Talking to Kids About Sex: When, How, and Why?

| by Divine Caroline

Parents who delay, dread, or simply avoid talking to their kids about sex may have been jolted into action by three recent studies. A 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found one in four female teens aged fifteen to nineteen has a sexually transmitted disease (STD). A second CDC study, released in 2007, found that the teen birth rate rose in 2006, for the first time since 1991. And finally, a study released in March by the University of Washington, found students who receive comprehensive sex education are half as likely to become teen parents as those who receive abstinence-only or no sex education. This adds to the evidence that our $1.5 billion national abstinence-only curriculum—which fifteen states refuse to adopt—isn’t working. No surprise there.

The new news, however, just highlights an age-old problem for parents: how to talk to their kids about sex. It’s something most concerned parents feel compelled to do, yet as far as awkward and botched conversations go, this one might rank the highest. For teens, the problems are also age-old: parents don’t usually converse, they tell, and they usually just tell you not to have sex. Plus, no teenager wants to think of their parents as anything but asexual; having a sex talk means you have to hear parents say the words—gasp—“vagina” or “penis” and possibly admit to yourself that your parents had, at least at one point in your life, sex. Gross. 

But maybe the point isn’t to wait until the teen years when it may be too hard to get through to you kids or simply too awkward for you. Maybe the point is to foster sex talk (never, of course, calling it that) throughout your child’s life. Children Now, a non-profit organization, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) give tips on how to do just that:

Start Early
Instead of having one big, uncomfortable “birds and bees” talk when they hit their teens or tweens, the best time to start educating kids about their bodies is well before they’re even interested in sex. For instance, the AAP suggests teaching kids under three the proper names of their genitals—instead of made up names—just as they learn the names of other body parts. Around three years of age is also a good time to teach them what parts are public and what are private, such as those covered by a bathing suit. Take advantage of naturally arising teaching opportunities, which makes it easier to broach the subject. A pregnant woman can be a lesson for eight-year-olds on where babies come from; the swimming pool can teach your four-year-old what body parts are considered private, which are public, and how boys and girls differ.

Accurate, Age Appropriate Information
Sex information should be fitting for your child’s age and stage of development. There are no hard and fast rules, as kids mature at different ages. At four, they may be interested in where babies come from, and these answers can be simple and straightforward. As they get older however, they are ready for more than just the biology; include lessons about the emotional aspects of sexual relationships. As preteens, Children Now suggests including messages about responsibilities and consequences of sex, including unwanted pregnancies and protection from STDs. Bacteria, viruses, and babies can be both a clinically relevant scare tactic and a very real lesson on how to avoid those things. If you’re looking to educate yourself before educating your child, the Planned Parenthood of America has a wealth of sexual information.

Put Reality in Sex
Though the media bombards kids with unrealistic messages about sex and relationships, it can also provide an opportune time to infuse some parental reality. Well-publicized teen pregnancies, like that of Jamie Lynn Spears, can be a lesson for preteens and teenagers; seeing a movie like Juno can spur open conversation about the myths and realities of teen pregnancies. Common Sense Media gives tips on how to talk to kids about what they’re seeing on TV and how this relates to their own sexuality.

Explore Your Attitudes
According the Children Now, kids who feel they can talk with their parents about sex are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior as teens. However, many parents may be uncomfortable about the subject because they rarely explore their own attitudes towards sex; this can confound the problem. The AAP suggests trying to be as serious as possible when discussing the issue, stay honest, and follow up with our child’s questions. Listen to your child’s responses to gauge whether or not they need more information; ensure them that all questions, no matter what the topic (prepare yourself!), are encouraged. Finally, if talking to your kids about sex is just too uncomfortable, find a relative, close family friend, or doctor to help you.

Photo by Jerome Rothermund via Flickr