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How to Talk to Your Kids about Sex

Updated at the bottom

We talk a lot around sex as we talk about infertility, but many people get pretty damn squeamish talking about sex.  But you’re going to have to talk about sex if you end up parenting because it’s part of the package: you need to prepare that kid for the world.

I’m coming at this topic as a former health teacher for middle schoolers who has had her share of jaw-dropping questions left in her classroom’s anonymous question box.  And while my average readership may not have a child yet or your child may be still in diapers, this is a topic that anyone who is planning to parent or is currently parenting can’t wait years to think about.  You have to have a strategy, and the best strategy begins at birth.  Well… okay… a little after birth.  But still.  It starts much earlier than you think.

Tomorrow is National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day.  But Melissa, you say, kids don’t have to worry about HIV.  But did you know that “40 percent of new HIV infections are young people ages 13 to 29.”  If you don’t want your child to be part of that 40% statistic, you need to educate them, and you need to do so early.

According to the Kinsey Institute, the average kid loses his or her virginity before he or she graduates high school. For boys, it’s an average of 16.9 years, and girls lose their virginity on average at 17.4 years.  Some parents are worried that starting the sex conversation conveys a message that they condone their child’s sexual exploration.  But isn’t the opposite possibility ten times scarier than teaching your child how to put on a condom?  That they could be left without vital information that could protect their overall health?  In addition, some parents unrealistically believe that they know with certainty that their child is a virgin.  The reality is that statistics tell a very different story about the frequency of teenage sex.  The best approach is to believe only what you know to be fact and accept that your child may be part of that statistic above.  You’ll never know unless you catch them in the act… or ask.

There isn’t a magic age to start talking to your child about safe sex.  Like most charged topics, the conversation best unfolds in small steps over the course of many years.  Start soon after birth getting your child comfortable talking about his or her body as well as opening up the path of communication between yourself and your child.  While you may feel inclined to use a cute term when referring to your child’s genitalia, it’s actually more helpful to label their penis or vagina just as you would all their other body parts. (Yes, I’m aware that the visible genitalia on a girl is the vulva, but since no one calls it as such, we went with the more common vagina in order to minimize confusion.)  The point is to make them comfortable with every inch of their body.

In elementary school, the focus may be on HIV itself; not talking about how it is transmitted but more the concept that there are diseases that can be passed through contact with blood.  This is a good age to discuss HIV in terms of safety.

In middle school and high school, the conversation needs to include that the disease can be passed through sexual contact and how people can minimize their risk by utilizing condoms or asking sexual partners to get tested for the virus.

And as a former health teacher, I have a bit of advice on how to open up this conversation with your child, regardless of age:

  • Choose a time when you’re both not distracted.  Put down the mobile phones, turn off the television, and look each other in the face.  A second choice would be to open the talk while you are driving and your child is in the car for a long drive.  This way, if you’re nervous, you can keep your eyes on the road.
  • Take away sex’s power.  You may be coming into this conversation with baggage about sex.  You may have beliefs about sex or have had a negative experience with sex or feel empowered by sex.  And all of that is about you.  This conversation is about your child.  Do not make sex larger than it really is: don’t let it loom huge in your mind like a bogeyman who is going to turn your precious, innocent child into a crazy sex addict nor make it the end-all-and-be-all of the teenage years.  Your children are looking to you to figure out how they should feel about sex.  If you are too emotional, too anxious, or too dismissive about sex in this conversation, your child will pick up on that energy.  You simply want to present the facts and not inflate sex or give it more power than it should have.
  • Find out how much your child already knows.  Most schools start education about sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV even before they begin their lessons on sexual health.  In addition, your child will pick up information from other kids.  Gently correct any information your child misunderstood from class or the playground.  I’ve always told the twins that my job is to educate them, but their job is not to educate others.  They should allow other kids to have their parents educate them.
  • Let the conversation be child-led.  Tell your child that you plan on presenting them with information in a moment, but you’d rather first hear what questions are rolling around in their mind.  The information may end up coming at them out of order, but allowing the conversation to unfold with the child in control of the flow of information is not only empowering to the child but it provides you with a fill-in-the-blank approach so you know what to say next if you start to get nervous.
  • If you’re feeling nervous, use a book.  Think of it as your script, and you’re just an actor, presenting the story.  Peter Mayle has a great set of two books that have been used by parents for decades for younger children.  You may want to gift teenagers with a book such as Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, which is a book similar to Our Bodies, Ourselves but aimed at teens.
  • Be frank.  Your job is not to scare them or coddle them.  It’s to present the information without telling your child how to think or feel about their sexuality or various sexual acts.  Information provided concisely and clearly, without emotion, leaves the power in your child’s hands to decide the path they wish to take.  Don’t leave them in a position where they feel they need to use sexuality as a place to rebel against you.
  • Be honest.  If you don’t feel that your child is old enough to know certain information, the best thing you can do is explain that you will happily answer the question fully at a later date, but right now, you’re telling them what they need to know.  The worst thing you can do is lie or blow off your child’s question.  If their question makes you uncomfortable, explain that to your child.  But don’t shut down conversation by making them feel wrong for coming to you with a question.
  • Don’t let your sole discussion of sexuality be doom and gloom.  Most parents keep their discussion of sexuality to topics such as HIV or teen pregnancy: not the cheeriest elements of sex.  If you’re opening up this conversation with HIV, make sure you counterbalance it with pointing out the good things about sex so that sex does not become something scary that must be avoided.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your values.  Even though you don’t want to make decisions for them, it’s fine to let your child know your expectations and why.  It’s not enough to simply ask your kids to wait until adulthood to have sex in the same way that it wouldn’t deter you if someone simply pointed at a door and asked you not to open it.  On the other hand, if someone asked you not to open the door because there was something behind that door that could harm you and they were trying to protect you, there would be a much stronger impetus to follow their directions.
  • You don’t have to share your personal sexual history.  Your child may ask out of curiosity or to gauge whether you’re having similar life experiences.  You can explain that you ask them about their sexual history in order to help them make good choices since you are there to guide them as their parent, but that in general, a person’s sexual history is something they should volunteer to discuss and not have questioned.  On the other hand, you may have regrets about when you lost your virginity, and it’s okay to use your personal story to explain why you’re asking something different from your child.
  • Leave the door open.  Remind your child at the end of the conversation that while this particular talk may be over, that you know questions and new information pop up over time.  Make sure they know explicitly that you are a resource for information.

