Having “The Talk” about sex with your kids is something most parents approach with a combination of nervousness and dread. You don’t want to confuse your kids or embarrass yourself by talking about too much too soon, but don’t want to miss an opportunity to educate them either. So how do you figure out what information to give them, and when?
For starters, don’t think of it as just one conversation. It should be the beginning (or the continuation) of the ongoing dialogue you have with your child. The first time you talk about it might be just giving them some information; another time your child might bring up a specific question; another time you might need to talk in response to something that happened in school or that you watched on TV or in a movie.
Second, you need to assess their level of readiness. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that you offer “no more or less information” than your child is asking for and able to understand. Your kindergartner, for example, will be curious about where babies come from, but will probably be satisfied knowing that they grow in a special place inside the mommy. Between seven and nine, they will want to know more about how the daddy’s special seed gets to the mommy. By the time they are in their true “tween” years (ages 10 to 12), they will need to know more about the upcoming changes in their own bodies. Finally, teenagers will most likely understand the mechanics of sex, but will need guidelines for navigating their own sexual development – as well as learning about responsibilities, consequences, and your family’s values about sexual behavior. They may also need help separating myths that they may hear at school (“You can’t get pregnant the first time”) from the facts.
While you are evaluating which information to give your child, remember to tailor your approach based on his individual readiness. An only child or a first child may be older before he is aware of (or even curious) about sexuality, depending on his level of maturity. But a child with older siblings will likely have heard terms tossed around and may be looking for information at an earlier age.
Next, you should be prepared to give them unbiased and factual information. For ages 6 and under, you can simply answer questions (non-judgmentally) as they arise. At around age 7 or 8, you may want to start by reading a book with them. Many parents start with classics like How Babies are Made or How You Were Born. By ages 9 to 11, you can start a conversation by offering a book and then leaving it with them to read on their own. For girls, try The Care and Keeping of You (an American Girl book); or for boys, My Body, My Self. Finally, for teenagers, many parents (and teenagers) recommend Changing Bodies, Changing Lives.
And then after you’ve loaded them down with the facts, take a step back. Your kids are probably very curious but may feel a little bit embarrassed. Most likely, they will want to read more on their own time and let it all sink in. Just make sure to let them know that if they have any questions or if they are confused about something, they can always come to you (or to a trusted counselor, doctor, or clergyperson, if it applies in this case).
If you feel awkward talking about sex, you’re not alone. Just try to work through the conversation as naturally as you can. One great approach suggested by Children Now is to come right out and admit that you feel awkward: “You know, I’m uncomfortable talking about sex because my parents never talked with me about it. But I want us to be able to talk about anything—including sex—so please come to me if you have any questions. And if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out.”
Depending on your child’s school, the information you give them may be complemented by what they learn about in sex education classes. This can be a great help when it comes to hearing facts from an impartial third party rather than their parents. Just make sure that you are clear about the values you have in your family when it comes to sexuality and relationships, and keep the door open for conversation whenever they need it. When your kids are armed with the facts, they will likely be more confident and secure as they navigate through this complicated stage of development.