I’ve been getting requests from parents over the past year to write a post about talking to kids about sexuality. It really is impossible to boil down all the relevant information a parent needs to talk about sexuality with their kids into a single blog post for several reasons:
- Each child is going to require different discussions at different points throughout childhood;
- You wouldn’t emphasize all the same points to a girl as you would a boy or a child who is struggling with gender identity;
- You wouldn’t approach discussions about sexuality in the same way with a wallflower child as you would with a social butterfly;
- If your child has experienced sexual abuse, he/she would need different care that this post cannot address;
- If your child is a sexual minority he/she is going to need some different conversations than a heterosexual child.
However, there are some basics that everyone at any age can handle. There are also some points that I like to emphasize that are rarely, if ever, emphasized in standardized sexuality education programs or even parent-child communication programs. These points can be made regardless of the sexual values you have for your family. Here are a few “tip of the iceberg” pointers:
1. Teach the anatomically correct language for genitals.
I’m always surprised at how many adults don’t think their children should say “vagina” or “penis” (1, 2). These words need to be said with the same ease as “elbow” and “ear.” Genitals are just as much a part of the body as fingers, toes, heart, and brain. There really should be no blushing from anyone. If you are still in blush mode, play a little game I like to call Dramatic Anatomy!
Perpetrators of sexual violence against children sniff this discomfort out – BIG TIME. If a child refers to their genitals as a “wee-wee” or something else absurd like “down there,” a perpetrator knows that child will be less likely to tell an adult if someone has touched her inappropriately (3).
By age 3, your child should know the proper language for his body parts and what is “safe touching” and “un-safe touching.” You can find books to help facilitate these conversations here. My favorite book for little ones is Amazing You!
2. By age 7, your child should know the mechanics of reproduction through sexual intercourse.
Your child should know how a baby is made the old-fashioned way (sperm meets egg) as well as how babies are born in our hearts (through adoption) or through surrogacy, etc. Take her lead on it; if she asks, answer her honestly. This is the age where kids are most likely to hear about sex from their friends, so you want to make sure you’ve established yourself as an approachable parent who has already informed her, so she goes to you (before her friends) with sex questions she has in the future. My favorite books to help facilitate these conversations are It’s Not the Stork! and It’s so Amazing!
3. Teach your child sexual agency.
Whether boy or girl, 2 or 12, teach your child that her body is her own. No one, not even you, can tell him what to do with his body, what feels good, what is right for him, etc. You can begin instilling this concept at a young age by not making your child hug or kiss a relative that he doesn’t want to.
Agency helps with the prevention of sexual abuse, rape, and the promotion of sexual health (3, 4). The mantra of “boys will be boys” and “he was thinking with his other head” takes the agency away from his actions and therefore the responsibility away from his actions. Teach your son he is responsible for his body and what he does with his body. It is completely under his control. Teaching a girl that “good girls are ladies and ladies don’t like sex” makes it more likely that she won’t insist on her own pleasure and more likely she will comply with unwanted sexual behavior because sex is ultimately not about her (5).
I know teaching your child to be the decider of what she does with her body may seem counter-intuitive, because you want to protect your child by telling her to abstain completely from any type of sexual behavior. But making it clear that she is responsible for her body, entitled to safety, and entitled to pleasure is the way to go. Research tells us that adolescents who have more agency over their body choose healthier sexual behavior and often delay sex longer than adolescents who score lower in agency (6, 7).
So, if abstinence is what you’re after as a parent, agency is the way to go. Although most churches have really great intentions for their youth, abstinence-only messages have almost no impact on sexual behavior, whereas comprehensive sexuality education is associated with less pregnancy, less STIs, and a later age of first intercourse (8). If abstinence is the value you want to instill, it ultimately needs to be a value that your child has and will practice.
In summary, you can provide the information, model the values, and teach responsible sexual behavior, but your child’s body his own. He decides what he does with it and is responsible for the outcomes of those choices. Your job is to help him manage the outcomes of those choices.
4. Teach your child that sex should be practiced with care, not fear.
Fearful information is often the only information kids are getting about sex. You know, how sex can kill them or completely ruin their lives. Or kids get the information that sex is meaningless, and you should “hit” or “tap” whatever ass you can get. Neither of these messages are ideal. Marnie Goldenberg, has four excellent points to emphasize during “The Talk,” and my favorite is that sex should be handled with care. What a great word! Care.
