That means we need to teach kids consent, regardless of gender. And it means that we need to protect them as much as possible from the shame that surrounds sex in our culture. Finally, we need to protect them from pornography and abuse.
In a society that exploits sexuality and reduces it from the sacred to the profane, helping children grow up sexually healthy can be challenging. Remember that if discussion of sex is too uncomfortable in your family, your child’s takeaway will be that sex is shameful.
Most parents are anxious talking to kids about sex. The best parents do it anyway. Here’s an age by age guide with tips to make it easier.
Some pointers to keep in mind:
- Don’t think of this as “the talk,” meaning one big embarrassing talk out of the blue that you subject your child to as they hit puberty. The best way to talk about sex is small conversations on an ongoing basis, as your child is ready for them.
- The earlier you begin, the easier it is. You lay the foundation for open discussion about sex when your child is a baby.
- Sexual health is not just understanding the mechanics of sex. Sexual health starts with enjoying the body and all its feelings. But for most people, sexual health will include interactions with others, so it also depends on our ability to engage in intimacy and take responsibility for having healthy interactions with others.
- Sexual health for babies means developing trust in physical interaction with another person and confidence in their agency over their own body. Talk to your baby as you touch her body. “Ready for your diaper change? Now I’ll lift your legs up. Here’s my hand cleaning you gently.”
- Your toddler is an explorer, and takes delight in what he discovers. That will include his body. Mirror his delight, whether he’s looking at a flower, or his penis. “Touching your penis like that feels good, doesn’t it?”
- Use the correct names for your child’s body parts. Every day, she is learning from you that she has toes, a nose, a belly. She also needs to know that she has a vulva, a clitoris, a vagina. Imagine that you never used the correct word for her knee, but referred to it only as “down there.” Don’t you think she might develop substantial shame about this part of her body that must not be named? How would she communicate with you if her knee hurt? Might she be afraid to tell you if someone touched her knee inappropriately?
Three and four-year-olds
- Answer your child’s questions as they ask them. But don’t give more information then you need to. If your child asks where babies come from for instance, you might say “Babies grow inside their moms,” and give them examples of pregnant women they may have met. You don’t need to go into the full mechanics of sex, unless your child asks.
- It’s appropriate to establish healthy boundaries early on about where the context for self pleasure. At this age, this is not really masturbation, but humans do feel pleasure in their sexual organs from very early in life. You might say “It feels good when you touch your penis doesn’t it? That’s wonderful, and it’s private, so it’s just for you. That means you do it in your own bedroom.”
- Read books with your child about emotions, since a healthy emotional life is at the heart of healthy sexuality. (There’s a whole page of books to help children develop emotional intelligence here)
- Proactively prevent sexual abuse by teaching body safety. Teach your child that the part of their body under their bathing suit is special because some day they can use it to create a baby. Because it is special, it is private. No one touches them under their bathing suit, except a doctor if their parent is there and gives permission.
- See: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Your Child Safe From Sexual Abuse
Five to seven year olds
- If you have not yet had a real conversation with your child about sex, this is the time. Start with a good book about sex such as It’s not the stork.
- Keep it simple: “The man’s penis enters the woman’s vagina so the man’s sperm can unite with the egg inside the woman, and a baby grows. It’s amazing! It might sound strange to you, but that’s because sex is not for kids. Sex feels good to grownup bodies.”
- Teach your child that we never touch anyone without their consent, and no one touches them without their consent.
- Talk about sex as a part of healthy, loving relationships, and discuss what makes a good relationship.
Eight-nine year olds
- It’s time to educate your child about puberty. Tell your child “I found this cool book for us to read together, about relationships and sex. I'm so glad that you're old enough now for us to have fun talking about this.” (One example of such a book might be It’s So Amazing by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley)
- Be sure that your child has adequate media controls on all tech and reinforce online rules such as never sharing nude photos online.
- Porn proof your child. Porn is almost always dehumanizing, because it depicts sex without warmth, intimacy or love. Most porn today also includes verbal and/or physical aggression toward women. So those photos and videos can really traumatize children. It's upsetting for parents to hear, but if your child has online access, they will eventually see porn. Statistically speaking, most children stumble across porn by the age of eight, so before that first exposure, you need to be sure you have adequate parental controls on your devices, and you need to educate your child about porn. Explain to your child that just as some adults drink alcohol but that isn't good for kids, some adults like to look at photos or videos of naked people, but that isn't good for kids.
- If you need help talking with your child about pornography, check out the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures by Kristen Jenson, which you can read with children as young as eight. As you discuss this, emphasize that your child needs to tell you if they see naked photos or videos online, so you can help them understand what they've seen and keep them safe in the future.
- Begin talking about diversity of sexual identity and expression. While most people are heterosexual, there is a range of sexual expression. While most people identify with the gender they were born into, some do not.
Ten to twelve year olds
- Revisit your discussions about various aspects of puberty as they become more real to your child.
- Teach your preteen that being a teenager does not mean they have to be sexually active, and you hope they will wait to have sex until they’re in a loving, committed, long-term relationship.
- Be sure that your Pre-teens knows more than you do about internet safety and observes precautions.
- Make sure that your home is a safe place for all discussions and questions as you keep discussing all the topics you’ve previously introduced. Share your values about love and sex with your child. Ask a lot of questions, like:
*At what age do you think people can fall in love?
*At what age should people marry?
*How should you decide who to marry?
*Do you think people should be married to have sex? If not, how should they decide whether they’re ready?
*What do you think changes when you have sex?
*How do you think love and sex are different in real life than in the movies?
*What would be most important thing to you in looking for a romantic partner? What about in looking for a spouse?
*Why do you think people get divorced? How do you think it affects their kids?
*Do you think any of the kids at school are not virgins? What do you think about that?
*Do kids at your school actually “date”?
*Do you think girls and guys have the same needs from sex and relationships?
*What do you think about the idea of “friends with benefits”? Does the girl benefit as much as the guy?
*If a guy is attracted to a girl, what do you think is the best way for him to show it?
*If a girl is attracted to a guy, what do you think is the best way for her to show it?
*If a boy wants to have sex and the girl is too drunk to say yes or no, what should the boy do?
*What if a girl says yes to sex but then changes her mind when they start? What should the guy do?
*Do you know anyone who’s gay or trans? Does anyone treat them differently? What do you think about that?
*Do you think some day you'll date girls or guys?
Thirteen through the teen years
- Be sure your child knows all about safe sex, contraception and sexually transmitted infections.
- Work hard to get comfortable answering questions about masturbation, nocturnal emissions, oral sex, and anything else your child may ask about. That may seem impossible, but teens are so grateful when parents welcome their questions comfortably, and they're much more likely to ask about things they're hearing.
- Your basic job is done. Keep talking! Most important, keep listening!