Parents tell me all the time that they want to do right by their kids and equip them with sound sexual health information. Information that will set them up for healthy, safe and fulfilling sexual lives. But how do we bring up the topic and what exactly do we say?
Many parents are concerned with giving too much information and end up sharing far too little. I’m a fan of working through that anxiety and giving kids more information sooner. Our daughters should learn about menstruation well in advance before the panic sets in. Our sons deserve information on birth control (all types) so they can participate in safer sex.
While we can’t undo sexual assault, HIV or unintended pregnancies, preventing harm seems a better path than supporting our kids through traumatic events. Though we can never spare our children from every hard experience, we can offer them information and share our values in an honest and open way so that they are informed decision makers throughout their sexual lives. And the start of their sexual lives has already begun.
When To Start Talking with Kids about Sexuality
That means sex ed can start right away: as young as toddler age. We can teach toddlers the proper names for their body parts. (i.e. “This is your vulva and pee comes out of an opening called the urethra.” “Those are your testicles.” “Oh look, you have an erection.”) And we can share early messages of consent and privacy to help keep our kids from harm and to respect appropriate boundaries.
But there is more. We have an amazing opportunity early on to message the beauty, joy and positive aspects of sex and sexuality rather than letting our silence leave an absence of information. Sexuality is a complex interplay between reproduction, intimacy, sensuality, sexual identity, sexual expression and sexualization. All of which is wrapped up in our personal, familial, religious and cultural values.
It doesn’t take long before many kids become curious about sexuality. Even those who don’t ask might wonder; even those who might not wonder can learn how to interpret messages that are coming at them like wildfire. Since, let’s be honest, messages with sexual content are reaching our children all the time—whether its movies, television, fashion billboards or the music they hear.
How Do I Bring Up the Topic?
A great place for guidance is with “The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It” by Meg Hickling. The book is a bit outdated, but Meg is a proponent of sex-positive parenting. Not only does she provide information about their developmental readiness for different sexuality-related content but she offers really specific language to help frame future conversations that you might have.
There are also a lot of great books that we can read with our kids that can help with beginner’s awkwardness. Two of my favorites include “What’s the Big Secret? Talking about Sex with Girls and Boys” by Laurie Krasny Brown & Marc Brown and “It’s Not the Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends” by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley.
With or without these books, conversations can happen when we bathe and cuddle our littles. Opportunities arise when we kiss our partners or when our kids observe public displays of affection. I’ve talked to my kids about magazine images as we wait for their dentist appointments to start and started a conversation about a suggestive billboard when we were stuck in traffic. Soon I’ll be deconstructing Robin Thicke’s latest song or an iCarly episode.
Another way to connect with our kids about sex and sexuality is to talk about current events (should Russia lose the Olympics over their discriminatory anti-gay laws?). When you overhear sexual innuendo in conversations between your children and their friends, don’t get mad, get curious. At these times, we can ask a lot of questions and share knowledge with our kids about the breadth and scope of healthy sexuality.
Sex Ed for Kids: What to Share at Different Ages
3 – 5 years:
- Begin talking about the differences between boys’ and girls’ sex organs
- Simple explanations of where babies come from (use scientific terms: the sperm meets the ovum (egg) and the baby grows in the uterus (womb) and is born through the vagina)
- Private body parts and good and bad touching of them
6 – 8 years:
- Information about menstruation and nocturnal emissions (wet dreams)
- Body changes at puberty
- Since masturbation is very common at this age— reassure kids that it is normal and okay but only in a private place
- Information about sexual identity, sexual orientation, and non-stereotyped gender roles
9 – 12 years:
- Physical puberty changes happen at different times for different bodies and that is perfectly normal
- Emotional and social changes that happen through puberty such as mood swings, crushes, romantic feelings, and friendship issues
- Reassure them that they are normal (regarding their sexual feelings and thoughts and their looks, etc.)
- What is a healthy relationship (friendship/romantic)
- Need to know that not all teens are sexually active
- Begin to sexual decision making and setting limits
- Sexually transmitted infection and birth control information
- The media’s influence on our perception of social roles of males and females and body image, etc.
13 – 18 years:
- Relationship skills
- Communication skills (how to say no and how to say yes)
- Awareness of their own values
- Diversity in sexuality — sexual orientations and sexual practices
- Rights and responsibility for their sexuality and choices
- Correct use of the birth control methods and their effectiveness
- Sexually transmitted infection information (prevention, symptoms, treatment, etc.)
Marnie Goldenberg is trying to be a sex-positive parent and wants you to be one too. As a sexual health educator, Marnie takes every opportunity to talk about raising sexually intelligent kids. Read more on her blog (http://sexplainer.com) or follow her on Twitter (@marniegold).
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This article was updated in September 2014.