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When and How to Talk to Kids About Sex

Here's a brief guide to get you started with "the talk."

As a sex educator and researcher, one of the most common questions I am asked is when and how to talk to your kids about sex. For example, in a recent email, a reader of my work 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 get started? And what do parents need to know in order to successfully navigate this discussion? Here’s a brief guide to help you get started:

123RF/Gustavo Frazao
Source: 123RF/Gustavo Frazao

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 only happens after their kid has already become sexually active, which is obviously 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 bodily 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 human body, which will make subsequent conversations on more complex subjects much easier.

In short, stop thinking about the talk as a one-time thing. Instead, think of it as a series of talks that gradually advance based on what your kid needs to know at the time.

2. Find out 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 and many other parts of the world tends to be pretty poor). You need to know what information the school is providing so that you can supplement it as needed, correct misinformation (don't assume that everything that is being taught is accurate!), 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 of us never got a sex talk from our own parents, which makes the process of talking to our kids all the more difficult because we don’t have a model for how things should go. Don’t let that uncertainty hold you back. The truth is that there isn't 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. Kids embarrass their parents all of the time with inquisitive questions as they try to make sense of the world, 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 (one of my personal favorites is 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 complicated, and it’s a heck of a lot more to it than penis-in-vagina intercourse. Your kid wants (and needs) to know more than simply how babies are made, how to avoid STIs, and how to prevent unwanted pregnancy. For example, topics such as sexual orientation, masturbation, oral sex, and sexual assault need to 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 helpful guide.

More from Justin J. Lehmiller Ph.D.
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