How to talk to your kids about sex: An age-by-age guide

Explaining sex to kids can feel like a minefield for parents, but it doesn't have to. Here's our guide for how to talk to your kids about sex.

Photo: iStockphoto

Before I started writing this story, it hadn’t occurred to me to talk to my daughter about sex. I wasn’t exactly avoiding the topic, but she was only 6½ and it seemed way too early. Since there were no bare-bottomed kids playing doctor in her bedroom or questions about where babies come from, I figured the talk could wait awhile—until her high school graduation maybe. Then, one day, I found her flipping through a kids’ book about sex that I’d picked up for my research. “Oh, so that’s what they look like,” she said, staring intently at one of the pages. “That’s what what looks like?” I asked, peering over her shoulder at an illustration of the male reproductive system. “Squirms,” she giggled, as my jaw dropped. Turns out my daughter had been learning quite a bit about the facts of life—mispronunciations and all—from a seven-year-old chum with an older sibling.

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“Many parents are rather shocked at how early I suggest they should start talking to their kids about sex,” says Meg Hickling, a sexual health educator in Vancouver and author of The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It. “But what I also hear from parents is ‘I want to be first.’ If you want to be first, you have to make sure you’re first; otherwise kids will get their information and attitudes from other children and the media.”

That doesn’t mean marking a date on the calendar for one marathon birds-and-bees session. Teaching should be an ongoing process in which your child learns over time what she needs to know to develop a healthy attitude toward her body and sexuality, says Hickling. With that in mind, we’ve put together a parental primer (a cheat sheet really) to make talking the talk easier at every stage of your child’s development.

How to talk to your kids about sex from birth to age 2

Where they’re at
Many parents are surprised to find that their children are sexual beings from birth, says Tara Johnson, a sexuality education specialist with the Region of Peel Public Health in Brampton, Ont. Even infants are curious about their own bodies and will often touch their genitals in the bathtub or during diaper changes, and baby boys have regular erections. Toddlers have no sense of privacy and may masturbate quite openly. “My 18-month-old used to rub herself ferociously during nap time at daycare,” says Toronto mom Carol Armadale.* “Finally, her daycare provider said we had to speak to her about it—apparently, all the other children were watching!”

What they need to know

If your toddler is in the habit of touching herself at daycare, the grocery store or in front of your moms’ group, gently remind her that we keep our dresses down in public and we take our hands out of our pants, says Johnson. “Children learn from their parents’ reaction whether or not their actions are acceptable. At two, they simply need to be told, ‘That’s not allowed in public.’” Don’t scold or shame them. The message you want to give to your child is that masturbation is healthy and normal, but something that should be done in the privacy of her own room.

It’s never too early to start teaching children the correct names for their body parts, including their genitals. When you’re giving your tot a bath or changing his diaper, state matter-of-factly, “This is your nose, this is your tummy, this is your penis.” It’s confusing for kids to have cutesy names for some body parts and not for others. “When you teach a child the correct names for their genitals (penis, scrotum, vulva, vagina, anus), they have no overwhelming shame or shyness around that part of the body,” says Hickling.


How to talk to your kids about sex when they’re 3 to 5

Where they’re at

Preschoolers are as intensely curious about other people’s bodies as they are about their own. “My five-year-old was playing in the sprinkler with a friend and he asked, ‘Why does his penis look different than mine?’” says Jean Smith, a mom of three in Aurora, Ont. “He had obviously looked long and hard enough to notice there was a difference between a circumcised and uncircumcised penis.” Kids this age are also what Hickling calls “magical thinkers.” “If they don’t get factual information, they make up a story to explain things to themselves.” They may decide, for example, that if you want a baby, you go to the hospital, where a nurse hands them out to anyone who asks.

