“The talk” is often portrayed as a one-time, awkward event both kids and parents would prefer to forget. Parents talk about the birds and the bees and use other euphemisms for body parts. When the lecture is finished, the topic is put away in a box and sex ed, Sunday school classes, movies, and knowledgeable friends fill in the rest.
No matter our political leanings, religious beliefs, or parenting styles, I think most parents want their children to grow up with a healthy respect and understanding of their bodies, knowledge of consent, and with a clear understanding of appropriate touching. The truth is, talking to your kids about sex is a conversation, not a one-time lecture.
What if “the talk” wasn’t a one-time, embarrassing moment at all, but an ongoing conversation, beginning at an early age? What if sex education starts long before you ever utter the word “sex?”
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Talking with My Daughter
I am in no way an expert on this topic, but I was grateful for the ongoing conversation approach this past week. While riding in the car with my 9 year-old daughter, we enjoyed some rare one-on-one time. Our conversation went – as convos with me often go – from one loosely related topic to another. She initially asked me what a song was about (love, of course), then wanted to hear a funny dating story. We then covered how teenage love is real even if it doesn’t mean lifelong love and then she inquired about child brides and if they could have babies, .
As our conversation progressed, I knew we needed to directly talk about sex. She knew from some terrific books how babies are (very generally) conceived and how a baby develops. I expected to feel awkward telling her more scientific details, but I felt calm and confident instead. Since we have always used correct terms for body parts, I didn’t need to trip over the words and she didn’t blink at hearing them. Her reaction definitely showed me that we have many conversations ahead about puberty, consent, and passion, but this was a good start.
I have many parenting years ahead of me and I want all four of my children to grow up with a healthy approach to sexuality. I believe this begins by opening the door to a progressive, ongoing conversation at a young age. This includes introducing age appropriate information, answering questions honestly, and building upon that information over time.
So, what does age appropriate sex education look like and what resources are available to help with the teaching process?
Tips for Every Age
- Relax and don’t worry about being an expert.
- Answer questions honestly.
- Model what you teach; be positive about your own body and model healthy relationships.
- Educate yourself first. Read material before sharing it with your child and introduce it at a comfortable pace.
- Teach with love. Let your child know there are no dumb questions and that you love them no matter what.
Here are some basic recommendations for talking about sex with your child at different stages. These will, of course, be influenced by your family’s values and beliefs.
Infancy to 2 Years
Would it surprise you to discover that many experts say that sex education begins by learning appropriate names for body parts, as early as age 1? Helping your child feel comfortable and confident in their body early on begins with teaching appropriate names for all body parts, including genitals. This can be as simple as using correct terms during diaper changes or when potty training.
This is also an important time to model healthy relationships for and with your child.
Diagram of Genitals (for your reference)
Early Childhood (Generally 2 to 5 Years)
This is a good time to introduce the very basics of reproduction. Kids at this age are usually most interested in pregnancy and babies. You can cover the basics, such as a man and a woman make a baby together and the baby grows in the mother’s uterus.
Early childhood is also an important time to teach your children that their body is their own. This is the time to emphasize private areas and bodily autonomy.
I begin talking to my kids about private parts during diaper changes, bath times, and doctor visits. I explain that it is only okay to touch these parts to wipe, apply cream, or help bathe. I make it clear that a doctor is only allowed to touch them when I am in the room and during exams. I occasionally check in with my kids individually about appropriate touching and ask them directly if anyone has touched them in private places or made them feel uncomfortable through touching. They often say, “We knoooow, mom” in response to the topic, but I know they are listening.
This is also an important time to introduce the idea that you don’t have to touch anyone you or let anyone touch you if you don’t want to. This can be hard in families, especially if a child isn’t physically affectionate. Understanding from an early age that you give permission for people to touch you and need permission to touch others is very important. This includes not making a child kiss grandma goodbye or hug you when they are upset. It can be as simple as saying, “Can I give you a hug?” and stopping a spontaneous hug or handhold when a child pulls away.
Usborne How Babies are Made
Middle Childhood (Generally 5 to 8 Years)
This is an important time to introduce the basics of respect for yourself and others, including the topics of privacy and nudity. Children at this age should be understand the concept of sexuality and the role of sexuality in relationships.
This is also a time when you and your child talk more in depth about human reproduction and possibly the basics of sexual intercourse. While this may seem young, it is important for children to learn correct information from you, rather than misinformation, partial truths, or sensationalized sexuality from friends or the media.
Kids will also need to learn the basics of puberty closer to age 8 or 9, because some children begin puberty as early as 10. Understanding puberty will help prepare your child for emotional and physical changes to come, and opening the door to questions along the way.
American Girl The Care and Keeping of You Journal
Tween Years (Generally 9 to 12 Years)
This is often thought of as the moment to have your first talk about the birds and the bees. Thankfully, this can actually be a time to reinforce what your child has already learned.
It’s important that tweens understand what makes for a positive relationship and what makes a negative one. They should also clearly understand that sex can lead to pregnancy and STDs and the importance of safer sex (including abstinence) and contraceptives.
Tweens will also be increasingly exposed to sexual images and messages in the media and through cultural experiences. It’s important that they can analyze what they see and decide whether it is realistic, positive, or negative. You can support this by opening these types of conversations with your child.
American Girl The Care and Keeping of You 2
American Girl The Care and Keeping of You Journal 2
American Girl Is This Normal?
Teen Years (Generally 13 to 18 Years)
So, here’s the goal for talking about sex with your teens: This is not a new topic or a one-time talk. It’s an ongoing conversation. As they go through puberty, experience their first crush, become curious about sex, and face the complexities of relationships, you will be there. If they are used to talking about their bodies, relationships, puberty, and sex with you, this will make a huge difference when they have questions. You might have to keep opening the door to conversations and they might shut that door right in your face sometimes, but your child will know they can trust you.
Disclosure: Affiliate links are included in this post. All opinions are my own. The books included here are just suggestions and ideas and I am not responsible for their content. Please research and read any books before presenting them to your child.