Some dread it, some avoid it, some have already been giving it for years. Everyone is different, as is every kid. There’s no perfect way to talk to your kids about sex, just as there’s no perfect way to parent. However, there are certain things you can do to maximize the effects of the conversation and create a safe environment for your kids—and for you. It may be awkward, and that’s totally OK. The important thing is that you do it.
Difficult as it may be to believe, your kids actually want you to talk to them about the birds and the bees. Seriously. They have so many questions rolling around in their heads! Sex and sexuality can be complex issues, and guidance is necessary to make healthy decisions. They’re not typically looking for a traffic cop, but they do want direction.
Yes, they can get information from their friends and from the internet—and they will. But kids are smart: They often know that’s not the entire picture, and they need someone they can trust to answer any burning questions. It’s never fun to be the only one who doesn’t know something, which is why it’s essential to talk to your children early. Starting the conversation at a younger age also ensures you know exactly what information they’re getting, which can help you better gauge where they are with their understanding of sex and sexuality as a whole.
Again, it’s important to remember that if you don’t talk to your kids about sex, someone else will. There is zero chance of your child avoiding the topic altogether. They may get information from friends, from Google or even from watching porn. Did you know the average age a boy first watches porn is 11 years old?
As we know, information—both visual and audio, is not always accurate. In fact, it’s often completely inaccurate.
Sex is a part of life. It’s a part that can feel good, that is often considered taboo, that seems quite secretive to many; it’s only natural that kids will want to figure out what it’s all about. If you’re not the one helping them do that, they’ll likely try to piece it together themselves. This can mean a huge part of the picture gets left out or misunderstood, and those parts are often important: Think birth control, consent, healthy relationships, communication.
Perhaps the easiest and most effective way to talk to kids about sex is simple: Talk early and talk often.
Having one singular conversation can seem intense, for everyone involved, and you may feel like you only have one shot to tell your child everything they need to know so you can’t mess up. Your child may also be more receptive one day and less receptive another, so it’s best to spread these conversations out in order to really get through.
Talking often also means that your conversation is ongoing. If you mess up, express something less than eloquently or don’t know an answer, you have the space to sort it out and come back to it later. Your kids will also know they can come ask you a question at any time. This keeps the lines of communication open and normalizes the topic. Sex is a natural part of life and is best discussed without shame or secrecy. Talking early can boost your child’s confidence regarding the topic of sex and relationships, which is essential for healthy decision making.
Still, this talking is often easier said than done. Don’t worry. Here are some ways to bolster your confidence—and bolster the conversation.
Think about what you want to say beforehand.
What are your values? What do you most want your child to know? Imagine the circumstances under which you want your child to have their first sexual experience: Is it important to you that they’re in love? Is it important that they have safer sex? Do you want them to feel safe, respected? Do you want them to feel comfortable with their body? Do you want them to understand what they might enjoy about sex? Think about those feelings. Then, try to find a way to articulate their importance and why you feel they are important. Think about what they would need to know to make decisions that would lead to these ideal circumstances.
Tell the truth.
Even when the topic of pleasure comes up. They already know sex is supposed to feel good; eliminating that part of the discussion is silently expressing to them your discomfort with an aspect of sex—an aspect they don’t hear about in sex education at school, but are certainly curious about. I know it seems counterintuitive, but talking with them about this decreases the likelihood of them feeling the need to experiment—in a manner that may not be fully safe or informed—to find answers to their questions. If your child asks a question, give an honest answer. If you don’t know the answer, it’s OK to admit that. You can tell your child that you don’t know but that you’ll find out and get back to them. You can even find the answer together.
Don’t simply make things up because you aren’t sure. That’s not beneficial to anyone. Don’t fudge the facts, either. For example, say you tell your kid that condoms aren’t effective. (In fact, condoms are 82 to 98 percent effective, depending on proper use—another full discussion!) Sure, for some kids that may mean “Sex is too risky. I’m just going to wait.” For others, it means “Well, if condoms don’t work anyway, I may as well not use them.”
It’s important that your kids know as much information as possible, so they can make their own informed decisions. It is also important to recognize your own experiences and intentions and to understand your child may interpret your statement in a way other than you intend.
Make sure you talk about what consent is—a sober, ongoing, enthusiastic yes!, what it’s not, and what it looks like to get it or give it. This is not only important from a safety standpoint, but also for their empowerment. Let your kids know that their body is their own and that they have full control over it. Consent is about respect; when respect for others is taught at an early age, consent will be an easy topic to grasp. Do we truly believe a rapist does not understand what consent is or what it is not? More often than not, they are fully aware they do not have consent. What they lack is respect. Respect for the other human being in the room. Perhaps even respect for themselves. That’s not taught in a lesson with definitions of consent, or how to obtain consent. That is taught over a lifetime of discussion and setting examples.
Discuss what virginity means to them.
Are they still considered virginal if they have oral or anal sex? And why? Is it important to remain virginal? Until what circumstance? Marriage, committed relationship, love? It’s OK to tell your child what you hope for them—and why—while remaining aware they may make a decision you may not agree with. If that happens, do you want them to hold enough shame or embarrassment about their decision that they stop talking with you about their relationships? While every child is different—and no one knows yours better than you—shame-based teaching has been proven in numerous studies to be ineffective at best.
Don’t use pet names for body parts.
Call them by their proper terms (i.e., penis, vagina, vulva.) Using pet names creates a sense of secrecy around these body parts, which can create a sense of shame. We don’t have pet names for other body parts like arms and legs (because we are not ashamed of them), so genitalia should be no different.
Wait until your kids are teenagers or have their first relationship.
Their bodies will start changing before then, and it’s only fair they know what’s going on. Again, if you can, start having these conversations when they’re young. Establishing a rapport early on will make it easier to talk about more tricky topics in the future.
You don’t have to strictly talk about the act of sex.
Sex and sexuality can encompass a lot. You can use these conversations to discuss almost anything including love and healthy relationships, gender roles, or body parts. You can also define what sex means to you and your family. There is more than one type of sex (vaginal, oral, anal). Be prepared for your kids to ask you about any or all of them.
That was a lot of information! But remember: Absolutely no one is perfect at this—not even the most vetted sexologist.
The most important and longest lasting sexual relationship we’ll ever have is with ourselves. Helping our young people understand and take ownership of that sets the stage for healthier, longer-lasting partner relationships in their future.
Take things step by step. It’s OK to fumble over words and it’s OK for concepts to come out imperfectly. Keep talking.
Yes, these conversations can feel daunting, but they’re important. In the long run, both you and your kids will be grateful you had them.
Take a deep breath.
You can do this.
Let’s talk about sex.
Written by Nisha McKenzie PA-C, CSC, IF, Director – Center for Women’s Sexual Health.