Tough Talks: Having the "Sex Talk" With Your Child

It’s a question that can pop up innocently at a young age, “Where do babies come from?” but it can turn into an awkward conversation for all involved rather quickly.

Mother Daughter Walking and Talking

It’s a question that can pop up innocently at a young age, “Where do babies come from?” but it can turn into an awkward conversation for all involved rather quickly. The birds and the bees talk may be one of the most important conversations you have with your child, but it can also be one of the hardest. It doesn’t have to be. There are ways to weave the conversation into everyday life. Resources are available to help when you can’t find the right words. We spoke to a panel of our Parent Toolkit experts to get their advice on how to make the sex talk a bit easier.

“You don’t call it your elbow-y so don’t call it your pee pee,” parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba says. “It sets the tone to the child that this is different than another body part.”

The majority of the experts we spoke to recommended starting the talks as early as possible, when children are exploring their bodies, and giving them the proper words for their body parts. And as uncomfortable as it can be, the best thing to do is to remain calm.

“If you look embarrassed, they’ll feel embarrassed,” explains Dr. Borba. “Kids know when you’re uncomfortable and they’ll conclude that was an inappropriate talk.”

If you need a little help, there are resources to give you the words that may not come naturally. For younger kids, education consultant Jennifer Miller recommends books like Who Has What: All About Girls’ and Boys’ Bodies. For older kids, there are always sex education classes, usually given in 4th or 5th grades. Most schools send home information about the class, and some even encourage you to watch the videos or talk with the teacher ahead of time. Try to remember that not every talk needs to be a lecture.

“If you look closely, you will find that there will be natural entry points to start these discussions,” says Miller. “It doesn’t have to be a dramatic sit-down conversation, but a drip of info as they encounter different issues and situations.”

Finding teachable moments is key. Maybe someone in your family is having a baby, or there’s a story on the news about an older woman giving birth to triplets. Whenever you see your child’s curiosity peak, it’s an opportunity to start talking.

“It’s so much better if there’s a natural way to weed it in,” says Dr. Borba. But she also warns timing is important. “Realize sexual activity with kids is starting younger and younger. If you wait to sit down with your 16-year-old, they’ll tell you more than you know.”

The earlier you discuss the topic with your child, the better. According to the CDC, 30 percent of 9th graders report having had sex. For 12th graders, that number jumps to 64 percent. Dr. Borba recommends having the talk your mother had with you at 16, at an earlier age of 13.

“When you actually describe the mechanics of sexual intercourse, that’s 5 minutes,” says Kansas City-based pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert. “The religious values or personal values or decision making are discussions you’re having all the time.”

Part of having the talk about sex and relationships is understanding where you as a family place your values and morals. Dr. Borba says that no one should tell you what to say to your kids about values, but you must communicate the values of your family when your children are young. And research shows that your values can have a big impact. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most common reason teens gave for not having sex was that it was “against religion or morals.”

"I really don’t think it’s the sex talk that’s the big deal,” explains Dr. Burgert. “What I want to know is -- are you talking to your sons about how to appropriately treat a woman, or a man, that they’re with? Are you talking to daughters about having the self confidence about saying yes or no? These are the bigger conversations than penis and vagina.”

In fact, research from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that nearly two out of three female teenagers talked to their parents about “how to say no to sex,” compared with about two out of five male teenagers.

“As a mother of three sons, that was a conversation we had,” says Dr. Borba. “If a girl says no, she means no. We say it to our daughters, but we also need to say it to our sons.”

It’s a topic that mother of two and adviser to the Parent Toolkit, Mercedes Sandoval covered with both her children...In 4th and 5th grades, girls tend to get a little boy crazy,” explains Sandoval. “I wanted to make sure my daughter knew how to interact with boys and we talked about where her boundaries are.”

But the best way you can offer your child support to develop the self-confidence to make her own decisions is to always keep the lines of communication open. If you start talking young, your child will be more likely to come to you. If you didn’t start young, it’s never too late to have those conversations. Above all, it seems the best way to talk to your children about sex is to be open, honest, and ongoing. And remember, if they don’t hear it from you, they’ll hear it somewhere else.

“Kids are going to find ways to do things if they want to do them; you have to have some sort of touch point in that,” explains Dr. Burgert. “Even if you don’t like the behavior, you can choose to at least be a sounding post to keep them safe. You may not like the decisions they make, but you still need to keep them safe.”

This is the first post in our week-long series — Tough Talks— where we’ve surveyed a handful of our Parent Toolkit experts to see what they recommend for parents to make tough conversations go more smoothly. Tomorrow we’ll tackle the topic of divorce.