Monday, February 13, 2012

How to Teach Your Kids about S-E-X

Parents often have a hard time talking to their children about sex for many reasons. Some parents may, understandably, feel a little embarrassed to talk to their child about sexuality. Other parents might worry that they don’t have all the right answers or that even talking about sex may encourage or promote sexual behavior. To help combat these common issues with discussing sexuality with your children, here are some helpful guidelines.

Since sexual development is something that humans experience across the lifespan, there’s no need to wait until the child is an older teen to have the first "sex talk", which is when many teens may already be sexually active. By having many small conversations about sexuality throughout their childhood, you are not only giving them important factual information, but also helping them to develop their own personal values, and giving them the confidence to make responsible and healthy decisions throughout their adolescence and beyond. This strategy will also make talking about sex much easier as they get older, and you can avoid the often daunting task of having one big "talk" later.

Even young children can learn some of the basics, such as the proper names for their genitals. Using made-up names like “pee pee” might sound cute, but may also reinforce the idea that our genitals are something shameful or "dirty" that we’re not supposed to talk about. As parents, we don’t usually teach our children improper names for other body parts like their knees or elbows, so it just makes sense to teach them the correct terms for their genitals, as well. It is also important for kids to possess the right language to be able to clearly tell an adult if they are experiencing a medical issue, or if they have been sexually abused.

Children are also curious and will discover their own bodies - including their genitals. It may be shocking or make parents a little uncomfortable, but its important not to yell at or punish your child for exploring their own body. This is a totally normal part of childhood development. It is alright, however, to teach your child that this is something that should be done in private.

If your child asks a question about sex, try not to give an answer that’s overly complicated or you might lose them completely. Try to keep your responses simple and age-appropriate. Also, make sure you are answering the question they asked! There’s an old joke where a child comes home from school and says, “Mom, where did I come from?” So the mom launches into a lengthy biological lecture all about sperm, eggs, and fertilization. The confused child says “Oh…Sally said she was from Ohio, so I was just wondering where I came from”. Usually, a very simple answer will satisfy a child’s curiosity. If they want more information, they’ll ask.

Using teachable moments is another helpful strategy. Simply be on the look-out for opportunities in your everyday life to bring up sexuality. Sexuality is everywhere! For example, maybe you see a pregnant woman walking down the street, or perhaps a relative is expecting a baby. You can use this opportunity to ask your child what they might already know about pregnancy, or questions they may have about how a baby develops, where babies come from, or about different types of families. If you are the parent of a teen, take advantage of commercials for contraceptives that come on TV, or even an episode of MTV's "Teen Mom", to talk to your teen about the importance of waiting to have sex until they're ready, or how they can avoid becoming a pregnant teen themselves.

Lastly, try to remain calm and stay positive! It can be intimidating or even a little scary when your child approaches you with questions about sex. Remember that if you become angry or visibly upset by their questions, your child may regret asking you, and probably won’t approach you or trust you with another difficult question again. This reaction will also give them the impression that sex is shameful, wrong, and shouldn’t be talked about. Also remember that if your children aren’t getting this information from you, they will likely look elsewhere, such as from their friends or other sources that might give them inaccurate or even harmful information.

It’s also easy for parents to focus only on the negative consequences of sexuality such as STIs and unplanned pregnancy, but you should also be sure to talk to your son or daughter about the positive aspects of sexuality, such as closeness and intimacy, pleasure, being in love, and even health benefits. Parents may be concerned that by discussing the positives of sex, they may be encouraging their son or daughter to engage in sexual behavior. Research has shown, however, that children whose parents communicate positively with them about sexuality are more likely to delay sexual activity and to make responsible decisions when they do become sexually active(Breuss & Greenberg, 2004). Regular positive communication about sexuality is the key to guiding your children's growth into confident, healthy, and happy sexual beings.

For more information, check out the following resources:

Planned Parenthood

Advocates for Youth

Breuss, C., & Greenberg, J. (2004). Sexualtiy Education: Theory and practice (4th Ed.). Boston: Jones & Bartlett.


