The Sex Talk: How to Start the Conversation

If you think it’s important to talk to your kids about sex…but still haven’t gotten around to having “the talk,” you’re not alone. But that doesn’t mean you should keep waiting.

According to Janet Rosenzweig, author of The Sex-Wise Parent, when asked to rank who influences their decisions around sex, adolescents consistently ranked their parents higher than friends, and they wish parents would talk to them more. It turns out, adolescents innately crave the same approach experts have long promoted–honest conversations with their parents about sex that start early and happen frequently.

While young children don’t necessarily need to know about sex, it’s important that parents talk to them early and often about sexuality, starting with honest answers to their questions about their bodies. A Journal of Sex Education and Therapy study showed that preschoolers demonstrate greater success learning the names of their genitals when the information is presented by a parent, versus a teacher. 

And according to Dr. Jenni Skyler, certified sex therapist, director of The Intimacy Institute, and the mother of two young children, opening the conversation early and keeping it going is crucial because it:

According to Dr. Sandy Wurtele and Feather Berkower, MSW, authors of Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, using the anatomical terms when talking about the genitals communicates that there is nothing shameful about our bodies. It can also be an effective way to prevent abuse. When a kid uses the correct terms with a sexual predator, it is a signal that this child is talking openly with an adult about his body and is not likely to keep abuse a secret, says Berkower and Dr. Wurtele. 

Dr. Skyler recommends telling kids what their body parts are, where they are, and what they do. 

For example, if a boy asks what his penis is for, you can simply tell him “Your penis is for urinating,” and you don’t have to say more unless your child asks. If he follows up with a question like, “Why does it feel good when I touch my penis?”, don’t panic. This doesn’t mean he’s asking you to explain the mechanics of sex, says Dr. Skyler. She recommends responding with something like, “Our body is built to enjoy touch and certain body parts, like your penis, feel better to touch than other parts.” 

Although girls’ genitals are harder to see, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discuss them. Generally, according to Dr. Skyler, it is enough to start by telling preschool-age girls, “You have different holes for different things. One is for pee, one is where a baby comes out of, and one is for poop.” If your daughter expresses curiosity in learning which hole is which, Dr. Skyler suggests explaining things with the help of pictures, or even while sitting on the floor with a mirror if you’re comfortable. 

It is enough to say, “Your urethra is where your pee comes out of. Your vagina is the hole a baby comes out of. Your anus is where your poop comes out.” 

Similarly, while you can’t necessarily see the clitoris, when your daughter touches hers or asks about it, consider it a teachable moment, beginning by simply telling her what it’s called. 

Dr. Skyler emphasized the importance of giving children information about their bodies in “bite-size” chunks, early and often, and that these conversations be “non-events.” In other words, do your best to treat your kids’ questions about their bodies as you would their questions about where clouds come from, or why they have to take a bath–honestly and comfortably, using age-appropriate explanations that aren’t too detailed. 

If, like many of us, using clinical terms makes you blush, remember, you don’t need to give an anatomy lecture to give your child what they need to know. 

According to Dr. Wurtele and Berkower, it’s best to talk to kids about their bodies and sex often, honestly, and briefly. For example, if your preschooler asks how babies are made, instead of asking why he wants to know, respond with a straightforward, age-appropriate answer. A sufficient response might be something like: “Usually the baby comes out through the mom’s vagina, or sometimes, a doctor makes a cut in the mom’s belly to take the baby out through her belly.” If your child has follow-up questions, answer them honestly, but know that you don’t have to give them a lot of information at once. 

Dr. Wurtele and Berkower also emphasize the importance of responding positively to kids’ questions. If, for example, your child says she doesn’t like the nanny, instead of saying “The nanny loves you!” and discouraging her from saying unkind things about the nanny, Dr. Wurtele and Berkower ask parents not to shut the conversation down. Instead, parents should express curiosity and ask follow-up questions. For example:

Child: I don’t like the nanny.
Parent: Why not?
Child: Because she’s not nice.
Parent: What did she do that was not nice?
Child: She touched my vulva and told me not to tell you.
Parent: I wish that hadn’t happened, but I’m so glad you told me. 

If you are not comfortable talking about sex with your kids, Dr. Wurtele and Berkower recommend practicing with another adult, such as a partner or a friend. Rosenzweig also suggests role-playing the hypothetical conversation you might have with your child. 

Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse by Sandy K. Wurtele, Ph.D. and Feather Berkower, MSW
For parents of children ages 0-18

What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smythe
For children (preschool to second grade)

It’s Not the Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends by Robbie H. Harris
For children (kindergarten to third grade)

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