Sex is a tough topic, but one that must be discussed with kids. Before you wonder what a “parenting article” is doing on a health site, let's be very clear that discussing the topics of sex, puberty and reproduction with your children isn't merely about parenting — it is about emotional and physical health.
Are You Ready For “The Talk”?
There are many very compelling arguments in favor of discussing bodies, sex, puberty, and reproduction with your kids. Even if you feel terribly uncomfortable. Your kids will either ask you, because reproduction and sex are universally fascinating to humans, or they will be terribly misguided because they fill in the blanks themselves, or get “educated” by peers at school.
All children should know all about puberty, the differences between men and women, reproduction and sex. Why? Take your pick from any of the following, not in any order of importance:
- They'll drive you crazy with questions when they are toddlers, so you'll need to answer to get them to stop.
- All young kids want to know where babies come from at some point, either because they are going to have a younger sibling or because they are curious about their own origins. Once they know about the sperm and the egg, they may ask more.
- Ignorance about human anatomy and sex places a child at a higher risk of sexual abuse. (Though your “sex talks” should always also be supplemented with “sexual abuse prevention talks” — at the most basic level, nobody should touch a child's private parts or ask the child to touch theirs.)
- Your child may believe that crazy playground talk if you haven't told her the real facts.
- A child who doesn't know all about puberty may be terrified by getting a first period, or seeing pubic hair.
- A teenager who isn't aware of all the facts surrounding sex may be at risk of getting pregnant, contracting sexually transmitted diseases, and being pressured into sex before they are ready (this especially applies to girls).
- All parents have their own opinions surrounding when it is right to have sex. Though “just don't do it” is never enough when it comes to sex ed, you will have the chance to talk about your own values at length if you are the first to teach your child about sex and reproduction. If you are not early enough, your child will hear about sex from others first.
When should parents start discussing these things with their kids? As early as possible, to prevent sex and bodies from entering the taboo sphere. Toddlerhood, during which kids start potty training, is a great time to begin discussing basic anatomy. Use the proper names for genitals (vulva, vagina, penis, scrotum and anus) instead of cutesy nicknames. This will help your child accept their genitals as normal. We don't use weird nicknames for elbows or knees, do we?
After toddlerhood, you can wait for your child to ask questions herself, usually about where babies come from, or why men and women have different bodies. These questions will usually appear. If not, you can bring it up yourself. We'll give you some tips in the next section.
The average ages for puberty to start are 10 and 11 for girls, and 11 and 12 for boys. It is, however, good to keep in mind that some kids start showing signs of puberty at as early as eight years of age. Some girls will get their first periods before they turn 10. It is, in other words, important to discuss puberty at length starting when your kids are about six. This ensures they will be prepared, rather than freaked out.
Tips On How To Handle Sex Talk
So, how do you handle that sex talk, especially if your kids are already a little older and you missed out on the opportunity of normalizing human bodies from an early age? You have several possibilities. You could sit your kid down and have a serious talk, lecture-style. But well, that doesn't usually work out well.
You could also use stuff on TV or in real life to start a conversation about sex, or you can check out a few books on the topic from your local library and leave them around the house, casually.
A good order in which to discuss sexual topics would be:
Basic human anatomy, including genitals. Discuss the differences between boys and girls, and teach kids of either sex about male and female anatomy. You can use schematic drawings that you can find in any basic biology book, or on the web. You can bring the sperm and egg part up here, and answer any questions your child asks in a normal, factual manner. Actual sex may come up, or it may not.
Sexual abuse. Genitals are private. Explain that younger kids may need help wiping and showering, and sometimes a doctor will need to examine genitals (with a parent present). Other than that, nobody should touch a child's private parts, ask the child to touch theirs, take their clothes off or ask a child to take his clothes off. This is against the law — a crime — and an adult will go to jail for doing this. If any situation feels weird, always tell a trusted adult what happened.
Puberty. Talk about the physical and emotional changes puberty brings, including menstrual cycles for girls and wet dreams for boys. Puberty is the gateway to adulthood, and the physical and emotional changes mean that kids become interested in the opposite sex (or the same sex!) romantically. Puberty also marks the time at which a person becomes able to reproduce.
Sex. By the time you've covered all of those things, you will definitely feel more comfortable talking about actual sexual intercourse. It is best to arm your child will all possible information about sex, regardless of your views on premarital or teenage sex. Knowing the whole story will not necessarily encourage a teenager to engage in sex. You can chat about what sex is, about pregnancy, about sexually transmitted diseases and about birth control and condoms. It is important for boys to be educated about the risks of teenage pregnancy just as much as girls. Make sure you discuss this more than once, in a casual manner. If your child is already a teen, anything too formal will probably scare them away.
Of course, it is important to stick to the facts. Don't do as a mom of one of my friends did, and tell your kid that women release an egg during menstruation, for instance. If you're short on knowledge because your own sex ed was poor, use Google.
Once you have the facts covered, there is no reason to feel weird about sharing your own opinions about sex with. With younger kids, you can simply say that sex makes babies. With teens, you can and need to do much more than that. Feel free to talk about who you believe should have sex (people in a committed relationships, married people, or whatever your views are). Talk about the possible emotional consequences of having sex too early in life, or with the wrong person.
I believe that every teenager needs to know about “safe sex”, but that they should also know about the risks involved. Many people disagree, and think that teens who are taught to abstain from sex before marriage don't need to hear the full story about birth control. I'd frankly also prefer it if my kids didn't have sex too early. But if they do, I want them to know what steps they can take to reduce the risk of STDs and pregnancy.
You may want to tell your child that a condom is the only contraceptive that will also significantly reduce (but not completely eliminate) the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. You may want to Google some common STDs and what they can do to a body, and watch some documentaries about teenage mothers. It is also important for teen boys to realize that they would be just as responsible for a teenage pregnancy and possible childcare as their girlfriend is.
If you create an atmosphere of openness, your kids are more likely to want to discuss sensitive topics with you during the teenage years. This is no guarantee, however, and that is a wonderful reason to get the important information in before puberty.