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.
Research* makes it very clear that talking to kids about sex makes them less susceptible to sexual abuse, and more likely to delay sex to later ages.
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 very young.
- 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 means developing trust in physical interaction with another person and confidence in one's own agency over their 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?” At this age, this is not really masturbation, but humans do feel pleasure in their sexual organs from very early in life. Some parents may be uncomfortable with a comment like this, but remember that what you're doing is affirming his self-exploration, and removing stigma and shame. If he loved playing with his toes, you'd make a similar comment.
- 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 than 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 the context for self pleasure. 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. Some day, they might even 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.
- Be aware that some children identify as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, and they are often able to express this by the time they are four. Gender identity does not depend on what body parts we have, and children need permission from their parents to be themselves, in all our glorious human variety.
- 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 and babies, it's time! Start with a good book about sex such as It’s not the stork.
- Keep it simple: “The sperm unites with the egg, and a baby grows. It’s amazing Usually the sperm gets to the egg when the penis enters the vagina. It might sound strange to you, but that’s because sex is not for kids. Sex feels good to grownup bodies.”
- Begin talking about diversity of gender identity.** Gender identity is who you feel yourself to be, on the inside. While most people identify with the gender they were born into, some do not, and they are often able to express this by this age. Something important to remember: while many children seem to fit masculine or feminine gender norms, many do not feel comfortable conforming to binary expressions of gender, in appearance as well as behavior, mannerisms, and interests--and this may or may not have anything to do with a child's gender identity (or sexual orientation). For example, a boy who likes to dress up as a princess will not necessarily later identify as a woman, or as gay. Regardless, children need permission from their parents to be themselves.
- Talk about the diversity of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is usually defined as who we are sexually attracted to. While most people are heterosexual, there is a range of sexual orientation. For kids this age, you might say "Uncle Tom and Uncle Billy are getting married. While most people like and marry people who are the opposite gender, some people like and marry people who are the same gender as they are. And some people don't want to get married at all!"
- 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.
- Masturbation is completely normal. Children who masturbate very frequently are often using it to calm anxiety, so rather than intervene to stop masturbation done privately, address the anxiety.
Eight to 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.” (At ten or eleven, they may be more embarrassed, which is why it's great to start talking about puberty now.) See the descriptions of books below for ideas.
- Be sure that your child has adequate media controls on all tech.
- 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.
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, long-term relationship.
- Be sure that your preteen observes Internet safety precautions, like not sharing personal information in public places (including age and location) or sharing their passwords with their friends. Reinforce rules such as never sharing nude photos.
- 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?
*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?
*Do you think some day you'll date girls or guys?
*At what age should people get married?
*Do you think you ever want to get married?
*How should you decide who to marry?
*Why do you think people get divorced?
*Do you think any of the kids at school have had sex? What do you think about that?
*Do kids at your school actually “date”?
*Do you know anyone who’s gay or trans? Does anyone treat them differently? What do you think about that?
*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”?
*If you are attracted to someone else, what do you think is the best way to show it?
*If someone wants to have sex with another person and they are too drunk to say yes or no, what should they do?
*What if someone says yes to sex but then changes their mind when they start?
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!
Books To Help You Talk To Your Child About Sex
It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley - Lively, comfortable, reassuring answers to the endless and perfectly normal questions that preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary school children ask about how they began.
It’s So Amazing by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley - This classic answers questions about reproduction for age 7 and up in an age-appropriate and fun way.
Celebrate Your Body (and Its Changes, Too!): The Ultimate Puberty Book for Girls - Body-positive guide to puberty for younger tween girls, emphasizing that puberty doesn't have to be scary or embarrassing.
The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls - recommended for nine and up, this book covers the basics of puberty, how to choose a bra, hygiene, and what menstruation is and how to manage it.
The Care and Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls - More advanced book for girls who have already entered puberty, ages 12 and up.
Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys - Frank and funny resource for boys ages 10 and up, covering hygiene, erections and other aspects of puberty. Since it is aimed at a younger audience, it does not go into sex or sexuality.
It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris - More advanced book for kids already in adolescence.
*One large study of Latino adolescents indicated that in families with comfortable sexual communication, teens were less likely to be sexually active, and were older at first sexual activity than other adolescents.
*A meta-analysis of multiple studies across three grant programs found that, overall, comprehensive sex education programs “significantly reduced risky sexual behaviors as measured by their pre-specified confirmatory outcomes.”
*A clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics states that comprehensive sex education programs “have been proven to delay onset of sexual activity, reduce numbers of partners, increase condom and contraceptive use, and decrease incidence of teen pregnancy and STIs, including HIV."
*A Meta-analysis in JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – showed that when parents talk to children about sex, the kids stay safer and family communication is improved.
**Be aware that although it is not often discussed, as many as one child out of a hundred is born "intersex," which means that they have sexual or reproductive anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit within the traditional definitions of female or male. (There are a variety of ways for a body to be intersex: the Intersex Society of North America is a good resource for more information.)