Teaching Your Kids About Sex: Do's and Don'ts

Who, what, where, when, why, and how to talk sex with your child.

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For many of us, "the talk" went something like this: Mom and/or Dad sat you down at the age of, say, 12, announcing, amid sighs and seat shifting, that it's time to learn about "the birds and the bees." The conversation takes about two minutes because everyone's so uncomfortable (remember, you're in puberty, so you pretty much exist in a state of discomfort.) Mom and/or Dad may explain, in bizarrely unsexy terms, the physical mechanics that happen between two loving adults, and then leave you with an approximate nanosecond for questions. "Ok, I think that went well," Mom and/or Dad may say to you, each other, or themselves, after another major exhale. The end. 

What's wrong with this picture? Um, all of it. It's no one's fault, really. We're left with a centuries-old legacy that has made sex taboo, says Deborah Roffman, teen sexuality expert and author of Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' "Go-To" Person About Sex. However, kids who grow up in families where sexuality is openly discussed are not just healthier and happier, but they also postpone participation in a range of risky behaviors including sexual activity, Roffman says. "Talking with your kids is protective ... a buffer against what goes on around them."

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As we know, today's youth live in a highly wired world, in which media exposure brings an onslaught of sexual subjects, oftentimes presented in superficial and distorted terms. "They're seeing sex divorced from intimacy" and "from critical thinking," Roffman says. So what are kids actually doing these days?

According to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted every two years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse, down from 54 percent in 1991. By their 19th birthday, 7 in 10 Americans have had sex, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think-tank focused on sexual and reproductive health.

Teen pregnancy rates in this country have dropped—in 2008, there were 68 pregnancies per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19, down from 117 in 1990. However, those numbers reflect one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world, Guttmacher reports. And, while 15- to 24-year-olds comprise one-fourth of America's sexually-active population, they contract almost half of the 18.9 million new cases of sexually-transmitted diseases each year.

Despite those stats, parents often believe their child is not yet sexually active but fear that "their peers might lead them astray," according to research by Sinikka Elliot, assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University and author of Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers. In other words, something doesn't add up here.

Plus, the age of puberty has dropped while the age at which one commits to a long-term partnership has risen, so it's typical, nowadays, to be single for longer periods of time. "This is a brand new ball game," Roffman says. 

With that said, how exactly should you approach "the talk?" Well, first of all, it's not just one talk. Get ready for a whole lot of them. "Give the information on a consistent, ongoing basis, because one talk is definitely not going to do it," says Laura Berman, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and author of Talking to Your Kids about Sex: Turning "The Talk" Into a Conversation for Life.

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Below, some do's and don'ts to help you teach your child about this critical subject:

Do clarify your own values about sex.

"Before you even begin thinking about talking to your kids about sex, get really clear on what your own attitudes are and perspectives, and that could mean asking yourself, 'what is the ideal circumstance under which I want my child to have their first sexual experience?'" says Berman. Ultimately, parents "want their child to have loving, intimate sex that's satisfying." Once you and your partner reach an understanding of the optimal context for your child, those values frame your conversations, she explains. "You can't just shoot from the hip."