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Talking to Children and Teens About Sex

When I was nine-years-old, I came home to find a mysterious book on my bed. I still recall that it had a brown, paper cover and was a relatively short read. This book was my first introduction to sex education. I remember scouring through each page finding the information to be both exciting and disturbing. I had thoughts like, “You put what where? God lord why?” and “I must bleed once a month and that’s considered normal. Who designed this flawed system?” Afterward, my mom asked if I had any questions about the content. When I said no, the conversation from there went something like, “Great! Now don’t do that.” I grew up knowing about my body and the mechanics of sex while simultaneously fearing any kind of sexual expression. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that my expereince is very common and even considered progressive. At least I was provided with information on sex even if there was a ban on sex in my household. Many parents struggle with finding the balance between educating children about sex and condoning underage sex. To make this a family-friendly conversation, I encourage parents to identify and reflect upon their sexual values, learn about age-appropriate sexual development and consider opportunities to have conversations about sex.

From my personal and professional experience, I find that parents are better at talking about the HOW of sex versus the WHY of sex. I define the why of sex as a set of personal values predicated upon experience, culture and family-of-origin. To put this into context, sex education curriculums explain how to have intercourse and how the body is made. They do not explain why any or all those things are important, and they aren’t supposed to. The answers to the WHY questions should come from parents and caregivers. As parents, we teach our children about faith, morals and manners, all of which are predicated upon values. Examples of personal sexual values include masturbation, sex outside of marriage, and pornography. Whether you do, or don’t engage in these behaviors, is a choice you make based upon your values. As a matter-of-fact, all your sexual behaviors are based upon your values. Have you ever stopped to wonder how those values got there or how you communicate those values to your children? Have you ever considered the impact of your sexual values on your children? I challenge parents to reflect upon their sexual values and weigh the pros and cons associated with each value. Children, like adults, develop their own sexual values and this process can occur with or without the parent. An awareness of your values equips you to answer your child’s questions truthfully and with careful consideration.

Intertwining your sexual values with knowledge of age-appropriate sexual development helps parents to know when to address topics of concern and how to influence behavior across childhood. Many parents are realizing that twelve and thirteen years of age is too old to begin talking about sex. By that time, children have already been exposed to any number of topics from pornography, oral sex and masturbation. While this can be shocking to absorb, it may help to consider that most humans are sexual beings and come into this world as such. We know this to be true because the population continues to grow, children without being taught masturbate, and most of us desire to have sex. The notion that children are sexual beings can be a tough pill to swallow for many parents. Some respond by trying to suppress all curiosity and behavior while others ignore it completely. I encourage an understanding of what is age-appropriate with an emphasis on boundaries for when this behavior can and cannot be displayed. A real-life example of this was when I was talking to my oldest daughter Brionna about when it’s appropriate to have sex. I asked her, “Is it okay to fart wherever you like?” After she giggled, she replied no. I then stated, “so we both agree that farting anywhere we want isn’t appropriate even though it’s normal and natural.” She again giggled and agreed. I eventually correlated this to sex by explaining that while sex is normal and natural there are times when it is appropriate and other times when it is not. As she is nine-years-old, this explanation sufficed. I will need to become more creative in the future, but my message was clear. I educated her that sex is normal and it’s okay to desire it and be curious about it while simultaneously letting her know that it’s not appropriate for everyone, especially children. For information on age-appropriate behaviors and parental tasks see below:

Age Range
Typical Sexual Development
Parental Goals
Birth to Five Understand the differences between males, females, and (sometimes) others Allow for a variety of gender expressions (i.e. male, female, and non-binary behaviors) while educating that most people are either girls or boys, and some people are some of each or neither
Explore their genitals through masturbation Teach that masturbation is for private time only
Learn to label body parts Label body parts with anatomical names
Ask questions about the origin of babies Provide age-appropriate education on reproduction (i.e. babies grow in the mommy’s tummy from an egg)
Engage in the use of sexual or “potty” language Set boundaries around the use of language such as pee, poop, and penis so that children know how to communicate their needs, but respect that not everyone will find it funny
Six to Twelve Learn new ideas about sex from their peers Continue to invite an open dialogue about sex and clarify misconceptions while asking questions like, “What do you think about that?”
Learn the mechanics of sex and reproduction Educate the child on the basics of sex and reproduction
Engage in same sex physical contact Educate on safe touch and unsafe touch and normalize same sex physical contact
Learn the difference between male and female bodies Educate on male and female anatomy
Interest in seeing other’s bodies, flashing of genitals and attempts at flirting Establish sexual safety and boundaries around sexual expression
Thirteen to Seventeen Learn about contraception and sexually transmitted infections Educate your child on how to obtain and use contraception and on the symptoms of sexually transmitted infections
Develop their own sexual values Encourage a conversation on your child’s beliefs as they emerge with questions such as, “What do you think about that?” and How did you come to that conclusion?”
Interest in sexually graphic material (i.e. pornography) Consider internet controls and discuss the difference between pornographic material and real life sexual encounters
Engage in sexual activity with others Establish boundaries for sexual expression
Continued bodily changes to include menstruation and wet dreams Educate on and normalize bodily changes

Finally, I find that many parents ask for examples and ideas for how to have effective conversations with children about sex. While I’ve created a resource and suggestion guide for this purpose, I also encourage parents to take advantage of the daily opportunities that children and life afford. Movies, music and other media provide an opening for any number of topics from dating, body image, sex, and gender norms. Further, I want to dispel the belief that sex is a one and done conversation and instead replace it with the notion that sex, and sexuality can and should become a staple conversation for every family. This makes more sense when you consider that the why of sex is undergoing a perpetual evolution during childhood and adolescence as sexual values are being formed. My hope for all families is that talking about sex is not a dreaded or combative topic, but rather an opportunity to teach and bond. To get you started, I’ve provided some simple tips and tricks below.

  1. Red Light, Green Light Game: Play this game with your child for 10-15 minutes. The length of time is not as important as the child’s ability to firmly grasp the rules of the game. Green means GO and red means STOP. Once you are confident that your child understands this, you can sit down together and discuss how touch is just like this game too. A sample explanation could be, “There are places on our bodies that are green light to touch, meaning it’s okay. What are some areas on your body that are okay to touch?” You would then follow suit for discussing red light touches. Red light touches are easiest to explain as anything that goes under your bathing suit.
  2. Life size drawing: Have your child lay on a piece of easel paper while you trace his or her outline. When done, the two of you can begin coloring and labeling body parts. Be sure to label all body parts – including nose, eyes, hair, toes, etc., not just genitals. The purpose of this activity is really about body awareness and not exclusively about sexual anatomy.
  3. Books: It’s Not the Stork! By Robie Harris and It’s So Amazing! By Robie Harris
  4. Jeopardy: Create a game of jeopardy out of sex education facts. Involve the family in playing the game so that sex education and sexual safety is genuinely a FAMILY matter.
  5. 16 and Pregnant: http://www.mtv.com/shows/16-and-pregnant