What they need to know

While it’s important to answer all of your preschooler’s questions honestly (no stork stories, please), she’s not ready for a course in obstetrics. If your four-year-old asks, “Where do babies come from?” you may want to start with a simple answer: “A seed from the daddy and an egg from the mommy come together and grow in a special place in mommy’s tummy called a womb.” Some children will be perfectly satisfied with that, while others may demand to know more—like how the seeds get into mommy’s tummy in the first place. “Use your child as a gauge,” suggests Johnson. “You’ll know you haven’t given her enough information if she still has questions.”

If you catch your daughter playing doctor with the little boy from next door, don’t scold her or make her feel she’s done something bad. These explorations are more about curiosity than sexual activity, says Johnson. Explain that privates (the parts covered by a bathing suit) are, well, private, and touching one another’s is off limits. Then distract them with something more interesting—like milk and cookies.

Continue to reinforce the correct names for body parts, and start teaching the difference between good touch and bad touch. “You don’t want to come on like gangbusters,” says Hickling, “but kids do need to know that their genitals are private and nobody else should be touching them except Mom, Dad and the doctor for health and cleanliness reasons.”

How to talk to your kids about sex when they’re 6 to 9

Where they’re at 

Children in this age group vary widely in their curiosity about the facts of life. Some may just be starting to ask, “Where do babies come from?” while others want to know, “What’s sex?” (Hickling’s standard response is: “Sex is when a man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina. It’s only for adults.”) “This is the perfect window of opportunity to talk, since kids are better able to understand concepts, but they’re not old enough to be super embarrassed,” says Michelle Moreau, a child and family therapist in Saint John, who has three children under the age of seven. “Let your child’s natural curiosity guide you.”

What they need to know
Teach your children the basics of puberty and what to expect before they get there, Hickling advises. “Puberty is happening earlier these days and it’s a lot less scary when kids know the facts.” Try to take advantage of what the experts call “teachable moments.” When Carol Armadale’s daughter found a tampon in a washroom at an amusement park, Armadale used it as a jump-off point to talk to her seven-year-old about menstruation. “I think it was easier chatting about it in a crowd than it would have been one-on-one in her bedroom,” she says.

When your eight-year-old asks, “What’s a blow job?” resist the urge to run for cover. “It’s your finest moment when your child asks a question that makes you sweat blood,” laughs Hickling. Take a deep breath and answer as matter-of-factly as you would if you were talking about astronomy or geography. “Oral sex is when two grown-ups are making love and they put their mouths to each other’s genitals.” If you’re caught completely off guard and aren’t sure of the answer, promise your child you’ll get back to him—and follow through.

One Dartmouth, NS, mom says she’s never discussed sex with her seven-year old because he hasn’t asked yet. If you wait for your child to start asking questions, you may wait forever, warns Hickling. “Some children just don’t think to ask, or your silence may be sending a message that it’s a taboo subject.” A good way to start a conversation is to read an illustrated children’s book together about reproduction.

How to talk to your kids about sex when they’re 9 to 12

Where they’re at 

Hickling refers to this age group as the “gross-me-outers.” “Sex is gross, and you are gross and disgusting for wanting to talk about it.” Many neonates are convinced they already “know all that,” and may use sexual lingo without really understanding the meaning. Jean Smith’s 10-year-old daughter, Brooke, for example, thought “necking” meant a lot of kissing on the neck because that’s what her friends had told her. Neonates are also starting to go through the hormonal roller coaster of puberty and have a zillion questions about their changing bodies and emotions.

What they need to know

Reassure neonates that all the physical stuff that’s happening to them—acne, wet dreams, breast budding, menstruation, growth spurts, body hair—is perfectly normal. Every one of their friends will go through it too, but maybe not at the same pace. Take some time to talk about the overwhelming emotional changes that can make puberty such a bumpy ride too—what Hickling calls the “sads, glads and mads.” The car can be a great place to have these conversations since it’s easier to talk when you don’t have to make eye contact.

