“If you uhh, have any questions about… you know, sex, um, you can ask me.”
That was my version of “The Talk”—one awkward, stuttered sentence from my mother when I was twelve years old. I actually did have a lot of questions, but I could see how uncomfortable and embarrassed my mom was, and I knew that she really didn’t want me to ask anything. I remember thinking, “Why is Mom being so weird? Why can’t we just talk like normal?”
That one, awkward experience is actually what inspired me to become a sex therapist in the first place. I wanted to help other people have the kinds of conversations about sex that my parents weren’t ready or able to have when I was young.
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Don’t follow my parents’ example! You can—and should—have much more informative conversations with your kids about sex. We’ll be covering talking about sex with teens in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, let’s start with having The Talk with young kids.
Like my mom, most parents wait far too late to start having conversations about sex with their children. By the time my mom talked to me about sex, I already knew way more than she realized.
You can start talking to your kids about sex as soon as they’re able to hold a short conversation. Parenting has a pretty good breakdown of the specific topics kids can handle in different age groups. For example, kids as young as two can be taught the proper names for their genitals. Around the age of three or four, you can start giving simple descriptions of where babies come from. At five or six, you can level up to how babies are made.
Ironically, it’s less embarrassing to talk to a two-year old about sex than it is to talk to a teenager. If you get started early, you’ll feel like an old pro by the time your kid starts asking the tough questions.
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Follow Their Lead
When your children are young, you can often follow their lead when it comes to talking about sex. Kids are naturally curious, and will often blurt out questions without thinking. I’ll never forget the time I was babysitting a six-year-old girl, and she asked me, “What’s a furgina?”
You don’t need talk about STIs or pregnancy prevention just yet, so stick with answering the questions that naturally come to mind for your kid. Your immediate reaction might be turning beet red (especially if they ask a question in the middle of the grocery store—loudly), but make sure to answer them. This sends your kid the important message that it’s OK to ask and talk about sex.
Answer your child’s questions about sex simply and straightforwardly. You don’t have to go into a ton of detail with younger kids, but you can still give them accurate information. If your son points to his genitals and asks “What’s that?” tell him it’s his penis. No need to come up with silly names or euphemisms.
If your 8-year-old asks how babies are made, don’t talk about storks; tell them that a man puts his penis inside of a woman’s vagina, and the sperm from his body and an egg from her body create a baby. These types of responses help your child understand that sex is normal, natural, and nothing to be ashamed of.
Make sure to end with, “Does that answer your question?” or “Do you have any other questions?” When the talk is over, say something like, “I’m glad you asked me that. We can talk about this any time you want.”
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Aside from answering questions, you can also find ways to work sex into conversations. If you have a pregnant friend or family member, when you and your child are in private, tell them, “Today we learned that Sarah is going to have a baby. I want to tell you how babies are made.”
Teach Healthy Boundaries
It’s vital for kids to understand that their body is their own, and that they get to make decisions about what to do with it. Don’t force them to hug or kiss people when they don’t want to. Tell them that no one should ever touch their body without their permission, except for their parents and a doctor.
Talking about boundaries is also a great way to prevent yourself from inadvertently shaming your kid. Get ready for an uncomfortable sentence: Children masturbate. They don’t think of what they’re doing as something sexual; they just think they’re doing something that feels good. Don’t shame them for these natural behaviors; instead, focus on the boundaries. If you catch your child masturbating in public, take a deep breath, smile, and cheerily say something like, “I know that feels good, but that’s something that we do in private, OK?”
Cut Yourself Some Slack
Talking about sex is hard! You are not always going to get it right, and that’s OK!
Your child is going to catch you off guard with questions like, “Why do you have hair down there?” and “Do you like Dad’s penis?” If they ever ask a question that you’re not sure how to answer, say something like, “You know what, that’s a really good question. Can I think about it and give you an answer in a little bit?” (Of course, make sure you eventually get back to them.)
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You’re probably also going to have moments where you snap at your kid for things like pulling off their clothes or asking questions at inappropriate times. Give yourself a moment to cool off, then come back and apologize. Talk about sex in your apology too. For example, “I’m sorry I yelled at you for asking me about butts in front of Mrs. Jacobs. I got embarrassed and made a mistake. I want you to know it’s OK to ask me about butts when we’re at our house.” Even young children understand apologies.
You’re going to make mistakes, but as long as you keep making a consistent effort to communicate clearly, your kids will get the message that sex is normal and healthy and something that it’s not wrong or embarrassing to talk about.