Three years ago, while Lisa King* was pregnant with her first daughter, her then six-year-old nephew became fascinated with her growing belly. “He’d ask, ‘How did the baby get inside your tummy?’ and ‘How is the baby going to get out?’” When King left those inquiries with her nephew’s mother and grandmother, “Words like god and magic were thrown around,” recalls King. She told herself that, when it came to how to talk to kids about sex, she would be open and honest.
Now a mom to a 10-month-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old, King wants to keep that promise. There’s just one problem. “I need some basic guidance, an outline perhaps, of what to talk about and when,” she says.
King’s uncertainty is hardly unique, says Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto-based sex educator and mom to an 11-year-old. “This is what I do for a living and I still struggle to have these conversations with my own child.” She notes that, while it’s normal to feel awkward and nervous, it’s important to focus on being honest. “There’s more risk with not telling them enough than telling them too much,” she says, adding that it’s OK to admit that you don’t have all the answers.
Just before you tackle any of your child’s sex-related inquiries, Cory Silverberg, sex educator and author of Sex Is A Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings And You, suggests you first ask a clarifying question such as “Where did you hear that word?” in order to give an appropriate response.
While pop culture likes to portray teaching kids about sex as just one big “talk,” experts agree that sex is something kids should always be learning about. They recommend weaving sex into everyday discussions, layering in more information over time and introducing certain concepts at specific ages. With that in mind, we’ve put together this age-specific guide to help you learn how to talk to kids about sex.
“The process of talking about sex should start before they’re verbal,” says Silverberg. That means incorporating the proper names for genitals and body parts into everyday activities like bath time. While Silverberg isn’t against also using cutesy names, “Penis, vulva, vagina, clitoris, bum and nipples are all terms that every toddler should know,” he says, explaining that they need these words to communicate health issues or injuries.
Teaching your baby the anatomically correct terms for her genitals might sound daunting, but Thornhill says to be casual and treat those terms as you would the word “arm” or “ankle.” She also recommends avoiding connecting sexual biology to gender. For example, drop the idea that all boys have penises and all girls have vaginas. Instead say, “People with penises” or “People with vaginas.” Thornhill explains that by watching your language now, you set the groundwork for easier conversations about gender roles and identities later.
Closer to age two, you can start talking to your kids about when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies. If your toddler has the tendency to touch his genitals—which is perfectly normal—use it as an opportunity to explain how that’s something we do in the privacy of our bedrooms.
“You want to be really gentle,” Thornhill says, explaining that you don’t want your child to feel like he’s doing something shameful.
A major focus for this age group is learning about boundaries and what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to touching—or being touched—by other people. “This is fundamental to consent,” says Silverberg who explains that it’s crucial that even young children learn to ask before they touch someone else. Lessons around sharing, touch-based games like tickling, and asserting your own boundaries, such as telling a child when it is and isn’t OK to climb onto your lap, all help to create a more intuitive understanding of consent.
Establishing that kids have a say over their own bodies also helps with keeping them safe. While you can skip the explicit details, now is when you should be telling your child that others should never ask to or try to touch their genitals. Thornhill says it’s important to convey that your kids can tell you about inappropriate actions at any time, even if they’ve previously kept it a secret.
At this age, kids can be very curious about each other’s bodies. Thornhill explains that it’s important to acknowledge this inquisitiveness and use it as an entry point to discuss your family’s rules and values. “Talk to them explicitly about when it’s appropriate to be naked,” she says. And if you do catch your kids playing doctor, don’t freak out. Instead, discuss how it’s not appropriate to handle other people’s genitals, as these are very special parts of the body that shouldn’t be touched by others.
At this age, your child might begin asking how babies are made. For Silverberg, the easiest and most inclusive answer is, “There are lots of ways.” The author, whose first book What Makes a Baby answers this question for the preschool set, explains, “The amount of detail one goes into really depends on how much you think your child can comprehend.” If your child wants more information, you might try something like, “Two grown-ups get their bodies together and share the sperm and the egg to make a child like you, or sometimes they get the sperm or egg from someone else.” Silverberg adds that it’s fine to tell your child that some details, like how sperm and egg meet, will be discussed later. “It's just important not to lie.” He adds that it’s important to actually follow up with those questions and not just refuse to talk about certain things.
Thornhill suggests exploring how babies are made by telling kids their own birth story, which lets you tailor the details to your family’s specific situation. Just be sure to note that your child’s birth story is just one of many ways that families are made.
It’s important to introduce kids of this age group to the idea that families and relationships can be built in various ways. If your kids are part of or are regularly around non-traditional families, they’ll naturally pick up on this, explains Silverberg. But if they aren’t, “Make sure that you have a few good books that aren’t just on nuclear, heterosexual families.”
And bring inclusive language into your everyday speech. For example, says Silverberg, swap “Welcome, boys and girls” for “Welcome, kids” or “Welcome, friends.” While subtle, this small shift teaches children that gender isn’t binary.
At this age, it’s important to discuss how to safely explore digital spaces—even if your child won’t be using the internet unsupervised for a few more years. Establish rules around talking to strangers and sharing photos online, as well as what to do if your child comes across something that makes her feel uncomfortable. Thornhill notes that while you don’t need to pre-emptively explain pornography to kids, be prepared to have them stumble across it.
