A 13-year-old boy is curious about sex. He sneaks his Dad's Penthouse magazine behind a shed and paws through it with his buddies. He's also heard that he can see naked women online. Will he go there to find out what he wants to know? Hopefully not. Wake up time: The worst thing you can do about talking to kids about sex is to NOT talk to kids about sex. Bring up sex with your kids when they're young and curious and keep it going several times a year as they grow. Sex is natural, beautiful and meant to be enjoyed in a healthy and fulfilling way.
SEX Talk: Ages Birth - 3
With little ones, correctly naming private parts is an excellent first step, says Debra W. Haffner of Beyond the Big Talk (Newmarket Press; 2001). While you may be more comfortable using a silly name, Haffner says real terms like “penis” and “vagina” are better. “Why teach them the wrong words and then have to re-teach them the right ones later?” Haffner asks. Correctly naming private parts is the first step in keeping things comfortable — and it establishes trust. Haffner also says toddlers “get” that they grew in Mommy’s belly and that Daddy played a big part in helping to make the baby, but they aren’t interested in detailed answers. Field any questions you get from your child as honestly as possible with vocabulary he understands and keep is simple and brief.
SEX TALK: Ages 4 - 5
Kids ask LOTS of questions at this age. Christine Appleton's 5-year-old daughter asked her how "that big, fat" (pregnant) tummy came to be. “I didn’t go too in depth,” Appleton says. "I told her Mommy and Daddy made a baby and it's growing in Mommy's tummy. She seemed satisfied with that, for now.” Preschool children also have a keen interest in body parts, says Ruth Westheimer, Ed.D. (Dr. Ruth), in her book, Dr. Ruth Talks to Kids: Where You Came From, How Your Body Changes and What Sex is All About (Alladin; 1998). They'll show a normal curiosity about them and will ask questions about their purpose. They may make silly jokes and talk about body parts and bodily functions, so be sure to to set clear boundaries about acceptable behaviors. Don't punish or scold curiosity. Establish yourself as your child's resource for questions and concerns. Books can be a big help since kids can learn a lot from storytelling.
SEX TALK: Ages 6 - 8
Your child may come home from school ask, "Did I really come from an egg?" Before you launch into an explanation, don’t assume that kids want all the details. What kids want to know is usually quite simple, so don't muck it up.
“Ask him what it is that he wants to know before you answer,” says Robie H. Harris in his book, It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Families and Friends (Candlewick; 2008). "And keep is simple."
“Handle the subject in a calm, matter-of-fact way,” Westheimer says. “This will make it easier for your child to accept and comprehend.”
Around this age, kids can grasp a basic understanding of the mechanics of sex, but don’t be surprised if their reaction is, “Gross!” You can let it go at that, and reassure them that as they get older, it will seem less icky. In fact, it will even be something they really want to do, but that they’ll need to exercise control over. Now might be a good time to start teaching kids to understand desire for a thing and how to control it. Sharon Maxwell writes in her book, The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear From YOU About Sex (Penguin Group; 2008), “The best gift we can give our children is helping them develop the muscle to pause when their desires are activated and choose how they want to release the energy of their desires.” This “muscle of self-discipline” can be strengthened through use. Even when delaying the gratification of a new toy, they learn to stop, think and make a good choice in the face of a powerful emotion — desire.
SEX Talk: Ages 9 - 12
Once kids enter the pre-teen years, parents should discuss the consequences of sex — not only pregnancy and disease, but issues of respect. Pre-teens and teens need to know that a sexual relationship involves respect, responsibility and emotional commitment. By understanding that sex is more than a physical act, you can help learn how to avoid peer pressure. Haffner says that kids who plan how to handle urges or pressure from others in advance are better prepared to make smart, healthy decisions.
Talk about love and the important role it plays in relationships. It’s good for your kids to see you showing affection with your significant other — they learn that hugs and kisses say, “I love you,” just as much as sex does. You’ll should also address what your kids see on TV — it's a big influence on your child’s perception of sex. Some of what kids see on TV make things difficult. Hendersonville mom Rachel Hofgraff had to have a very serious conversation with her 10-year-old son about a teenage pregnancy on TV one evening. “We talked about how if you’re going to make adult decisions about having sex, then you will have to make adult decisions about the consequences. We try not to sugarcoat anything.” She hopes her honesty will pay off.
“I try to encourage him to talk to me by always telling him, ‘Thank you for telling me about that,’ and instilling in him that he can always come to me,” she says. Which is probably the most important message a parent can convey.
Sherry Hang is a freelance writer and the editor of Cincinnati Family Magazine.