Talking to your child about sex is daunting. However, talking about sex with your children is possibly the most crucial thing you may do. Many parents do not realize how this reluctance unconsciously influences their child’s attitude towards sex and relationships by their hesitance to have ‘the talk.’ Firstly it is not a talk, but a series of small regular conversations. These conversations are planned and also brought up spontaneously as topics come up.
Children look up to their parents for guidance on everything. If sex is a taboo or ‘an unspeakably dirty act’ in your house, they could carry this baggage for the rest of their lives. Worse, get advice from other people who don’t have their best interests at heart.
In a report published by Harvard University in May 2017, a survey of over 2,000 teens and young adults found that parents are anxious about hook-up culture. Evidence shows the number of young people having casual sex is not as high as parents think, and is actually decreasing as alcohol consumption decreases. The researchers found that teens and young adults are more interested in developing healthy romantic relationships. This tallies with my own experience, where pupils from steady homes are less interested in sex than modern TV, and the media would have us believe. However, sexual assault rates and cases of sexual harassment are high among young people and are increasing. Therefore, when talking about sex, the conversation needs to go beyond ‘the birds and the bees’. It needs to focus on consent and how to see awkward situations develop and the skills of removing themselves from them.
These deeper and more meaningful conversations about sex, love, and consent are likely to move onto other important discussions about sex education and sexuality. With so much conflicting and pressurized advice on social media, the young adults surveyed welcomed the prospect of parental guidance. We have to accept that our children’s sex lives are likely to be just as messy as our own and not have unrealistic expectations. In fact, with the arrival of the internet, our children have access to a whole world of images and lifestyles that we were never aware of at their ages. Reality TV can also have a positive and negative place in these conversations.
According to renowned sex educator Dr Logan Levkoff, parents should take the responsibility of talking to their children about sex early on. In many schools, the biology of reproduction is separated from the emotional aspects of sex. Here we give a summary of sex education in schools. But realise it varies by area. A large group setting will often see the more vocal pupils steer the conversation. Many pupils leave more confused wondering why you would want to put a condom on a vegetable in the first place!
The ‘Sex Talk’ with Your Child
Experts recommend having many small discussions about sex during everyday activities. Parents should add in more information about certain concepts over time, depending on their children’s age. This is the same as any other aspect of life education, whether manners or personal hygiene. You wouldn’t wait until a child was 14 and then try and tell them everything about friendships in one talk, expecting them to move on.
This is why we have put together this ultimate guide about having “The Talk” with your children based on their age, however you know your child better than anyone.
Talking about Sex – From Birth to Five Years
Believe it or not, the process of educating your child about sex should begin even before they have started talking. We’re not talking about diving into it; you need to teach your children the proper names of genitals during their everyday activities. Feel free to use cute names like front bottom and whatnot, but also use proper terms to describe different body parts. It will also help them explain injuries or health issues as they grow older. This may seem uncomfortable or inappropriate, but it makes sure that there is no stigma, or naughtiest, associated with these terms. This is also important to make sure that your child is comfortable talking about their health generally.
When a child is close to two, you can talk to them about when and where it is okay to explore their body. It’s entirely normal for toddlers to touch their genitals. Instead of freaking out, use it as an opportunity to tell your child that it is something you do in private not in the queue at the supermarket! Try not to make your child feel like he or she is doing something shameful.
At this age, the primary focus for this age group should be discussing personal boundaries. Your children should know where it is and isn’t appropriate to touch other people and other people to touch them. You should also speak with them in no uncertain terms about when it’s okay to be naked. For instance, the ‘pants game’ is a simple message for very young children. ‘Only mummy and daddy can see what is under your pants. You must tell us if anyone asks to’. The NSPCC has an excellent resource called the ‘Pantosaurus’ which builds on this.
Talking about Sex – From Six to Eleven
These are the ages where you should start discussing how to navigate digital spaces safely. Even if your children will not use the internet unsupervised for several more years. Define ground rules around sharing photos and talking to strangers online. There’s no need to explain pornography right now, but you need be prepared for the time they will stumble on it. It is essential to show and explain social media’s appropriate use and why you don’t post some images. We have a series of articles on social media under our entertainment and technology menu at the top.
