Dreaded by many kids and parents alike, the birds and the bees talk is joke fodder. But while “The Talk” makes a good punch line, it’s actually not the most effective way to teach your kids about sex. A one-time conversation does everyone involved a disservice. Let’s discuss why an ongoing conversation is a better approach.
Yes, you should be talking with your kids about sex
First things first, let the official record show that you should be talking to your kids about sex. When your kids learn about sex from you, you get to control the narrative. You can talk about what qualifies as sex, staying safe, and the potential risks as well as the rewards.
Choosing not to talk with your kids about sex — or pushing off the conversation just a little bit longer — will not keep your kid from learning about sex on TV and TikTok, from their schoolmates and siblings, and online.
Plus there are tons of related conversations that are worth having as early as feels appropriate to you. We know that on average, kids see porn for the first time at age 12. While your child may not fall into this group, it’s probably a good idea to have conversations with them about how porn fits into the picture.
The trouble with “The Talk”
The use of the word ‘The’ suggests that this is a one-and-done conversation, but talking to them about sex just once won’t cut it.
Sure, one conversation may seem like an easier undertaking for you, the parents. But actually, it puts way more pressure on you to say all the right things! Plus, covering all the things your kiddo needs to learn would take hours. Bluntly, nobody wants to be monologuing about lovemaking for that long!
A one-time conversation also robs your child of the opportunity to sleep on the new information, and come back with questions or clarifications on the bits they’re confused about.
The replacement: Ongoing sex conversation
Consider talking about sex at various intervals. Even better, try creating a culture in your family where the lines of communication are open and honest about all topics.
In practice, that might look like:
- Explaining music lyrics your kiddo doesn’t understand, even when they’re sexual
- Naming the sex acts on screen TV shows and movies you’re watching as a family
- Opening up about your own experiences with puberty, kissing, and relationships
- Purchasing age-appropriate sex-education pamphlets and books
Remember, these sex talks aren’t just about sex. They are — or should also be — be about body parts, reproduction, consent, masturbation, pregnancy and pregnancy protection, sexually transmitted diseases, gender and sexuality, and more.
When to start the conversation
There is no one-size-fits-all rule for when you should start having these conversations or what those topics should include. Where you live, what TV shows and social media platforms your kid has access to, and the ages of the other kids your child is spending time with, will all influence the likelihood that they hear about sex from someone other than you.
Ahead, some general guidelines of what topics to cover and when.
Ages 0 to 5
This is the time your child is learning the names of their different body parts. Rather than giving their genitals cutesy nicknames like “pee-pee”, “down there”, or “gi-gi”, use biologically accurate words. It’s also okay to introduce the topic of privacy, and when it’s okay for trusted adults to help with private parts (diaper changes, washing, at the hospital).
Teaching toddlers the proper names for their genitals and other reproductive organs can stop shame around those body parts from developing. Without the weight of shame, this gives them more comfort to ask the questions they might have about those parts, how they feel, and how to know if something is wrong. It also gives them the language to name if someone(s) touches them without their consent.
Ages 3 to 5
This is the age that many kids like to run around naked — for instance after bath time – and it’s a good opportunity to address appropriate places to be naked (home) versus less appropriate places (public).
This is also a good time to start to introduce the idea of consent. That means encouraging your children to say no to things like physical contact. For instance, if your child does not like to be held when they are upset, avoid holding them. Similarly, if they do not want to hug an extended family member, they shouldn’t be forced to do so. Reading books about body boundaries, consent and privacy is a great way to start these tricky discussions.
Ages 6 to 8
Usually, kids ask where babies come from by this age range. Though, it could be significantly earlier if they encounter a pregnant person (for instance, you or your partner) during that time.
When addressing these questions, start by broadly addressing that two people coming together very very closely is a prerequisite for pregnancy. Then, answer follow-up questions that may pop up. Some kids will be satisfied by the bare minimum, while others will want more details. Feel free to start small with just a drop of information for them to absorb.
From there if they’re showing interest, you can go ahead and explain the way a sperm can fertilize an egg and how that can lead to pregnancy. Because this can be a confusing concept for even adults to grasp, visuals and diagrams can be helpful here! You can feel free to discuss how animals, trees and other things grow and come from “seeds” if that’s helpful.
Ages 8 to 12
Don’t hate the messenger, but puberty starts much earlier than most parents realize. Actually, data suggests that kids assigned female at birth (usually, girls) start puberty, on average, at age 11. Meanwhile, kids assigned male at birth (usually, boys) start at 12. Remember: these are averages, which means that half of kids are beginning puberty earlier than this.
You want to talk to your child about what puberty is and could entail prior to them experiencing it. Access to knowledge about puberty will help them understand what their bodies are doing, rather than being afraid or ashamed of changes. Again, starting these talks early and often can cut down on embarrassment and keep lines of communication open. Try to anticipate their needs during these phases from deodorant to razors to menstrual supplies. Try not to gender your chats, as it’s important for any child to understand and have empathy for the experiences of those around them.
It’s a good idea to talk to your child about sexual intercourse — and other sex acts — before they are doing them. And bluntly, your kids are probably engaging in sexual activity far earlier than you think. On average, kids are kissing by age 14 and having penetrative sex by age 17.
Throughout their teens, you want to talk about what sexual activity should (and should not) feel like and address potential unwanted risks of said activity, and what they can do to protect themselves. Finally, you should get specific about consent, outlining about what verbal consent looks like, highlighting that it can be revoked at any point, and debriefing what consent looks like if drugs and alcohol are involved.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team