And that’s how you get through the dreaded sex talk and give your children the tools to protect themselves in the process. Don’t count on your child’s school to educate them about their bodies or sexuality. That conversation is best played in your court, providing a sound foundation for schools to build from.  And the talk begins much earlier than you probably think.

National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day

Update:

Please don’t wait to start having this talk with your child.  The LA Times reported this week that sex education in schools often comes too late to be helpful.  The article states: “Among teen girls who were sexually experienced, 83% told interviewers that they didn’t get formal sex education until after they’d lost their virginity.”  Don’t wait for schools to step in and educate your child on life.  Sex education has to begin at home.

14 comments

1 a { 04.09.14 at 9:40 am }

I dread these discussions, but when they come up, they’re actually OK so far. We’ve started with the expectations (you need to finish college, and get a job and be able to support yourself, find a nice man who also has a job and get married, before you can think about having babies!) because my daughter is convinced that she wants a bunch of babies. And dogs, lots of dogs. But she has shown no interest in the mechanics yet. She approaches lots of issues from the side, though – we’ll get there eventually.

2 Nicole { 04.09.14 at 9:56 am }

Why do people always suggest doing this why driving? My Dad did this to me several times as a teenager to the point I started avoiding getting in the car alone with him and had considered jumping out of a moving vehicle multiple times. It is not good to force kids into a conversation when they feel trapped.

3 Mel { 04.09.14 at 10:04 am }

Yes, they’re trapped, but they’re also trapped in their room unless they’re going to be rude and get up and walk out.

I always suggested cars to parents who had a difficult time with looking at their child. Because then there was a reason they weren’t looking at their child; they had to keep their eyes on the road. That is better than a parent who enters their child’s room and keep their eyes on the floor the entire time.

4 Isa { 04.09.14 at 12:04 pm }

Any suggestions for the diaper set on what to call the place they pee from? It’s not her vagina. Urethra? I realize this isn’t exactly on-topic, but it’s been difficult at our house, and I feel like the conversations are related…

5 MaryAnne { 04.09.14 at 12:19 pm }

An interesting topic. I’m not sure I agreed with all of your points – and I unfortunately tend to find these kinds of “advice lists” just a little high-handed (along the lines of “here is what you should do everyone”), when in reality all parents will approach this subject in a very wide variety of ways. A few of your statements seem to suggest that you know the “right” way to handle things. (I’m sure that’s not what you meant to imply at all, but just wanted to point out that the list of rules format sort of reads that way). I’d like to point out, for instance, that there are certainly valid reasons for not teaching a very young child to say “penis” and “vagina” if they are at the stage of wandering around announcing their newly-learned vocabulary. (I plan to introduce the proper names to my toddler when we can also have a conversation about private vs. public use of language. For now, I have simply called them her “privates” when she asked). And I don’t personally think it’s particularly important to mortify a child by teaching them how to apply a condom, when every sex-ed class in the world covers that quite adequately. (I cannot even imagine how horrifying that would have been for me to have my mother or father demonstrate putting on a condom! But perhaps others would be fine with this).

I wondered if there was a slight contradiction in your statement about imparting one’s values during these discussions and the earlier statement about being careful not to tell the child how to feel or think. It’s at least a pretty murky issue – and I for one actually think it’s pretty close to impossible to have this sort of discussion without simultaneously shaping the child’s ideas about it (which is of course at the heart of any kind of parenting really). Even the attempt to allow the child to “decide the path they wish to take” is one that reflects your own ideas and values as a parent. So a parent that does otherwise isn’t in error.

