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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Don't wait until they're teenagers to talk about sex. 

"You don't wait to have the big sex talk until they're 15," says Jay Homme, assistant professor of pediatrics and director of the pediatric residency program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "Start young with age-appropriate discussions" and prepare them for what's ahead. "Before their own bodies change, they need to understand what's going to happen," Homme says. "Talking about sex should come in the context of having already talked about puberty," he says. "Most families are kind of kidding themselves if they think their children won't get information from somewhere ... they're going to get it from their peers, and what do they know?"

Do make yourself available.

"It's parents that kids are looking to first, and they only go elsewhere when their parents don't seem approachable," Roffman says. "Adults who are not engaged with their kids need to examine the reasons why, get past them, and jump in with both feet," she says. "Whenever young people are engaging in behaviors that are beyond their developmental capacity, whatever it is, it's almost always an issue of lack of adult supervision."

Try to create comfort and openness around the issue, Berman says. "I would say 90 percent of being a good sex educator of your kid is being someone that they're comfortable coming to with questions and concerns." Even if you are uncomfortable. "You don't have to be perfect at it ... you don't have to always say the right thing, and you can always ask for a redo," she says. If you don't know the answer, you can promise to find one, and that "gives you a chance to regroup and think about what you want to say," Berman says. 

Finally, don't get hung up on having a parent talk to a child, Homme says. The goal is to create a caring environment where a "trusted adult," be it a grandparent or caregiver, can provide guidance, he says. "Accurate information coming from an adult whom the teenager feels really cares for them is going to probably be the best resource."

Don't use pet names for private parts.

Who remembers the hullabaloo that happened after a character on Grey's Anatomy referred to her vagina as "va-jay-jay"? Oprah adopted it, and the term went viral. "It sounds warm and familiar and it almost makes the vagina feel like a little cartoon character with eyes that walks around," said John McWhorter, a linguist quoted in a story on the nickname in the New York Times. The problem here: Cartooning private parts isn't exactly a lesson in realism. And that's what's needed, say experts. Using the correct names for body parts helps to create comfort with one's body as opposed to shame, Berman says. Also, nicknaming private parts "kind of adds to the mystery of things," rather than creating that critical open environment, Homme says. "Secrecy is not a good thing in the adolescent years." 

Do consider the setting for your conversations.

The car can be a great place to initiate this conversation. Not only do you have a captive audience, but the seating arrangement avoids eye contact, which can make you both feel more comfortable. But don't go overboard, he says. "You don't want them to feel like every time you get in the car, you're going to start talking about sex." Boys especially respond better if you are engaged in some kind of activity together, like throwing a ball or washing the dishes, Berman says. "There's a lot of nonverbal communication among men," Berman says. Another good way to broach the subject is on a walk, which also avoids eye contact. 

Don't overshare. 

"The rule of thumb is you don't answer more than they're asking," Berman says. If a 7-year-old asks where babies come from, "you don't give them the full graphic description," she says. "A baby grows in a special place in a mom's tummy, and it becomes a baby," you might respond. Responding in an age-appropriate fashion is important, since information will resonate differently at different ages. You could have the "exact same conversation with a kid at age 10, 12, and 14" and "they will hear completely different things." Also, use your child's questions as an opportunity to understand where he's getting his information about sex. "Ask them a lot of questions," Berman says, suggesting a response such as, "Well, that's a great question. What made you think of that?"