Care implies the need to plan, take responsibility for the decision, and outcomes associated with that decision. Care also implies commitment. If you take care of something, you are committed to it. When you take care of something, you want both to promote positive outcomes as well as prevent negative outcomes. Emphasizing the need to take care of your sex life or to exercise care with sex is perfect, because the need never changes. Once a female experiences menarche (first menstruation) and a male experiences semenarche (first ejaculation), to when sexual behavior is full on active, to when it slows down, to when it seems impossible to conjure up the energy for, or when it comes all to easily with someone it shouldn’t, one needs to take care of their sexuality.
5. Allow your children to get to know their bodies.
If you are of a faith that doesn’t believe in masturbation, this is going to be tougher to teach and cultivate, but still entirely possible! So don’t run away yet!
This message can be sent early on. For example, if you are changing a diaper, don’t slap your child’s exploring hands away hastily. If they are poking around in the bath tub, let them. As children get older and can begin to understand public and private behavior (about age 3), then you want to encourage them to touch their genitals at home only. This is easier said than done. Bottom line — watch your emotional reaction. If you blush and squirm, it will most likely encourage more touching in public situations for some children or shame other children about touching altogether.
Although we know very little about masturbation during adolescence scientifically, we do know that masturbation among young women is associated with better sexual health (8). In order to encourage masturbation (the old fashioned way – without porn), you don’t need to spend too much time on the issue, but just assure your child that masturbation is normal and safe and that you recognize she needs some privacy to figure it out.
If you don’t believe in masturbation, you can emphasize knowing your body and how it is changing throughout puberty. For example, giving a daughter a hand mirror so she can see how her body is changing is a good way to send the message that her body is special, and she should get to know it.
6. Your daughter does not need her daddy to protect her from all those boys who are up to no good!
This breaks my heart actually. I love the idea of my husband protecting my daughter, and, if she is heterosexual, showing her future boyfriends his machete collection. The idea of that fills me with great joy and warmth! But the message that she needs to be protected from boys is not a good one for two reasons.
First, it sends the message that all boys are up to no good. Meaning that even if you find one to love and one you want a relationship with, even he will pressure you into having sex if you don’t want to, or, even worse, that he’ll force you to have sex when you don’t want to. Teach your daughter if she is being pressured, this is not the right dude! Next please! There are so many great guys out there who would never pressure someone into having sex before she is ready to.
Second, the message assumes that she cannot protect herself. She needs to know that she can say NO and refuse an unwanted sexual situation, and that she is perfectly capable of doing so. Instead, you should be teaching her about protecting herself and standing up for herself instead of sending the message that she will be taken advantage of, because all boys and men will eventually take advantage of her.
7. Teach your children consent; you are the only one who will.
The world of media and peers teaches boys to get chicks. Lie to them, get them drunk, just get them. A lot of them. He needs to know that he doesn’t want to be “that guy.” I love this letter from a mom to a son about consent. Our sexual culture teaches girls not to be sexual but be incredibly sexy, leaving them confused as to when they want to engage in sexual behavior and what they can say no to if they’ve already engaged in say, a kiss. Teach your children that kissing or touching doesn’t mean he or she has given the green light for oral or penetrative sex. Here’s a fun video with more on consenting to sexual behavior.
8. There is no such thing as “ready for sex.”
There are better and worse circumstances to have sex for the first time, but no such thing as “ready.” There is such a thing as preparing to have consensual, pleasurable, and physically safe sex. Here’s a little check list you can pass along: Are you drunk? Have you practiced putting a condom on? Does your partner enthusiastically want to have sex? Have you asked her if she wants to have sex? Do you know his parents’ names? Have you seen a vaccination record? Bank statement? Does she have a letter of recommendation? Okay, I’m getting carried away. I think you get the idea though — the more prepared the better, but there is no such thing as “ready.”
Ultimately, sexual decisions are entirely up to your children. You cannot make their decisions for them. The only thing you can do as a parent is be approachable, provide accurate information, be consistent with your values, and then provide loving (not judging) support. The rest is up to your kid! So, take a deep breath and let go.