  1. Great post, I think that's some really great advice. I also like the story that I read in either Harmful to Minors or one of Debra Haffner's books, I'm not sure which. In it a small child asks what a condom is. The mother goes into the cupboard, gets one out and hands it to the child. The child looks at it for a while, says "oh" and then walks away. Sometimes the simplest answer really is the best!

    I think it's really interesting how whether or not a person has had children affects how they teach about sex (or whether they do at all). I was at a curriculum training the last couple of days, and educators who had children seemed to use this as reasoning for certain beliefs, usually having to do with teaching less rather than more. Why is it that parents believe non-parents have no clue what is good for children? And why is it that so many assume that because they would do something one way, that all other parents would do it that way as well? What I'd be interested to see is some strategies on how to get parents to teach their children about sex, some kind of how-to for non-parent educators, such as myself to get through to parents and help them understand that I really do know what I'm talking about. I think, and I could be wrong as it hasn't happened to me, that when we have children, we start to forget what it was like to be one. Instead of remembering and remaining empathetic and tuned in, we try to prevent everything bad that happened to us from happening to them and end up doing more harm than good. When you give these parents other children (ie: teachers) they extrapolate this concept, regardless of what the child is really being taught at home and it's so dangerous.

    I think that lmercier (not sure if you don't want your full name on it) does a fantastic job of balancing being a parent and being a teacher. I'd really like to see more educators follow her lead!

  2. Kelly, you definitely raise some good questions! I think parents usually just assume they always know whats best for their kids and can be very defensive if they feel like you are questioning or criticizing their parenting skills and choices.
    I think they can also feel that they are part of an elite and private group that nobody else can understand until you join the club and have children of your own. They also most likely figure that they have more experience with children than someone who does not have children. I suppose it is probably similar to any educator that is different from the population they are teaching. For example, a heterosexual person can do their best to teach a group of LGBT individuals, but the class might feel that the instructor isn't able to understand or relate as well as an educator from the LGBT community might. That is not to say that they aren't an excellent educator, but the audience may not find them as credible if they know the educator does not have that shared experience.

    In my experience as a substance abuse counselor, my clients were often hesitant to listen to what I had to say because I was not in recovery like they were, so they felt that I had no idea what they were going through or that I could possibly be able to help them based only on what I learned "in a book" as opposed to firsthand, personal experience, which is what they valued.

    As far as being a non-parent educator teaching parents, I think it would be helfpul if you either just avoided self-disclosure (don't mention that you're not a fellow parent), or if it comes up, just tell them that even though you're not a parent, you still have had plenty of experience working with/ being around children either in your personal life or professional/ teaching experience. Not to mention everything that you'd be teaching them would be fully backed up by research, developmental theory, and undeniable rationale!

  3. Excellent, professional advise for parents, great post Lyndsay. I am sick of hearing the myth that if you talk to your children about sex, they will go out and have it. Also, it is not solely up to the schools to teach sexuality education. True, children are in school for 7 hours a day, but they need to be taught morals, manners, and culture at home so when they do arrive at school they know how to behave and interact.

    It is true you have to start sex education young, but you don’t have to go into details. It reminds me about the lesson we did last weekend about teaching kindergarten, middle school, and college freshmen about kink. A parent should not bust out the leather whips or ties and explain to a five year old what mommy and daddy do at bedtime. The conversation should start with trust and how people show affection differently.

    Most important is teaching a child the correct terminology for body parts, and that includes private and public. I make sure I teach my five year old nephew sexuality education, because I am unsure how much he is getting at home. I feel comfortable talking to my family members about sexuality, but I do not know how comfortable I’ll be when a parent comes up to me and asks what am I doing teaching my children about sex? Which brings up the points of how comfortable are parents with other parents finding out they are teaching sexuality education in the home. The stigma of wanting to inform children about sex is still taboo or judged by others who disagree. Many parents may not be nervous about talking to their children about sex, but they’re nervous about what the neighbors might think.

