simple, clear explanations are best. Be brief, and don't be surprised if youngsters find what you say so repulsive that they're sure sex is something they'll never, ever do. “That's a natural reaction,” observes noted sex therapist “Dr. Ruth” Westheimer. “Sex only makes sense when it's connected to feelings for another person. Kids don't have these feelings yet and won't really understand them until they do.”

But the very fact that grade-school children aren't caught up in the tumult of emotions and hormones is an advantage for parents. “The early grade school years are a gift in terms of laying the groundwork for good communication,” says Adler. “Once you're worried about sex as an issue in your child's life, you can't approach it neutrally, and the messages get a lot more complicated.”

If a grade-schooler doesn't ask about sex by age seven, take the initiative and bring it up. “The longer you put off The Talk, the more awkward it will be,” observes Kelly. You might bring home carefully selected books from the store or library and suggest reading them together, offer them to your youngsters, or leave them where they can read them in private (and they will). Volunteer to answer any questions—or ask questions yourself. Getting a sense of how much your children know can help you decide where to start a discussion and how much information to impart. It can also bring out misconceptions youngsters have picked up from their peers, providing you with an opportunity to correct them.

Discussing sex and sexuality with an adolescent

If you haven't been talking about sex casually through the years, your initial conversations with a preteen or teen are bound to be awkward. To prepare yourself, do some homework. “Parents today usually don't have all the knowledge they need to pass on to their children because they weren't necessarily given the information themselves when they were young,” observes sex educator Wise.

In particular, parents may want to gather up-to-date information on sexually transmitted diseases (STD's), birth control, and safe sex. But don't feel you need to know everything a youngster might possibly ask. If you don't have an answer, simply say so. Then you, or you and your youngster, can do some research and find out.

With 11- to 13-year-olds, one unspoken concern almost always is, “Am I normal?” These self-conscious youngsters need reassurance that their bodies, changing before their eyes, are developing as they should. “Young people constantly check themselves out in comparison with others,” says Selverstone.

While they can see obvious changes, there are many aspects of sexual development they can't see. Boys may be confused and embarrassed by their unpredictable erections. Girls may fear that their breasts are too big, too small, or never going to develop at all.

Often the best way for parents to approach such sensitive subjects is by disclosing some information about themselves. “If a mother wants to bring up the subject of getting one's period with her daughter, she might tell her daughter how she first felt,” says Wise. “That sets up a safe environment for the child and establishes an opportunity for dialogue.

There are vulnerabilities and disclosure on both sides, not just a lecture from a parent and a disclosure from the child. Parents also have to remember not to be judgmental. If a child asks a question, they must give an honest answer and separate fact from opinion. They can give both-but they should identify them as what they are.”

Youngsters also need reassurance that their sexual feelings and thoughts are normal—and, despite their surprising force, controllable. Parents might point out that, while sexual desires come from the body, decisions about what to do about them are made in the head. And the best decisions—about sex or any other important aspect of life—are made carefully, slowly, and thoughtfully.

Helping adolescents set limits on sexual behavior

Parents might encourage youngsters to think about setting limits on sexual behavior in advance, so they don't get into situations where they're forced to make a split-second decision about sexual activity. As they watch television or videotapes with youngsters, parents might point out that each person in a relationship often has different expectations: Some boys think girls should set the limits.

Girls may think boys will know when to stop—and will always accept a “no” as a “no.” Both have to understand that truly caring, committed partners respect each other's feelings and words. Parents also should point out that alcohol or drugs can make it harder for teens to think clearly or to stick to a decision not to have sex.

Because of what they see in the media and hear from peers, teens may feel that everyone else their age is having sex. To balance this message, parents might note that there are many ways other than intercourse for people to be sexual—holding hands, kissing, hugging—and that just because somebody a youngster is dating wants sex doesn't mean he or she has to want it too.

Parents also should underscore the seriousness of deciding to have intercourse. Among the questions, they might suggest that teens consider: Am I ready to have sex? Is someone pressuring me to do it? What might happen after I have sex with this person? What if I get an STD? What if sex results in pregnancy, even if we use birth control? Would I want to raise a child on my own? Would I want to get married? Will I regret having had sex later if I meet someone I truly love? Will I be hurt if I find out my partner is only interested in sex, not me? Will I feel guilty afterward? Will I get a bad name or reputation? Will I feel bad about myself?

