Every parent wonders how they will teach their innocent little children about the reality of sex and relationships. For some, the instinct is to keep children sheltered from the topic altogether. But the more correct information your child has on the topic, the better they’ll be able to make healthy choices and protect their health.
And there’s no better place for kids to learn about the topic than from their parents, the ones who are supposed to guide and teach children to become their best selves. In fact, children who talk about sex with their parents are more likely to wait longer before initiating sexual behavior. But how do you start the conversation, and at what age? What exactly should you tell your child?
When should you start talking to your kids about sex?
Contrary to popular belief, talking to your kids about sex shouldn’t come down to just one big “talk.” Instead, conversations about sex should be woven into discussions throughout their entire childhood. This approach teaches children that sex is a healthy, normal part of life and helps them develop healthy ways of thinking about it. They’ll be better prepared when the outside world inevitably exposes them to the topic. Here’s a guide to introducing the topic to your child at every age stage.
Babies and toddlers (0-2 years)
Even before kids can talk, they’re still absorbing information. At this early stage of life, it’s best to focus on teaching body part names to your child. If your children understand the terminology about their sexual body parts, they can more easily communicate if something is wrong or hurts in these places.
Teach the correct anatomical words for sexual body parts (i.e. penis, vagina, nipples, etc.) and make the lessons no different than teaching your child parts of their face, arms or legs. If your child touches their private parts (which is totally normal), teach them boundaries about doing those things in private (if they’re old enough to understand). It’s also good to begin teaching children boundaries about nakedness, and how it should only happen at appropriate times and places.
Early childhood (2-5 years)
As children grow in their language abilities and begin entering school settings, keep the conversations about body parts going. Early childhood is a good time to begin teaching how things we feel can be expressed through our bodies (i.e. crying when sad, sweating when nervous, etc.). This sets a framework for children to later understand how their sexual body parts will express their sexual feelings.
Teach your child about privacy, and how sexual body parts aren’t meant to be touched by anyone else, unless it’s a parent or doctor making sure everything is “ok.” You want your child to feel comfortable talking about their private parts with you, especially so that if something is ever wrong (i.e. sexual abuse), they will be able to talk to you and tell you specific details.
At this age, children may begin asking where babies come from. It’s still pretty early to explain the whole concept of sex to children, so make your explanation truthful yet age appropriate. For instance, you could tell your child that a man and woman make a baby together. A man has sperm and a woman has eggs—when these two things come together, a baby is made. Babies grow inside the mother’s belly and come out of her vagina. A basic explanation like this should satisfy your child’s curiosity for now, and it’s still truthful without too many details.
Middle childhood (5-8 years)
This is the age range when everything seems to begin falling together. Your child will no longer be satisfied with the original simplified explanation you gave them about babies. It’s time to start teaching them about internal sexual organs and how they work. Explain in more detail the mechanics of sex, how it’s meant for two people who care about each other, it’s just for adults, and it’s a private act. Use proper terminology and be truthful to avoid confusion.
It might feel awkward to talk about it, but if you don’t, your kids are going to learn about it somewhere else. Who knows what exactly they will learn? By taking control of the situation, you, as a parent, can make sure your children have a healthy and accurate understanding of the subject.
Late childhood (9-12 years)
Now is a good time to begin talking about puberty. In just a few short years, your child will begin undergoing changes that are very difficult and can be scary. The more they understand why these changes are happening, the easier it will be for them. Still, during this age, continue to encourage body autonomy and the ability to say “no” or “don’t touch me” to anyone who makes their body feel uncomfortable. Speak about appropriate and inappropriate interactions with their peers and how to handle those situations.
It's also a good time to discuss the presence of sex in digital spaces. Your child will be wrapped up in the world of the internet, which contains lots of sexualized material. It’s a good idea to explain to your children than pornography is a dramatic display of sex that’s for adults only. Help them plan what to do should they encounter any pornographic material on the internet.
Reinforce the notion that sex is an intimate act that should happen between people who care about each other. You may also want to discuss other topics such as rape, body objectification and even sexually transmitted diseases at this stage. It may feel early to discuss such things, but puberty is unpredictable, and having the discussions early ensures your child will hear about it from you first.
How to start the conversation.
So, you know what to talk about, but how exactly do you approach the discussion? Here are some suggestions to help you get started.
Use a book.
For young children, a book can be a great way to break the ice and offer guidance in your conversation. As you read along, your child can ask questions like they do when you read any other books. Giving older children a “cool” age-appropriate book on sex and puberty can be a good supplement to your conversation. It also helps put some of the learning experience in their hands.
Driving in the car.
Car rides can be great conversation starters. You’re not forced to be face-to-face, which can eliminate some of the awkwardness. You have a captive audience. However, don’t push the topic and make your child feel trapped if they are uninterested. If you seem to hit a wall, simply try again another time.
Admit that you’re uncomfortable.
It’s OK to be straightforward and let your child know that you feel uncomfortable talking about the subject. But let them know why you feel that way. Explain that in the old days, these types of conversations were “taboo,” so you automatically feel uncomfortable talking about them. But you don’t want sex to be taboo, so that’s why you’re encouraging a conversation, despite your discomfort in the situation. Admitting this can help get the conversation started.
Find examples in media to initiate conversation.
Look for real-life and media examples to demonstrate the things you talk about. Even if you bring them up at different times, this can help reinforce some of the things you have taught your child and help them gain a real-world understanding.
How to best answer your kids’ questions about sex.
Kids will be kids, and they’re going to have questions. Sometimes, questions can catch you off guard. They bring up something you’re totally unprepared to answer.
Don’t go overboard or overshare.
Keep answers to questions simple and easy to understand. Remember to consider your child’s age and understanding level. Also, remember to keep your sex life personal and not overshare because this could be disturbing to your child.
Try not to sugarcoat your answers. Sometimes, children can tell, and this might make them feel uncomfortable about the topic. Though it’s hard, being honest with your children teaches them to be honest when talking to you about sex. It creates an open, safe conversation.
Admit when you don’t know.
Unless you’re a sex expert, there may be questions that arise that you have no idea how to answer. Be honest with your child, letting them know that you’re not sure of the answer, but you will find out. Then, make sure to follow through by learning the answer and letting your child know. It’ll be a learning experience for both of you.
There are loads of books, websites, videos and more dedicated to helping children become accurately informed about sex. Use these types of materials to your advantage. Sometimes, children will prefer to learn on their own, so point them to the right resources that will inform them truthfully.
Sometimes, after you’ve had a talk with your kids, they’ll think of questions later. Make sure you’re available to answer those questions easily so your child learns to be comfortable asking you about sex.
Advice for keeping your children safe and healthy.
Here are some more tips to help you guide your child to safe and healthy behavior and views on sex:
- Communication is key — make your child feel comfortable talking to you and asking questions
- Steer clear of shame as your child learns about sex
- Use correct terms to eliminate mystery and “taboo” mentality
- Focus less on “don’ts” and more on “dos” to promote a positive relationship surrounding sex
- Monitor internet activity
- Allow your child space when going through puberty and adolescence, but remain available because they still need you
Valerie Sizelove is a full-time freelance writer specializing in the areas of career guides, working parents and mental health. When she's not writing, you can find her wrangling one of her four kids or cooking up a big dinner with veggies from the vegetable garden.