  4. I am glad you posted about this topic because it complements the work I am doing with my community partner. We are developing a curriculum to train parents to become peer educators of communicating with their kids about sexuality. The curriculum is not so much what to teach the kids but more so on the need for the communication about sexuality, effective communication skills, and navigating sexuality resources for the parent and child. It echoes many of the points you posted about how to approach the subject, conveying the proper message in a manner that will be received by the child, and having an ongoing dialogue about sexuality throughout the child’s life. I understand that the curriculum won't reach all the parents everywhere and even with the ones that we do not all of them will be willing to accept this advice. My shortcomings in all of this are that I have never formally taught parents or children about sexuality and never developed a curriculum so my suggestions on this curriculum may not be as effective had I had the teaching experience. You and I share many of the same beliefs that you posted around this topic and I used that to guide my judgment on how to shape my curriculum. Writing this makes me think I should try to put an attitudes piece in there about relieving some of the shame, guilt, and embarrassment parents may have around sexuality. I know attitudes are very difficult to change but it is important to convey that message to parents too so they may pass it along to other parents (that is if my curriculum does what it is intended to do). Regardless, the main message is that parents should be talking to their children from the start. Great job on the post!

  5. Fantastic post. You mention remaining calm and staying positive along with teachable moments, and I couldn't agree more. In my work with young people, I have found both of these ideas to be extremely helpful. I used to be a camp counselor of young girls so I often dealt with these girls going through puberty. I can remember one particular time when one of my campers got her first period. She was really scared and confused, and in fact didn't tell anyone for a few days. I remember her telling me they had talked about what a period was in school (she was 12), no one had ever told her what to do when she got it. I was only 19 at the time so I had my own insecurities about teaching this young girl what was happening. But I sat down with her and just calmly talked about all the different products and how she could ask me for help any time. I gave her all the necessary materials and we sat together talking about how to use them, and opening each thing up. We must have talked about a good 45 minutes. And during that time, not only did I help teach her about her period, but I was also able to talk to her about embaressment, general health, and learning how to ask for help. What I want to point out in all this is that while her parents (and teachers) may have missed out on some teachable moments in this girls life, I was able to turn a scary situation into a calm, comfortable, learning environment. It is never too late to learn.

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  6. Great post because I was similarly struggling with educating other people's children! While I don't have children of my own, I have a standpoint that there will be no sugarcoating the sexuality components, especially the genitals. My significant other's nine year old foster brother recently giggled when the new Reese Witherspoon preview said "sex tie breaker". My S.O. was the one who looked at him, smiled and said "what are you giggling at?" he said "nothing" with a smile. I wanted to go there, but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to use the teachable moment. Thus, just because I am known to friends and family as a sexuality educator, does that give me the right to go there if the children aren't my own?

    Less than an hour later, "sex" was said as an answer on family feud. He looked at me and I looked at him as he was looking to me for approval. I smiled and said "there's that word again, sex" he was like "yeah". I asked if he had heard that word a lot and he confirmed often at school. This is where I was torn, I wanted to go there, this was my teachable moment, but I stopped because I wasn't sure this was my place to step in. Overall, I agree with this post and wish more people would be able to follow these guidelines you've posted Lyndsay because if everyone was following them, I could have went there!

  7. Those are some great outlines for parents! I think these could completely apply to teachers too. I know when I went through undergrad, there was nothing mentioned about how to handle situations that arise in the classroom that are related to sexuality. I know I have encountered in my years of teaching many of those situations and did not know exactly how to handle them. At my current school, there have been many sexuality situations and the teachers are not equipped to deal with them appropriately. These outlines would be great for teachers to learn.

    I also feel that adults need to look at their own sexuality and feelings before talking with children. I know by knowing my personal thoughts and feelings, I can be a better educator and eventually a better parent. While I'm not a parent, I'm sure it can be very difficult for parents to talk to their children. Having tips and classes on how to talk to children is the first step in helping parents become more comfortable with discussing sexuality with their child.

  8. Great guidelines!

    Currently, a lot of my clients are asking me how to discuss sexuality and reproduction with their kids. A lot of my clients (and parents in general) are very nervous and squeamish about talking to their kids about sex, so I encourage them to start with teachable moments. I think this takes away the awkwardness of "oh we're finally going to sit down and have the BIG talk," and it relates the concepts to everyday life. It can also help gauge what your child may or may not already know, so you don't overload them or bore them.