Talk to your neonate about the physical and emotional risks of becoming sexually active too soon. “Make sure they know that they can get pregnant the first time they have sex, and that although they can’t get pregnant from having oral sex, they can get serious STDs,” says Hickling. If you’re watching a TV show together and the couple has sex on their first date, take the opportunity to ask your neonate: “Is that realistic? Did they use contraception?” When they offer their opinions, listen non-judgmentally.

Don’t assume your children will absorb your family’s beliefs and values through the air, says Hickling. “You have to be explicit about what you expect of them.” Halifax mom Emma Saunders* spends a lot of time these days discussing what she calls “future behaviours” with her son, nine, and daughter, 11. “I want my son to grow up to be a good person who is kind to girls, so we talk about how to break up with someone and what to do if someone likes you and you don’t like them.”

How to talk to your kids about sex when they’re 13 to 18

Where they’re at

Teens are experiencing big life changes, their hormones are in overdrive, and they may be under pressure to have sexual intercourse, whether or not they feel ready. “My daughter is 15 and at the age where those pressures are kicking in, but she’s not talking about it,” says Jackie Morgan,* a mother of two teens in Whitehorse.

What they need to know 

While they may not admit it, teenagers still want support and guidance from their parents. No matter how awkward it may be to talk to them about sexuality, do it anyway, advise the experts. “What I tend to talk to my kids about now, since we can’t talk about ‘sex,’ is what they’re feeling inside,” says Morgan. “More than anything, I reinforce that it’s normal—it’s called hormones.”

Make sure your teen understands that what she sees in today’s sex-saturated media is not real, that the majority of young people are not sexually active. She also needs to know that nobody has the right to pressure her and that any sexual involvement should be by mutual consent. You want your child to learn about sex in the context of feelings and relationships, not just disease prevention, says Johnson.

Don’t skirt the issue of birth control—your teen should be clear on how it’s used and where to get it. “Studies show that well-informed teens are the ones who are going to wait longer before becoming sexually active and use contraceptives when they do,” says Moreau. (A good website to refer your teen to is, administered by the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.)

Accept the fact that your teen is the one who is going to be making the big decisions as far as his own sexuality is concerned. “You can no longer control and dictate his actions, as much as you might want to,” says Johnson. “What you can do is help your child learn to take responsibility for his actions and give him the information he needs so he can make sound decisions.”

Pornography on the net

When Jean Smith, a mom of three in Aurora, Ont., was helping her 10-year-old daughter with a school project, she typed in the words “girls playing” on the computer. “You wouldn’t believe what came up,” she says. “It was shocking!”

Vancouver sexual health educator Meg Hickling isn’t surprised. Ask her what’s changed most in the 35 years she’s been teaching and she’ll say it’s children’s exposure to pornography. Kids have a lot of questions about what they see (or get told about), she says. “One of the first things you need to explain is this is not the way real adults behave—it’s a fairy tale.”

If your child wants to know, “Why would they do that?” Hickling recommends a straightforward answer, such as “Some grown-ups enjoy that kind of activity. When you’re a grown-up, you get to decide what you want to do.” For the violent, exploitive stuff, Hickling suggests telling your child that it’s criminal behaviour. “Parents need to teach their children to delete it on the computer, then come and talk to them if they’re disturbed by what they’ve seen,” says Hickling. Your child needs to know that you won’t be angry at her, that those images sometimes pop up when Mommy is using the computer too. Children need to know that having a sexual relationship doesn’t mean they have to do those things themselves—they have a choice and they never have to do anything they don’t want to do, she says.

Bedside reading

For parents

The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It
by Meg Hickling, Northstone 2006.

For children 

Boys, Girls and Body Science: A First Book About the Facts of Life
by Meg Hickling, Harbour Publishing 2002.
Changes in You and Me: A Book About Puberty
by Paulette Bourgeois and Martin Wolfish, Somerville Publishing 1994. Two editions: Mostly for Boys and Mostly for Girls.

*Names changed by request.

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