One resource that can help you when you want to talk to your child about how babies are made is the book by Babette Cole called “Mummy Laid an Egg!” The mother talks about babies originating from seeds, squeezing them out of tubes and creating them out of gingerbread. The father talks about how they are found under rocks. On the other hand, the children call out their parents for the simpleton answers they give and set the facts straight to both the adults. The book is simple, educational and entertaining all at the same time.
Around this time, it is also important to touch upon sexual abuse. It is an unfortunate reality, but your children need to be aware of this part of sex education. Start with the basics like how nobody should touch them without their permission. Revisit the conversation at a later stage and ask them how they feel. If they’re not particularly understanding it well, leave the conversation for a later time when they’re older. We have more on how to talk about sexual predators with your children here.
Around the age of ten and eleven, you should start talking about adolescence as well. We have more guidance on discussing puberty on this site. Use the search function at the top to find them, and related articles are listed at the bottom of this.
Talking about Sex – From Eleven to Fourteen
Around this age, it is time to talk to your children about the aspects of sexualization and sexism. Your child has reached a stage in their life of emotional and social change with the transition to High School. Parents must regularly check-in with their children and ask them what they are wondering about and how they feel. It is necessary to let your children know that the physical changes that they are going through are completely normal.
It is at this age to make sure that the link is established with sex and emotions. In the playground and the media, it is easy to think that sex is purely a physical act. For truly satisfying relationships in the future and to treat others with respect, it is essential that children realize before they become active that it can be far more than this. In the same way, it may be a bit jarring as a parent to think about it, but this is also the time you need to normalize the conversation about safe sex. There is research to support that if teenagers know about the risks involved, they are more likely to make safer choices.
Around this age, children have more freedom in terms of their access to the internet. It is time to revisit those conversations about safely navigating the internet at this point. Reiterate all the ground rules that you’ve established. There are many useful and excellent websites by organizations about sex. However, open Facebook groups and Twitter are not constructive. We talk far more about the responsible use of social media here.
Talking about Sex –Fourteen and Onwards
Once your child hits their teen years, talking openly about sex and sexuality will prove to be very helpful. You see, by establishing yourself as parents who are open to discussing those topics, your kids will feel more inclined to talk to you and ask you questions. If you have not had the conversation or have not been okay with having such discussions earlier on, it is essential to sit your child down and let him or her know that you are changing your stance. Just hearing you tell them that they can talk to you about anything can make a huge difference.
Do not expect them to suddenly be able to spend hours talking about it to you but rather bring it up every week or so in small chunks. This is the age to stress to children that ownership of their body is theirs. Teach them to value it and to resist pressure.
As they grow older, you want to cut down on lectures and start to have real conversations about safe sex. Provide them with this vital knowledge and let them know about the rights, wrongs, and dangers so they can make informed judgments when you are not around. It is also essential that you consider the risks of allowing the media to rule the conversations in your household regarding sex and otherwise.
It is also significant to discuss ‘consent’ in sexual relationships. You want your children to think about how they can protect themselves against peer pressure and the aspect of sexual harassment. Conversations about the impact of drugs and drinking and how they can affect your child’s judgment need to be weaved in as well.
Final Thoughts on Talking About Sex
Be your child’s first port of call and have frequent conversations about healthy relationships and how they are crucial for them. As we often say, they must see you as a human who makes the same mistakes and has the same uncertainties as them. However, you are also their parent. It is your responsibility, not the education systems, to prepare your child for the world – even if it makes you uncomfortable. If your children are not too eager to talk about themselves, you can talk about your relationships from the past. It can get them to open up to you about their relationship stories.
By the time they are teenagers, you want your children to feel empowered. They need to learn how to make good decisions and properly examine the risks by this age. Discussing the right things about sex education at suitable ages will help set your children up for a safer future.