QOTM November Edition
When should I start talking to my kids about sex?
There are absolutely certain things you should bring up at certain ages. No one is ever going to tell you to give the full “talk” to a toddler. That just ludicrous. They won’t have any idea what you are talking about and most of it will just go over their heads. If you stage many small “talks” over their lifetime, they will become comfortable with talking to you about anything when they are ready. Not to mention if you try to dump all of the information at once on a teenager, they may become overwhelmed and have a general bad experience with the whole thing.
That being said, there are definitely some tips that are good to know in general. These will apply to all of the talks you have, no matter what age your child is. (For tips for certain ages, click here to jump to that section)
General tips that apply at all ages
- Use the media and life situations to bring up subjects. It’s no secret that there can be adult themes in movies, TV shows, and music. Whether it’s sex, gender expression, pregnancy, social pressure and/or body image, there is often a chance to discuss what’s happening with your child. Even if it as mundane as pointing out that commercials for girls toys seem to always feature pink princesses, and commercials for boys toys seem to always feature more rugged things and darker colors. And the best way to bring up a conversation is simply to ask, “What did you think about that [commercial/song/situation]?” and then let the conversation flow naturally from there.
- Reinforce that there are different types of relationships and none of them are wrong. Does your child have a friend whose parents are divorced? Or one that is living with their grandmother? Or maybe a gay uncle? Families look different and that is simply a fact of life. Let your child know that that’s completely ok, especially if they are the product of a non-traditional family. There is no good reason kids should be bullied for the make-up of their families.
- Keep shame out of the equation. It might be hard to tell your child about sex without inadvertently attaching shame to it. Just make sure that your child knows that “private parts” are named so because you should only touch or expose them in private. Not because it’s shameful, but because it’s very personal and special. Same with sex in general. Let them know that sex is not “dirty” or “unnatural.” Adding shame to the mix will just make them uneasy and feel reprehensible when it is time for them to explore those options, and might stick with them well into adulthood. A person who feels shame about sex is more likely to be susceptible to abuse.
- Listen more than you talk. Don’t talk over your child. If you actively listen to their questions and concerns, they will be more likely to open up to you in the future because they feel like they are being heard. Ask questions like, “what have you heard about it?” or “what do you know about it?” when they ask you a question about a certain subject. This will give you a general idea about what they are really asking and let you know how much they already know.
- Keep it gender neutral. Never assume your child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. They will know what feels true to them when the time is right. Instead, use gender neutral terms like “your partner,” or “when you start dating,” or “people with penises” and “people with vaginas.” If you assume that they are going to like a certain gender and that turns out not to be the case, then they will just be confused for a very long time and think that maybe they aren’t doing something right, or perhaps they are just broken. Our children need our support and guidance more than anything.
- Get help if you need it. If for some reason you are a single dad with a daughter or a single mom with a son, and REALLY don’t feel comfortable talking about certain topics, or just are generally completely clueless, feel free to bring in a friend that is the same gender as your child. While generally it is best for you to talk to your child, it’s ok to tell them that you don’t know everything and you need a little bit of help. Just make sure that you don’t put the entirety of the responsibility on your friend’s shoulders. Take part in the conversation and even admit when you have learned something new to your child. You want them to know that you are being truthful with them and doing the best you can so that they will feel comfortable coming to you with these questions in the future.
- Feeling anxious is completely normal. Almost no one has these conversations casually and freely. Everyone feels nervous in some way. Trust that you are doing the right thing for your child and growing your relationship with them in a positive way. Let them know that you are just as anxious as they are and that will help to alleviate some of the tension in the situation.
- Be honest. Never lie; always be truthful with your child. Start with the basics and then expand only if your child asks more questions. You don’t have to go into detail all of the time (especially since that can be overwhelming to them), but don’t tell fibs. They’ll find out later and then won’t trust that they can come to you to find out the truth about something.
- Admit when you don’t know something. Look, your child doesn’t expect you to know everything. They just know that you generally know more than they do. And instead of making up something that they will just learn is wrong later, it’s best to say, “I’m not sure. Why don’t we look that up together?” Now is also a good time to teach your child that not everything they see on the internet is true or even harmless, so they need to make sure that they find reputable sources for their information. It’s also a good time to teach them to look at multiple sources rather than relying on just one. If they are in school, they might have already heard this from teachers, but if they are new at experiencing the web, this will be vital information for them.