Sorry to quibble – I think you presented a number of excellent points here, and caused me to think about these issues once again.

6 Mel { 04.09.14 at 12:19 pm }

If you’re talking about a child that young, I’d go with the commonly misused vagina. Normally I’m all for using correct information. BUT in this case, you would be setting up your child to be the only one using the term. So at that age, I’d go with vagina. As they age and you get into the complexities of body parts, I’d give them the words to describe every part of their body. But just as I ask if their stomach hurts, and what I mean is do they feel pain in their stomach, intestines, esophagus (but call all of that “stomach”), at that age, I called it a vagina, and what I meant was urethra, vulva, etc.

7 Mel { 04.09.14 at 12:27 pm }

You don’t need to apologize for quibbling MaryAnne. We can agree to disagree. I’m coming at this as a teacher. So yes, I think there is a proper way to talk about sex with your child (not a single set of information that needs to be imparted — hence why I didn’t write a post called “Things You Should be Telling Your Child about Sex.” The logistics are up to each parent) just as I think there is a proper way to write an essay.

You can tell your child your values — “I would love it if you waited until marriage because blah blah blah” — vs. telling your child how to think or feel about sex — “sex is wonderful!” or “sex is terrible” or “teenage sex is something only bad girls do.” So no contradiction.

And I’d agree with you if every school taught children how to apply a condom. But thanks to push back from conservative parents, that just isn’t the case anymore.

8 Ana { 04.09.14 at 1:19 pm }

I’ll have to bookmark this for later. We have two boys. They know the word penis. Yes, they do say it in public sometimes, but they think its just another word, like arm or stomach so they don’t run around shouting it, they’ll just mention “my penis is uncomfortable” when their pants are bunched up, etc… We haven’t introduced the word vagina, though, because…it hasn’t come up. When they ask what girls pee out of, I say “urethra” because I really can’t deal with how anatomically wrong it would be to say they pee out of their vagina! But I do want them to know the word and not be uncomfortable with it, so I’ll have to figure out how to introduce it.

9 Mel { 04.09.14 at 1:49 pm }

That’s exactly what I meant, Ana. You said it perfectly. It’s okay for a kid to say the word penis. It’s a body part. We can also explain to them that there are certain body parts that we keep covered in public. But they SHOULD be able to say things like “my penis is uncomfortable” so they can use their words to explain how they feel in the same way that it would be perfectly acceptable for a child to say, “my knee is uncomfortable.” Get them comfortable talking about their body.

10 andy { 04.09.14 at 2:37 pm }

I’ll share my funny story… we have always been very open with Liam, and since he has always known he was adopted, we had discussions about where babies come from pretty early on. When he was 5 he was enamoured with babies and talked a lot about having his own, but insisting he would carry the baby, no girl required! We clarified that with discussions about utureses etc.. and he was good with that. Until he went up to his friend Amy’s dad and said “When we are grown up I want to borrow Amy’s uturus so that she can carry a baby for me”. I’m not sure the poor father ever recovered!

11 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.09.14 at 3:10 pm }

Yes. Especially about taking away the power of the topic, and by having boundaries around what you will and won’t share, personal experience-wise, with your child.

Helpful!

12 Jess { 04.10.14 at 12:33 am }

Agreed! As a psychologist!

Two other key points about using the proper terms from the get go:
(There’s research out there on both:)

1) kids who know the proper terms for their parts are more likely to have a higher self esteem

2) kids who know the proper terms for their body parts are less likely to be victims of sexual abuse by a child predator

I think not telling kids to call their parts a penis or vagina brings shame into the picture. It makes it embarrassing or a joke or hints that mom or dad has anxieties/ is uncomfortable so maybe they should be too. If they bring it up in public, tough. They will bring up poop too. It’s part of who we are as humans and we can’t expect them to love themselves if they are to be always partly embarrassed.

I have an education in this and I agree with you 100%! Parents- sex Ed doesn’t really exist anymore. Don’t rely on school. Don’t rely on peers either!

13 Tiara { 04.12.14 at 9:08 pm }

Excellent information. This has been bookmarked for future reference. Thank you

14 loribeth { 04.27.14 at 12:40 pm }

My parents didn’t talk much about sex with us. Thank goodness I was a voracious reader & became fairly well self-educated. The only sex ed I ever received from school (in the late 1970s, small-town Canadian Prairies) was in Grade 12 biology class, near the end of the year. It wasn’t even sex ed per se but a unit on the reproductive system (following the digestive system, circulatory system, nervous system, etc.). Our teacher had all these pull-down charts and when he went to pull down the reproductive system chart, someone had taped a Playboy centrefold over it. The whole room exploded in laughter. He laughed too, although he turned beet red as he took the poster down. We all noticed that he put it away carefully in his desk instead of the garbage. lol. 😉

But yeah — way, way too late by then. The next year, when my sister graduated from high school, there were 6 pregnant girls at school — two from Grade 10, two from Grade 11 & two from her Grade 12 class. That was when the principal started allowing Planned Parenthood to put up posters in the school.

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