    Also, I agree that staying positive is very important as well. If a child or teen is asking their parent about sex or is curious about it, it's important for parents to value that their child feels comfortable enough to discuss it with them. It's important for parents to facilitate this level of comfort and openness, so that their kids can come to them in the future if STI or pregnancy concerns ever arrive.

    Additionally, I think it would be useful for parents to practice difficult questions. This way, they will be more prepared should uncomfortable or personal questions arise. Lastly, it's important for parents/caretakers to agree on what they will disclose and teach their children (if there are two parents involved.)This will avoid sending children mixed and mis information.

  9. Those are very useful and clear guidelines! I agree with some of the posts that suggest using the same or similar guidelines for teachers. However, I also agree with Sarah about including an attitudes part. I remember having a conversation with a friend about how embarrassed she felt when her five years old nephew asked her a pretty simple sex questions.
    She cognitively knew that it was not a big deal and that it is important to talk about sex with children; however, she could not help feeling uncomfortable and blushing. She remembered saying the correct information with the wrong attitude; and being aware that she was sending a very mixed message to her nephew. The main reason she felt so uncomfortable is because sex was never talked about when she was growing up; and it is still an “unspoken” topic in her family – which, by the way, is Chinese-Peruvian.
    I wonder if practice – through role plays, for example - would help parents and teachers to feel more comfortable with the topic.

  10. Great Guidelines.
    It is very true that many parents just leave out the talk about sex all together. Leaving their children to their own devices. This is even more detrimental, as the information they receive is inaccurate and misleading. As a parent and a sex educator I too had to balance them both. I felt strongly about ensuring that my children had the correct information about sex. It is very important, not only for themselves but for others. So they can tell others about the many misconceptions that are being spread throughout our young people today. One of the biggest things that I express to everyone is teaching your child the correct names of their body parts. It is crucial that they know them especially if they are ever faced with any type of legal system dealing with sexual assault. The lawyers will tear a story or report apart if the child uses misleading names or terms when describing parts of their bodies.
    There are many slang terms around sexuality that are currently being used by the young people. Sometimes these terms arise out of sheer ignorance so they create a term for the situation. Recently one of the 13 year old kids that I teach sexual awareness too told me that he would use a condom of the girl had Blue Waffles....I said what is the and he said a disease where the girl has a blue bruised cooch and her cooch stinks really bad. Well I began to ask all these other 13 and 14 year olds about Blue waffles, because I was so intrigued by this new phenomena. To my surprise all of the young people at 3 different schools thought the same thing about what blue waffles were... Do You??
    Well it is a new urban legend.. The waffle is the vagina and it is merely a severe STI or vaginitis. But the photos that are out describe it as a new STD and they Photoshop the vagina blue to make it seem more severe.
    Blue Waffles..

  11. I really wish every parent would consider following this advice about talking to their kids about sex. It's funny how we think if we just avoid talking about something and keep people in the dark they won't find out it. Not only is this the case with sexuality, but with many other sensitive topics as well. Sooner or later the kids in the dark are going to find out and who knows what kind of information they are getting and from where (ref. Lynette's recent information on the "Blue Waffles"). Recently, a coworker of mine asked me for help talking to her two young girls about sex. She even wanted me to sit down with her children and talk to them (which I didn't do). Honestly, it was a little strange because she wanted to completely remove herself from these conversations with her kids. After talking with her and showing her some resources to use, she felt a little more comfortable and has since then taken advantage of a few "teachable moments" with her daughters. I still can't get her to use proper terms for genitalia with her kids, but least she is talking to them. I'm really proud of her for stepping out of her comfort zone and educating her children.

  12. I'm so glad you wrote about this. I've always been envious of your calm and totally natural parenting style. You are not overbearing or overwhelming and that makes it obvious that you are confident in your parenting choices. It is always refreshing to hear a parent speak to non-parents about teaching parents (did you follow that?) as equals rather than being condescending because we do not have our own children. I do not have kids but there are numerous people in my life that will be having children soon and I will definitely use these guidelines in my interactions with their children and when I talk to them about how to talk to their kids about sexuality. So, when are you writing your book?