Talking to our kids about sex is one of those things we know we need to do. Not only do we know we need to do it, we need to do it in the right way and do it well. We want to be the ones our kids come to for questions about this stuff—better to learn from us than from porn, right? We want them to know they can ask us anything, that no topic is off-limits. They don’t need to be embarrassed with us.
Still, it’s hard to know how to get there. Many parents dread it. Maybe you still have memories of the awkward, four-minute “birds and bees” informational you got from your own parents—if you talked about it at all.
The good news is that the earlier you start, the easier it is. And the more you spread out the conversation into smaller talks (and lean on some outside resources along the way), the better you’ll get at it. We’ve pulled together all our best tips for talking to kids about sex into one comprehensive guide you can use throughout the years.
You might think there is no way you want to lay the groundwork for talking about sex with your toddler or preschooler. But actually? It’s much easier to talk with a little kid about penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs than it is with a tween. And starting early and building upon the conversation over the years is much less awkward than having “the talk” one time when the kid is finally old enough to be embarrassed about it and already find the topic to be taboo:
Most parents wait far too late to start having conversations about sex with their children. By the time my mom talked to me about sex, I already knew way more than she realized.
You can start talking to your kids about sex as soon as they’re able to hold a short conversation. Parenting has a pretty good breakdown of the specific topics kids can handle in different age groups. For example, kids as young as two can be taught the proper names for their genitals. Around the age of three or four, you can start giving simple descriptions of where babies come from. At five or six, you can level up to how babies are made.
Knowing that you should be talking with kids about things like sex, gender, puberty and menstruation is one thing. Finding the words in the moment is another. It gets easier over time, but if you need a little help getting started, this video guide by Amaze will help:
Amaze, which is sponsored by the non-profit organization Advocates for Youth in collaboration with Answer and Youth Tech Health, has created a variety of resources for parents and kids to navigate an array of delicate topics. Its Age Guide is particularly helpful, categorizing dozens of videos for ages 3+, 5+, 7+, 10+, 13+, and for caregivers. The topics include:
We are constantly using real-world experiences to talk about big stuff with our kids. One kid being mean to another kid on the playground is an opportunity to talk about being inclusive or standing up to bullies. Turn on the news right now and you’ve got an “opportunity” to talk about racism or women’s rights or climate change or gun control or just, like, basic human decency.
If you are intentional about looking for opportunities to talk about sex in similar small doses, those abound, too:
It’s time to retire the old, let-me-sit-you-down kind of sex talk in favor of something more palatable—and more effective. I suggest micro conversations numbering in the hundreds across years of young adulthood.
How to you engage in a micro chat? Simple. You look for moments in your everyday communication with your children to bring up important sex-related topics. You might use current events, community happenings, social media, television and books to ask questions and spark discussions.
The approach keeps your kids informed without having the stress of a single face-to-face onslaught of facts.
Naming our body parts and explaining the basics about how a baby is made is a great start, and those conversations are often led by curious little children asking innocent questions.
As our kids get older, though, we’ve also got to talk to them about puberty, sexual safety and consent, how sex is portrayed in media, and gender identity, among other topics. And that’s happening at a time when they’re becoming less likely to come to us for those answers, so we have to become even more proactive about it:
When kids are younger, they’ll naturally ask questions out of curiosity. Once they hit the preteen and teenage years, they’re much more likely to be embarrassed about sex. They won’t want to talk about it as readily, especially not with their parents. It’s on you to initiate these conversations on a regular basis because if you wait for your teen to bring it up, it just won’t happen. They may also inadvertently get the message that sex is an off-limits topic.
If right now, you’re like, Oh crap, my kid is 13 years old and I’ve never once spoken to them about any of this, take a deep breath. It’s okay. Whatever their age, you can start now. With a pre-teen or teenager, you might simply open up the dialogue by saying, “You know, I’ve just realized we have never really talked about sex before. That’s my fault, I should have brought it up sooner because you’re getting so grown up. What questions do you have?”
To make it less awkward for your older child, try starting the conversation when you’re alone but are in a setting that encourages open conversation, such as while you’re in the car together or going for a walk through the park—two settings that allow for a private conversation in which your child can ask honest questions while also being free from the scrutiny of constant, direct eye contact.
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