Deciding to go all the way, as Dr. Ruth tells teens in Dr. Ruth Talks to Kids, is a very serious matter for a number of reasons. First of all, sexual intercourse can result in an unwanted pregnancy. In addition, it carries the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, including the most dangerous one of all, AIDS. Furthermore, Dr. Ruth points out; sexual intercourse can end in disappointment or unhappiness if it does not occur in the context of a warm, loving, and joyous relationship and is not shared by two people who feel strongly about each other and know exactly what they're doing. “That's why it's sometimes called ‘making love.' It's such a powerful experience that no teen-agers I know are ready for it.”

Parents might also acknowledge that saying no, especially to someone you care for, is hard. In its guide for teens, “Deciding to Wait,” the American Academy of Pediatrics offers specific responses for resisting sexual pressure: “I like you a lot, but I'm not ready to have sex.” “You're really fun to be with, but I wouldn't want to ruin our relationship with sex.” “You're a great person, but sex isn't something I do to prove I like someone.” “I'd like to wait until I'm married to have sex.”

Overcoming communication barriers with teens

Because rebellion is normal in adolescence, communication between parents and teens on any and all subjects, including sex, may be difficult at times. “Parents have to try extra hard to be there for their teens,” says Selverstone. “They have to understand that they frequently will be rejected and encourage children to make up their own minds. This means that though their children may not follow their peers, they also may not follow their parents. Parents need to have been good role models and been accepting of other points of view, so the child has the courage to reject the peer group and delay sexual activity.”

A nonjudgmental, trusting approach can help. “Let your children know that you respect their ability to make their own decisions about these issues,” advises Kutler. “The fear that your child will make the wrong decision often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The idea that you can control your children's sexual activity is an illusion. Demonstrating faith in their ability to make decisions regarding sex and providing them with the information they need to make those decisions help keep the lines of communication open between you. It also makes sexual acting out less attractive as a way to rebel.”

Preventing risky sexual behavior

As with other sexual subjects, it's a good idea to address the risks early in a child's life. According to health experts, most grade-schoolers have heard about HIV and AIDS and are both curious and concerned. Children between 5 and 7 years of age need reassurance that HIV is not like the “bugs” that cause colds and flu and cannot be spread by everyday activities, like using a public water fountain or restroom.

Between ages 8 and 10, youngsters should be told that a person with HIV can pass it on through intimate sexual contact and dirty needles used to inject illegal drugs. They also should be told that playing with a child who has AIDS is safe and that youngsters with AIDS deserve understanding and kindness. Let children know that many people are afraid of AIDS and that talking about such concerns can help.

Conversations about sexual risks can serve as an opportunity to discuss healthy behaviors and responsible decision-making. Rather than delivering moralistic lectures, parents might ask youngsters how they think they can protect themselves. Typically, adolescents are convinced that nothing bad—be it an unwanted pregnancy or a sexual infection—could ever happen to them. Even sexually informed teens will cling to myths, such as the mistaken notion that a girl can't get pregnant during her period or that you can somehow “tell” whether a potential partner has HIV.

Parents might take note of examples—in the newspaper, on television, in the community—of teens who did indeed become pregnant or develop AIDS. They can use these cases in point to ask questions, such as, “What do you think they could have done to protect themselves?” “How would you feel if you were in their place?” Because it bears repeating often, parents should note that the only sure protection against pregnancy and STDs is abstinence.

Raising sexually responsible children

As parents, we teach our youngsters about all sorts of subjects in the hope of preparing them for a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. The goal of talking about sex is the same: to raise responsible children who make decisions carefully and thoughtfully and can resist the pressure of peers. We know that, within a loving, mature relationship, sexual intimacy can be one of the most rewarding experiences our children will ever know. We also realize the very real dangers of irresponsible sexual behavior. By offering both information and insight, by placing sex in a context of caring, we equip our children to face the future with a true understanding of both the rewards and the risks of sexual behavior.

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