“Calmly explain that those sorts of websites are about grown-ups doing grown-up things,” she says. While there’s no need to present pornography as something bad, you will want to state that these types of websites are just for adults.
This is also a good time to revisit masturbation since by age eight most children have begun to explore their bodies. Frame it as something that, while normal, is done in private, and don’t forget to address proper hygiene.
At this age, you can also speak more explicitly to kids about sexual abuse. Silverberg explains that it’s important for kids to know about this unfortunate reality in order to protect themselves or help a friend who experiences abuse. How detailed this talk gets really depends on your child.
Silverberg recommends starting with the basics, such as how no one should be touching them without their permission, then revisiting the subject a few days later to gauge what they understood and how they feel. If your child gets upset, you may want to hit pause on this topic until they’re a little older.
By now, it might be time to explain the actual mechanics of sex to kids. Silverberg notes that there’s nothing wrong with introducing this information earlier if your child seems ready for it, or delaying it a bit if you think they won’t comprehend it. To make this discussion easier on you, he suggests incorporating a good book that’s aimed at anticipating your child’s many questions.
Talking about sex can go hand-in-hand with another key topic: puberty. Thornhill says when kids are around age six, this can be a simple discussion about how bodies change as we grow. For example, you could compare photos of when they were little with what they look like now. Silverberg recommends saving the more detailed puberty talk until just before your child or those in her peer group start experiencing it. Otherwise, he says, “It seems like you’re talking about an alien planet.”
Children with vaginas can expect to start puberty between nine and eleven. For them, a key indicator that this change is underway is the development of breast buds. This change usually starts before age 10. Menstruation follows a few years later, usually around age 12 (though earlier isn’t uncommon). Children with penises tend to start puberty closer to 10, with pubic hair growth being the first clear sign. No matter how you approach talking about sex, this age is also a good time to talk about gender identity.
When it comes to discussing puberty, Silverberg recommends sharing a good book with your child that can walk you both through puberty’s more technical aspects, such as the differences between testosterone and estrogen, and why and how our bodies undergo changes in hair, genitals, voices, etc. He also says to make this a general talk. “It isn’t that girls get one lesson and boys get one lesson.” Kids should learn not only about their own bodies, but also other bodies. While the detailed mechanics of puberty might be limited to one conversation, the impact of this transition should be an ongoing discussion.
“Kids of this age also need to learn more about the range of gender expression,” says Silverberg. If it’s a topic you’ve been shying away from, educate yourself first. Thornhill suggests starting the conversation with how you can’t tell someone’s gender based on their genitals.
Silverberg explains that now is when you should start talking about sexism and sexualisation. Use examples found in the media or even in your own community—for example, a grandparent who thinks boys should only have short hair—to spark discussions. These chats can be depressing, but support kids to find their power, and point out positive examples of individuals who have overcome stereotypes. Also, point out how progress has been made; for example, with more women working in STEM fields.
This age is full of emotional and social changes, and girls in particular may struggle with body issues. Thornhill encourages parents to check in with their children about how they’re feeling and what they’re wondering about. “At this age, it’s really just emphasizing over and over again that it’s normal,” when it comes to how their bodies are changing.
Something else you want to normalize is safe sex. “By 11, you want to start having conversations about sexual choices and safer sex,” says Thornhill. She admits that, as a mother herself, this idea is a bit jarring, but it’s also crucial, since research shows that teens make better choices when they know the risks. Thornhill says you should highlight different types of birth control and explain the basics of how they work.
Since this age group generally has more freedom online, it’s a good idea to periodically chat about internet safety and to build on your already established digital rules and values. For example, talk frankly about how sharing nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves or their peers may be illegal. “They could be charged with making or distributing child pornography,” explains Silverberg, “even if everyone involved is okay with it.”
Ask your child “What do you think it means to be respectful on social media?" And when high-profile stories on sexting or online bullying are in the news, use them as jumping-off points to ask your child how they would handle similar situations.
Talking with your kids about sex, sexuality and sexual behaviors early in life pays off once they’ve hit their teens. If you’ve established yourself as open to discussing those topics, “Your kids are probably going to feel more comfortable talking to you and asking you questions,” says Thornhill.
But if you’ve been quiet on the subject of sex up till now, she recommends sitting down with your teen and stating that you’re changing your ways. “Even just hearing that is really reassuring for most kids,” Thornhill says.
While you generally want to minimize the lectures, teens need real talk about birth control and sexually transmitted infections, says Thornhill. You might even want to supply condoms or set up a doctor’s appointment for hormonal birth control.
It’s also important to frequently discuss consent in sexual relationships. “You need to be thinking about how to help them protect themselves against pressure and dating violence,” says Silverberg, adding that conversations around these topics should include the impact drinking and drugs can have on judgment.
Frequent conversations around healthy relationships are crucial. If your child is reluctant to talk about herself, Silverberg recommends that you talk about “friends at school” instead. You may also want to share relationship stories from your past.
Ultimately, when it comes to teens, you want to empower your child to be able to evaluate risks and make good decisions. “Helping kids understand that they have a gut, an inner voice, and they can and should listen to it, is a big part of what sex education is about,” says Silverberg. And by discussing the right topics at the right ages, you’re setting your child up to do just that.
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