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Every parent dreads that little three-lettered word. S-E-X. That is why I’ve got some advice for you on how to talk to kids about sex because as parents it is one of our most important tasks!
No topic is off-limits when it comes to my kids. From the time my daughters were old enough to talk, I’ve made a point of answering all of their questions honestly–including questions about their bodies, their feelings, and sex. It’s my job as a parent to create an environment in which they know that no matter how embarrassing it is for them to ask, I am a safe person to talk to.
How to Talk to Kids About Sex
Like every parent who vows their parenting style will be nothing like how they were raised, when it came to having the sex talk, I was sure of it. I was the youngest of three girls in a middle-class family, the daughter of a nurse and a logger—both of whom used cutesy names to refer to private parts, and neither of whom knew how to talk to their kids about sex.
Luckily, the information my parents neglected to provide about the birds and the bees came when I was eight years old and in the third grade—albeit on a very technical level. I arrived home from school one day and proudly announced to my Mom that I knew how babies were made.
“Is that right?” she said.
And that’s where the conversation ended, never to be brought up again. That signaled to me that this was a subject we just didn’t talk about in my house. And as I matured and went on to have children of my own, I swore that when the time came for me to talk about sex with my kids, I’d handle it much differently.
I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
I don’t recall specifically how the subject came up. For all I know, we were talking about flowers or stars or Dora the Explorer. But there it was: the question I knew I’d have to answer honestly one day. My daughter’s voice was so small and innocent, but her inquiry was quite grown up:
“Mama, I know that there has to be an egg from the Mommy and a sperm from the Daddy, but how does the sperm get from the Daddy to the Mommy?”
Have The Sex Talk When It Comes Up
I froze for a moment. Sometimes in the wild, animals will pretend they’re dead to survive an attack. I considered doing that for a split-second: “Maybe if I just sit here silently long enough, she’ll give up and go back to playing with her Barbies.”
But I knew I’d be doing her a huge injustice if I tried to change the subject. I’d also be sending her a terrible message: that certain topics are off-limits and not open for discussion in our house. That’s how I grew up and I considered it very unhealthy. Humans are sexual beings; there’s nothing “bad” about the human body or with helping children understand how their bodies work.
This was my job as a parent, I reminded myself. And if my kid can’t even ask me about the basics when she’s six years old, how likely is she to come to me to discuss important issues like birth control when she’s a teenager?
This was a discussion I knew I had to have—I just wasn’t expecting to have it so early. And it was around this time that I adopted the mantra: “It’s not a big deal if you don’t make a big deal about it.”
It turns out six is the approximate age that most kids ask for more specifics about the birds and the bees. Up until then, a simple and literal explanation of how babies are made (“a sperm from the Daddy joins with an egg from the Mommy”) is usually all they’re looking for.
But when they start pushing for more, your best course of action is to take a deep breath and answer their questions honestly. Because believe me, the sex talk is a lot bigger of a deal to you than it is to them.
Answer What They’re Asking
You’ve probably heard it a million times: Only answer the questions they’re asking. But in that moment, when you’re standing there red-faced and sweating, you don’t know where to start and what to leave out.
I’ll admit, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what specifically to say, but I knew I had to say something. (And it had to be the truth!) And so I did the only thing I could think of: I hopped in my car, drove to the local public library, and pulled every book dealing with how to talk to kids about sex. Surely one of them would give me a script I could use!
I brought one home, sat my daughter down and read to her the page describing intercourse. When I finished, I looked up and waited for her response.
Her brow furrowed and her lip curled up. “That’s weird,” she said.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Gold star for this Mom!
More importantly, I had a much better understanding of what it meant to only answer the questions they ask. I had a younger daughter coming up right behind her. At some point, the question was going to be repeated. I also knew that as they grew, their questions were going to get more specific.
But I do it. Every time they ask, they get an honest answer. It’s actually getting a little easier for me, but I can tell the gross level is off the charts for them the more they learn.
Here’s what else I’ve discovered as my children get older:
- Some kids ask about sex much earlier than others. For whatever reason, my oldest daughter was six when she initiated the sex talk, but my nine-year-old still hasn’t asked for a more specific explanation of how babies are made.
- Honesty is the best policy—always. You aren’t doing your child any favors by sugar-coating the subject. What you are setting them up for is public humiliation when they get older and still think their vagina is called a “front bum” and that women get pregnant from kissing.
- What you don’t tell them, they’ll find out somewhere else (and it’s usually from another kid who doesn’t have all the facts). I was alarmed when my daughter came home from school one day and said her friend told her about periods. Unfortunately, the friend threw the term out there without any explanation about what a period is, leaving my daughter completely in the dark (and afraid) about why it happens.
- Kids know more than you think (but they don’t know it all). My daughter thought women had their periods every day of the month. She had no clue how a menstrual cycle works. I had explained what happens and why, but because she was missing a piece of information, she made her own assumptions. That was a valuable lesson for me: Even though she knows about sex, I have to remember she doesn’t know ALL about sex. It’s important for me to keep up on what she knows so I can fill in the blanks and clear up any misconceptions she may have.
- It’s okay to talk about birth control. I’ve met parents who thought that talking to their kids about birth control was the same as giving them permission to have sex as long as they used birth control. Here’s why I think that’s ridiculous: My children know it’s important to wear a seatbelt, but they don’t think it’s okay for them to drive a car.
How Do You Talk to Kids About Sex? Just Start the Conversation.
I’ll be the first to say figuring out how to talk to my kid about sex wasn’t Number 1 on my list of fun things to do, but as a parent I am my children’s first and most important teacher. The things I teach them about making their way in the world have to carry them through their entire lives.
To gloss over the birds and the bees in the hopes they’d learn what they needed in the classroom would have been irresponsible parenting on my part, and it would have robbed me of valuable lessons along the way. I’ve learned as much from my kids as I’ve taught them, and the most precious thing to me is knowing we have an open and honest relationship in which they feel safe to come and talk to me about anything.
If your son or daughter is starting to ask questions, it might be time to step up and have the sex talk. Listen to what your child is asking and answer their questions honestly, and let them know you’re there whenever they need to talk or learn more.
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Dianne Duckett is a 40-something mom of 2 pre-teen girls who manage to make her both proud and a little crazy every day. In her spare time she reads biographies and jogs. (Just kidding… she naps.)