Talking to kids about sex used to mean one awkward sit-down for “the talk.” But these days, there’s so much more to talk about—media coverage of sexual assaults on college campuses, “yes means yes” affirmative consent laws, hookup culture, the accessibility of online porn—it’s a complicated world out there. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers ten tips to navigate the treacherous world of talking to your kids about sex.
When it comes to talking to kids about sex, it can be tempting to point out a shiny object and make a run for it. So before you tell your kid a period is punctuation at the end of a sentence, here are ten ways to talk to kids about sex. You won’t even be tempted to say, “Go ask Siri.”
Tip #1: Take the initiative. A 2014 survey found that by the time their kids were 21 years old, 1 in 5 parents had never talked to their kids about birth control, saying no to sex, or where to access accurate information about sex.
Waiting for your kids to ask questions is one option, but it might not be the best. According to a 2012 survey, half of teens rated talking about sex with parents as uncomfortable, compared to just 19% of parents. The takeaway: they’re more embarrassed than you, and therefore might not initiate. Plus, a 2015 survey of tween and teen girls found that 11-16 year-olds wanted to be taught more about relationships, consent, pornography, and domestic violence by teachers and parents.
So start the conversation—in the absence of confident and early communication from parents around sex, other sources—many of dubious quality, like porn and misinformed peers with older brothers—magically expand to fill the void.
Tip #2: Remember it’s not “the talk,” it’s an ongoing conversation. We may picture “the sex talk” as a one-time awkward, eye-rolling lecture, but in reality, it should be a long, building dialogue throughout your child’s development, beginning with simple anatomy and working up towards more hot-button issues, like readiness for sex and consent.
Why is the gradual approach so helpful? It lays an ever-strengthening foundation, it matches your kids’ growing sophistication over time, and, with one or more sessions behind you, shows your kids that you’re a safe person to talk to. Plus, a 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics found that teens whose communication with parents about sex was repeated over time experienced these dialogues as more open, felt closer to their parents, and felt more comfortable talking to their parents not only about sex, but their lives in general.
So rather than trying to cram every tidbit into a single, angsty sit-down, relax. Turn it into ongoing conversation, and everyone will benefit for it.
Tip #3: Bring it up as the topic arises naturally. Usually, marching up to your kid and announcing, “It’s time to have a talk, son,” just makes everyone uncomfortable. Instead, use media, images, or people to naturally spark the conversation. A pregnant relative, an ad advocating body acceptance, or a comedy bit about the awkwardness of puberty can all work. Indeed, for better or worse, in western culture, with sexual images used to sell everything from fast food to web hosting, almost anything can be used as a springboard to conversation about sex.
Teachable moments that require a talk will also pop up in your child’s life. For instance, if you find out your kid has accidentally (or accidentally-on-purpose) seen porn, talk with them about what real sex might look like and how it’s way different than porn, as well as having them critique the gender dynamics.
And don’t forget that you need not, and should not, do all the talking. Listening respectfully and non-judgmentally to their concerns is equally important to the wisdom you share.
Next, different ages require different approaches. With little kids, you can start with some simple basics.
Tip #4: Start early. Accurate anatomical language can be used from day one. You call a nose a nose and an elbow an elbow, so why not call a vagina a vagina? Using code words implies there’s something shameful about their parts, or that they’re so secretive they can’t be named.
A little later, you can start conversing about sex and birth. How early? Maybe earlier than you think, but let me tell you why. If you start talking before they’re six, they’re not embarrassed. After that, their awareness has grown and they start to get grossed out, which makes sex and birth harder to talk about.
Indeed, I’ve seen this to be true. My oldest son has had questions about how babies are made twice—once when he was just 4 and once more recently, at age 7. The difference between the two conversations was striking. At age 4, he got his question answered and moved on (even if I had to take a minute to recover). But at age 7, he was a little appalled and wondered out loud if he’d ever “do that.”
By the same token, a friend of mine decided to explain the mechanics of sex to all three of her kids at once: ages 9, 7, and 5. Only the 5-year-old didn’t blanch, while the other two were horrified: “Dad did that to you three times?” the eldest asked. In recounting the story, we whooped with laughter—yes, only three times in total.