- Don’t wait for them to come to you with a question. They may not always feel comfortable enough to ask you a question, or sometimes they simply do not know that there is something they should be asking. Remember watching cartoons as a kid and just laughing even when you didn’t understand the joke? Or that time your parents watched a movie and laughed at a joke and you just wondered why it was so funny? Sometimes they just don’t know what they don’t know. Kids are like sponges soaking up all the information that is thrown their way, and sometimes it’s hard to process everything that they soak up. So they may be absorbing some harmful ideas without even knowing that they are harmful. As their parent it’s your job to guide them in the right direction, and the best way to do this is to bring up conversations when you think they are appropriate.
- Don’t do a massive info dump. Don’t give them a huge information dump all at once. Even if you wait to speak to them until they are much older, keep the information in small digestible chunks. If you tell them everything at once, they are just going to be overwhelmed and either only remember certain things or just stop listening entirely. That’s why it’s better to do small talks over a long period of time. They will retain the information easier, and they will have a foundation that you can build on over time without the overwhelm.
- Get a book. If you are still having trouble thinking of topics or chances to bring things up, bring a book into the situation. Give them the book or read it together and then ask them what they thought about it. We offer a range of books on various topics over an array of all age groups.
Tips that are specific to certain ages
- Proper terms for all anatomy. A child knows its elbow is an elbow because mommy calls it that. The same should apply to penis, vulva, vagina, nipple, breast, etc. It’s important that your child knows the proper medical term for all of their body parts. If for some reason they are hurt, or someone is touching them inappropriately, it will be much easier for an adult to understand what is wrong if the child can explain exactly where the issue is. When they use ‘cutesy’ terms like cookie and weiner, it’s possible there might be a misunderstanding and the adult will just brush off what could be a serious issue. It’s also important to use these words without shame and don’t say them any differently than you would the word ‘elbow.’ You want to make sure that the child doesn’t think there is anything different or weird about calling a body part what it is.
- Touching genitals in private. Babies and toddlers explore their bodies just as much as they are exploring the world around them. They learn through touch and that means that they might be touching their genitals because they have learned that it feels good to them. It’s important to tell them that touching themselves is something they should only do in private because it is a private and personal thing. Make sure not to make a big deal about it because they might think there is something wrong, bad, or shameful. Instead of giving them a negative experience, tell them that it is something special that they should only do when they are not in front of other people.
For books for this age range, click here.
- Now is a good time to lock in the idea of consent. This is easily achieved by being considerate of their needs as well as making sure that they stick to your boundaries. It can be as simple as stopping when they say they don’t want you to tickle them anymore, or not hugging them when they say they don’t want a hug. It goes in the opposite direction, as well. Make sure that they are not hugging or tickling people without their permission. Consent isn’t always about sex, but it is always about respecting boundaries.
- Where babies come from. This is also the age when your child might start asking where babies come from. Keep in mind that they are still very young so you don’t want to get incredibly detailed and give them an explanation that is over their heads. Keep it simple. Say something like, “babies come from mommy’s tummy”. Or “a sperm comes from a daddy and an egg comes from a mommy, and they get together to make a baby.” Only explain more if your child has follow up questions. Make sure not to lie to them (like: “the stork delivers the baby!”), but you don’t have to give them more information than they are ready for. It’s a good idea as well to have a book ready for these discussions. There are plenty of age-appropriate books that talk about this subject.
For books for this age range, click here.
Children start school at age 5, so it’s a good time to prepare them for what they might be exposed to.
- The mechanics of sex. Now is a good time to talk about the basic mechanics of sex. It’s ok if you frame this discussion as a way to procreate and focus on pleasure later. It’s also ok to delay this section a bit if your child is not yet ready (they will let you know).
- It’s a good time to revisit masturbation since this is the age that they will really start to explore that. Keep the emphasis on doing it in private and personal hygiene. Remember not to shame them for exploring their own bodies.
