How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex

Has your child ever asked you where babies come from?  Mighty Mommy has 6 expert strategies on how to have “the talk” and how to use teachable moments to avoid the awkwardness of discussing the birds and the bees.

Cheryl Butler
5-minute read
Episode #196

How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex

Today’s kids are pretty savvy when it comes to a sensitive topic like sex. In fact, according to a study published in Pediatrics, more than 40% of adolescents surveyed had sex before talking to their parents about birth control or sexually transmitted diseases. Then, of course, there are our younger kids – we’re talking ages 5 to 8 – who want to know where babies come from before they’ve even lost all their baby teeth.

I remember vividly when my mother sat me down with my sister at ages 10 and 11 and discussed everything from ovaries and sperm to cramps and menstruation, complete with a detailed picture book.  We looked at one another and just wanted to crawl under the bed and die. But she answered all of our questions.

As a mother of 8, I myself have been down this road 6 times now and am gearing up for the seventh shortly. The first time I talked about sex with my eldest, I changed colors like a chameleon because I was so nervous about how my daughter would react. 

Since then, each time I’ve had “the talk” has become easier, and truthfully, though there have been a few gasps and disgusted looks from some of them, I’m amazed at the insightful questions most of my kids came up with.  

When embarking on the very important yet delicate topic of sex, parents can help their kids learn about it in a healthy and positive manner that reflects your family’s values—not someone else’s. The key is developing an open, honest, and ongoing communication about responsibility, sex, and choice. 

Here are 6 things to keep in mind when you are gearing up to have “the talk”:

Tip #1: When to Have “The Talk”

Start early!  Studies show that kids who feel they can talk with their parents about sex — because their moms and dads speak openly and listen — are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior as teens as compared to kids who do not feel they can talk with their parents about the subject.   Begin as early as the toddler years by introducing body parts with their correct names.  For instance, when teaching your toddler where his eyes and toes are, include “this is your penis” or “this is your vagina” in your talks, and treat those body parts just as you would their feet or arms. 

Tip #2: Give Accurate, Age-Appropriate Information

Talk about sex in a way that fits the age and stage of your child. A 6-year-old doesn’t need to know every detail of the sexual acts, but by introducing information that is geared at your child’s level of knowledge and understanding, you can lay a solid foundation for later.  For example, if a friend or family member of yours is pregnant, you can say, “Did you notice that Aunty Kim’s belly is getting bigger? That’s because she’s going to have a baby and she’s carrying it inside her.”  Talk naturally and matter-of-factly just as you would if discussing why the leaves change colors during the fall.  

Tip #3: Discuss Sex in Terms of Relationships

While children need to know the biological facts about sex, they also need to understand that relationships are more than sexual. By discussing the emotional aspect of a sexual relationship with your children, they will be better informed to make decisions later on and to resist peer pressure.  One way to do this is by taking your child on dates.  Many television shows and movies allude to the fact that two people who first get together automatically end up in bed.  In real life, couples take time to get to know each other.  They start off by holding hands, going out to eat, and spending lots of time talking about themselves so that they can form a caring relationship.  Kids need to have this development modeled for them. 

If you’re a father, you can take your daughter out on dates starting in pre-school.  Show her how a man should act by holding the door open for her, listening to her, and asking questions about things she is interested in.  And you can even get dressed up for the date. This will set the right tone for her future dates. The same holds true for sons—moms can take their little boys out and model how a lady acts.

Tip #4: Communicate Your Values

As a parent, it’s your responsibility to let your children know your values about sex.  Although they may not adopt these values as they mature, at least they’ll be aware of them as they struggle to figure out how they feel and want to behave. If you can convey the message that no subject, including questions about sex, is forbidden in your home, you’re giving your child a lifelong gift.

Tip #5: Ask Your Child Questions

Let’s say your child comes to you with the classic “Where do babies come from?” question. Here’s how I like to handle it:

Step 1: Validate the question. Tell your child, "That's a great question. How come you're asking today?" This reassures your child that she's not weird or strange for asking, and it gives you a chance to find out what prompted the question.

Step 2: Dig a little deeper. Ask, "What do you think the answer is?" This is a chance to get inside your child's head a bit and see how much she already knows.

Step 3: Give a simple, honest answer. Your answer can and should be in keeping with your values. For example, it's fine to talk about pregnancy as something that happens within a marriage if that's your belief, but you will need to be ready for follow up questions if your child has been exposed to another reality (whether on TV or in real life).

Step 4: Make sure your child understands. When you’re done explaining, say, "Does that answer your question?" or "Do you have any more questions?" The follow up with some additional questions to make sure there’s no further confusion. "What do you think about that?" "What do you think that means?" and "How did that make you feel?" are all good things to ask.

Nowadays, not only are our kids learning about sex at a much earlier age, there are also some new factors to consider, such as same-sex relationships, the rise of sexually transmitted diseases, and the way the media has showcased teen pregnancies, sometimes making it look very attractive to girls who are vulnerable and think this is a great way for them to fill a void in their lives. Depending on your family’s situation, these are considerations for discussion as well. 

Tip #6: Books to Share with Your Child

Two of my favorite books to share with your kids are The Care and Keeping of You by Valorie Schaefer for girls, and Puberty Boy by Geoff Price for boys.

Just remember: The conversation about where babies come from is a lot easier than the conversation that starts with, "Mom, I'm pregnant." Talking to your kids today can open up the lines of communication you'll need in the future. I know it may seem uncomfortable at first, but try to relax when you talk with your child about sex.  If they see that you are interacting with them and discussing sex in a calm, positive manner, they will be more likely to view sex as a healthy, natural way for couples to share love.  

Check back next week for more Mighty Mommy tips. If you have a question or a suggestion for a future Mighty Mommy episode, please e-mail me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com.    

Check out the Mighty Mommy Facebook page where I share lots of quick parenting tips all week long.  You can also follow me on Twitter @MightyMommy or join me on Pinterest where you can visit all of my family-friendly boards.

Until next time—Happy Parenting! 

Boy with mother image courtesy of Shutterstock.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.