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Let's talk about sex: A guide for parents

Sex education should start at birth.
Sex education should start at birth.
Photo by Emma Freeman Photography via Flickr

It is an ever present question for many parents, a persistent nagging while folding the laundry, an aching fear when watching the baby take those precious first steps. When and how do I talk to my children about sex? The answer is at once simple and complicated.

Talking about sex starts before your baby's first words, and it continues throughout childhood. While it may be a big, scary topic for parents, it is a completely natural act that should be discussed from birth. That is not to say that details of the mechanics of intercourse should be discussed with an infant or toddler. In fact, the very age at which each level of discussion occurs is dependent on each child's development and maturity.

The discussion starts with the naming of body parts: elbow, nose, penis, vagina/vulva, hand, foot, knee, breast. Using the formal anatomical names of the reproductive organs is essential to beginning the discussion about sex, and if used from the beginning, these terms will be natural for the children. Removing the shame from discussing these body parts will make talking about sex much easier for both of you. Additionally, it has been suggested that using these names instead of cutesy names like hoo-hoo or wee-wee can help reduce a child's risk of being molested.

So now the children know what their parts are called. What's next? Teach them about good touch and bad touch. Let them know that mommy or daddy may need to help them with toileting needs until they are able to complete these tasks on their own. Tell them that sometimes a doctor may need to check them out, but always with a parent in the room. Make sure they know that there are no other circumstances where it is okay for someone to touch their penis or vagina/vulva. At the same time, teach them about consent. Never force a child to hug, kiss, or otherwise engage in physical contact with anyone, regardless of their relationship. Grandma may really want a hug, but if baby is pulling away, crying, or saying no, then the lack of consent needs to be recognized and respected. Tickling games can be a good time to teach consent. If your toddler says to stop, stop. Wait for them to say it is okay to tickle again before continuing, and make sure they respect your lack of consent as well. These actions can add to awareness of bodily autonomy and consent.

But what about sex? When do we talk about that? Answer questions as they are asked. Answer them in as simple a way as possible, but be honest. The stork did not bring the baby. Talk about menstruation, pregnancy, puberty, intercourse, and even oral sex. Talk about love and STIs and relationships and porn and birth control. Keep it simple. If your children want more information about a topic, they will ask for it. The goal is to make talking about sex, and all of the complicated emotions that go along with it, feel natural and easy and free of shame.

Talk about everything, and when your child starts thinking about having sex, they will feel comfortable enough to talk to you.