- Changing bodies. This is a good time to get warmed up for the big puberty talk. They will start to notice that their bodies are changing and you can show them pictures of when they were babies and compare them to how they look now. Let them know that peoples’ bodies change and that’s perfectly normal.
- Gender expression. This is also a good age to talk about how people express gender. They might be exposed to children or even adults telling them that they aren’t allowed to do certain things because of their gender, especially once they start school. Reinforce that there is nothing wrong with your child and they should be able to do what makes them happy. If you are not confident with this subject, educate yourself first, or explore this topic together.
- Internet safety. The most important thing for your child to learn at this age is internet safety. They will be able to start exploring online at home and at school, and even with all of the safety precautions, it’s possible that they may stumble on something you don’t want them to (such as pornography). It’s not necessary to go deep into the subject of porn just yet, you can start with telling them that they are adult websites where grown-ups do adult things.
- Sex ed. Find out if your child has any kind of sex-education or health class in their school, and be prepared to fill in the gaps they might leave. This will be especially important in the next section (Pre-teen years).
For books for this age range, click here.
- Body image. Body image is a big one during this age. Girls especially are susceptible to self-esteem issues and assigning too much self-worth to image. Using the media to show how many pictures are not a reflection of reality will be helpful. You could also introduce them to the body-positivity movement, which asserts that all bodies are beautiful and our diversity makes us special.
- Safe sex. It may be a nightmare to think about talking to your kids about safe sex at this age, but odds are that they are not interested in having sex so early. This talk is really important so that they know how to keep themselves and their partners safe in the future. And statistics show that when children know more about sex and safe practices, they are more likely to delay sex, and be safer when the time comes.
- It’s important to let your child know about all of the different types of contraception (there are many), so that when they /are/ ready for sex, they can be as safe as possible. It’s also important that they know that contraception is not /only/ about keeping someone from getting pregnant. Condoms prevent STIs, and some hormonal birth control helps to regulate periods. This might also be a good time to schedule their first appointment with a gynecologist or give them condoms (and show them how to use them properly).
- Internet safety. Again, one of the most important things to talk to your kids about right now is internet safety. They will most likely be able to surf the web on their own and they will almost definitely have stumbled on some adult content by this time. This is also an age where ‘sexting’ may become popular. Make sure that they know that no one should ever be asking them for photos, and let them know the law about child pornography. Sending or receiving nude photos of anyone under 18 is illegal even if both parties are under 18.
For books for this age range, click here.
By now you should have a pretty solid foundation to talk about anything at all with your teen, but if you’ve been silent about sex up until now, it’s time to start chatting. If you have not discussed sex with your child so far, make sure to let them know that you are now willing to talk to them about anything, even if it happened in the past. This will at the very least re-assure them that you are prepared to listen.
- If they are too embarrassed to talk about themselves and their experiences, try talking about their ‘friends.’ What are their experiences? What do they know about sex. This should hopefully help your child open up.
- Try not to be shocked. Remember when you were a teenager and you tried to say just about anything to shock your parents? They may be saying something just to try to catch you off-guard, but be vigilant and confirm to them that sex is not shocking, or bad, it is in fact, normal.
- Sex can mean many things. Don’t forget that sex can mean many different things. Most people think of penis-in-vagina sex when they hear the word ‘sex.’ Your kid may be thinking of this or something else entirely. That is another reason it is important to find out how much they know on the subject before you answer their questions. Not only that, but they might think that some other actions (like fellatio) are not really ‘sex,’ and they might be engaging in riskier behaviors for that reason (such as not using barrier methods thus exposing them to a higher chance of contracting a STI). This might be relevant in their pre-teen years as well, depending on where your child is in their sex-ed journey.
- Continue to actively listen to your child’s concerns and reinforce everything from all of the previous lessons. Let your teen’s questions guide you. By now they will probably know what they want to talk about, and if you have been open to them for all of this time, they shouldn’t hesitate to come to you about any questions they have.
For books for this age range, click here.
These are, of course, general guidelines, and every child will be different. Do what feels right for yourself and your family. Make sure that your child knows what your values are, but know that they are an individual sexual being, so no matter what you do, there’s no way to predict how they will express their sexuality. All you can do as a parent is your best, and give them your love and support. Do that, and they will have a great childhood.