Parents often dread having “the talk” about sex with their children. Talking about sexuality with our kids can feel so awkward and uncomfortable that many of us put it off and then try to cram everything into one massive conversation with a teenager, who already “knows it all.” Or worse yet: parents postpone this talk until it’s too late and their kid comes home pregnant, infected with an STI, or deeply attached to someone who is taking advantage of their lack of boundaries.
If you’ve met me, you probably already know: I don’t believe in “the talk.” One conversation is not enough, and it IS awkward—for everyone involved—enough so that they make movies out of this! What if sex was a normal, everyday topic for conversation? What if it was easy for your kids to come to you with questions or for you to share insights?
Sounds great, yeah? But how?
It starts with knowing your values and expectations and living them.
Know yourself before talking about sex with your kids
Self-awareness is the first step to most endeavors. Want to take up a new activity? You probably begin by assessing your current skill set against your desired outcome, and then you start learning or gathering resources. Same thing here. When it comes to creating a positive dialogue around sex, it is helpful for parents to begin with some introspection.
- What did I learn about sex as a young person?
- Were these messages helpful or unhelpful?
- Which of these messages need to stop now and which do I want to pass on to my kids?
- What are my values around sex?
A trip down memory lane might be fun, too. Consider what you were doing at various ages. What were you curious about? How were you exploring your body? What was interesting, gross, embarrassing, or funny?
If you are co-parenting, you can each ask these questions individually and share your insights later. You can also explore these questions together in conversation—you might learn something about each other or share a giggle of commiseration!
Values and expectations define the message about sex for your children
Take some time to consider your family’s values around sex. Include how you feel about sexual expression, behavior, relationship, and communication. These values will help you establish and model the expectations you (and your co-parent(s)) set for your child(ren).
Your message will be communicated by more than just the words you say. Your kids are paying attention to what you do, sometimes more than what you say. Be aware that you are modeling behavior for your children, so are your actions conforming to your words?. Can you adhere to the expectations you are setting for them? Obviously, there will be some discrepancies based on age, privilege, and appropriateness, but the core values that drive decision-making should be the same.
Create an ongoing family conversation about sexuality
Does your family have meetings? Some do, some don’t, but there are probably moments when big issues get discussed. The good news is that talking about sex with your kids doesn’t have to be one of these big moments! If you start talking early on in their childhood about bodies, communication, boundaries, relationships, and health, these topics will become part of the fabric of your regular conversation. Guess what: these are the components of sex education!
The earlier you start, the better; but you can begin this conversation at any point in your kids’ childhood. Here are a few age-appropriate examples of discussions you can have; just adjust as appropriate for your child’s individual needs.
Pre-schoolers: This age is fascinated by bodies! The sounds, the tickly parts, the boogers… everything is equally interesting and not at all registering as “sexual” by adult standards. Equip your child with the permission, language, and options they might need to express themselves.
Teaching kids the accurate name of their body parts, accepting their personal nicknames as they emerge, and affirming your child’s awareness of what is okay/not okay (e.g. hugs with relatives they rarely see) are all foundational elements for the conversations you will have in the future.
Tweens/pre-pubescent kids: Continue to affirm your child’s agency and talk about their friendships, which might be getting more complex. Let them know what to expect as their bodies go through puberty, as well as what their peers might be experiencing. Encourage compassion and help them name their emotions, which might be confusing as hormones start to change.
Puberty/early teens: By now you’ve established open, safe, non-judgmental communication about topics related to sexuality, and hopefully your children regard you as a trusted source of guidance. Keep an open ear for opportunities to talk about sexual debut and notice places where a bit of information might be valuable. Most of all: LISTEN and be there for your emerging adult.
Read more: “How to Help Your Teen Navigate Sex Positive Puberty”
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of all the conversations you could have, just a handful of ideas. At all stages, keep your child and their needs as the focus of your conversation. They’ll let you know if you’re sharing too much or if they want to know more. By listening to them, answering their questions honestly, and demonstrating respect for their agency, you will model how to communicate and you will convey to your children that matters related to sexuality are normal and easy to talk about. Talking about sex with your kids doesn’t need to be scary or awkward!
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