Beyond the Birds and the Bees
Children are exposed to so much information from television, the Internet and social media. It’s more important than ever for parents to begin a frank and factual conversation with their children about sex. But when do you start, and what do you say?
Originally published January 2012. Updated January 2020
When did you first learn about sex? For many people the moment is a flashbulb moment, burned in their minds as if it happened yesterday. My flashbulb moment is of my cousin Judith and I reading a paperback book for girls on the “facts of life” when we were 10 and 11 in my aunt’s basement. Our response was typical for the age: “Ewwww!”
Today’s children’s flashbulb moment may well involve stumbling onto an Internet porn site or channel surfing their way onto a steamy HBO movie. Access to sexual content has never been easier. And, though our society is inundated with sexual images, having “The Talk” with a child can still give a parent the willies. However, now more than ever, discussion needs to happen, and at a younger age than for previous generations.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Discussing issues of sexuality is one of the most important parenting responsibilities.” Unfortunately, many parents avoid the subject all together or wait until it is too late.
Not a “Talk,” but a Conversation
Information should be given gradually according to the child’s developmental level. The American Academy of Pediatricians offers the following guidelines on discussing sexuality with children:
18 months-3 years: At this age children are learning about their body parts. Teach children the proper names for body parts and teach them which parts are private (parts covered by a bathing suit).
4-5 years: At this age children show an interest in basic sexuality. They may ask where babies come from or want to know why boys’ and girls’ bodies are different. They may touch their own genitals and have interest in the genitals of other children. Parents need to remember that these are not adult sexual activities, but signs of normal interest. However, your child needs to learn what is all right to do and what is not.
- Interest in genital organs is healthy and natural.
- Nudity and sexual play in public are not all right.
- No other person, including close friends and relatives, may touch his or her “private parts.” The exceptions are doctors and nurses during physical exams and the child’s own parents when they are trying to find the cause of pain in the genital area.
5-7 years: Children at this age are interested in how people get along with one another. They may ask questions about what takes place sexually between adults. Be prepared for more complex questions about the relationship between sexuality and making babies.
8-9 years: Your child may have questions about romance and marriage. She may also ask about homosexuality. Primarily at this age your child will be going through many changes that will prepare her for puberty, and you will want to make sure she understands the changes her body will be experiencing. Because puberty may be imminent (girls especially are developing at a younger age than previous generations), your talk should be based on your family’s values and include:
- that sexual intercourse is for grownups.
- information about contraception.
- information about STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), especially AIDS. Be sure she understands how these diseases are spread and how she can protect herself from them and from pregnancy.
Beyond the Birds and the Bees
Though age 8-9 may seem young to cover such topics, children in our society are exposed to so much more easily accessible information than in the past that it is important to be out in front of such issues.
“Teachers are reporting to us that kids are talking about sexual subjects at age 8, 9 and 10,” said Mackenzie Staples, Director of Programs for Operation Aware. “Even if you think, ‘Oh, my child is not ready for that information,’ they are going to hear it from their peers. We are finding that kids are very aware of sex and sexual activity, but are not educated about it.”
Even conservative groups such as Focus on the Family encourage parents to talk openly with their kids about sex. “Throughout their formative years, teens need to hear from their parents the truth about sex, rather than just the daily bombardment of media sex scandals,” writes Linda Klepacki, RN, MPH on the Focus on the Family Website. She added, “The word ‘sex’ means different things to different people. Make sure you clarify your terms with your teen. In today’s vernacular sex may mean vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, oral sex, or mutual masturbation. All forms of sex can transmit STDs.”
Jackie Howard, [former] program manager/prevention educator with Operation Aware agreed. “Parents are often not comfortable talking about non-traditional forms of sexual contact. But before children reach middle school (age 10-11) parents should talk to them about oral sex, mutual masturbation and anal sex.”
Kids think that by engaging in these activities they aren’t actually “having sex,” or that they won’t get STDs. “Kids need to know that they can get sexually transmitted disease from just [intimate] touching. Even younger kids may talk to you about things that make you uncomfortable and make you want to stop them,” Staples said. “But it is very important that you educate, inform and keep an open door policy so they feel free to ask questions. Don’t use scare tactics, just be honest.” She added. And remember, it is okay to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
In talking with your child or adolescent about sex, it is helpful to:
- Educate yourself.
- Encourage your child to talk and ask questions.
- Maintain a calm and non-critical atmosphere for discussions.
- Use words that are understandable and comfortable.
- Try to determine your child’s level of knowledge and understanding.
- Keep your sense of humor and don’t be afraid to talk about your own discomfort.
- Relate sex to love, intimacy, caring, and respect for oneself and one’s partner.
- Be open in sharing your values and concerns.
- Discuss the importance of responsibility for choices and decisions.
- Help your child to consider the pros and cons of choices.
Click here for a list of age-appropriate books for talking to kids about sex.