This is what I tell parents to make it easier.
Yes, I know. You’d rather go to the dentist. Okay, maybe it’s not quite so bad, but most parents are just not comfortable talking to their kids about sex. And the sad truth is that many of us don’t even admit that to ourselves.
As a sex therapist, when I am speaking to groups of parents about this topic the discrepancy between their perceptions of their comfort levels in talking to their kids about sex, and the reality of their doing it is astounding. Invariably this is what happens. I say: “So who here feels that they are comfortable talking to their kids about sex?” Out of a room of 100, 90 or so parents will raise their hand. (G-d bless those self-aware 10%.) Then I’ll say: “Okay, so who here has talked to their kids about sex in the past 4 weeks?” Blank stares. Maybe 2 hands will slowly creep up. People seem confused. You mean, Bat Sheva, that there can be an actual correlation between parents who are “comfortable” discussing sex with their children and actually having those conversations on an ongoing basis? Well yes. Actually, that’s exactly right.
The problem is that deep down we may be more uncomfortable than we are willing to admit. And what we end up saying to ourselves is “Well, he never asked.” Or “She’s only 12. I really don’t feel that she is ready.” Or “there’s always tomorrow.”
Well, the truth is, there isn’t always tomorrow. Your kids grow up, they get all kind of information (some of it accurate and much of it inaccurate) from a whole host of sources. They develop attitudes and impressions about sex and sexuality almost from the day they are born. Study after study suggests that the more we talk to our kids about sex, the more correct information they have, the more responsible they are and the later they become sexually active.
Let me try to reframe this for you. If you want to be a parent who talks to your child about sex and sexuality, sadly, it’s just not a one-time proposition. So “the talk” when she gets her period or when he starts dating doesn’t really cut it. It needs to be ongoing.
Also, it’s definitely not a “reactive” subject. You cannot wait for children to ask you questions. Sex in our society, despite being ubiquitous, is enough of a fraught subject that they are awash in mixed messages. Unless you have actively opened channels of communication, your kids most likely won’t be the ones to do it.
Think of it more like talking to your kids about nutrition.
Most parents wouldn’t sit down with their child at the age of 12 and review macronutrients, micronutrients and glycemic indexes and feel like their job was complete. I mean, that conversation would be great. But it should follow years of conversations in different settings, with different discussion and with modeling behavior. You no doubt discuss food and choices as you are shopping and preparing dinner. You are, on the regular, commenting on the foods you are eating, looking at, considering eating, what you like and dislike. Hopefully they see you balancing your thoughts, emotions, information and preferences as you make decisions about food. And they pick up your values and possibly some of your habits.
That is how you should think about talking to your kids about sex! As an ongoing ever-emerging conversation that combines information, values and opinions.
So like it or not, it really is our job. It’s our job to make sure that:
- Your kids are not the last on the block to have correct information. (Trust me, that’s embarrassing. I know. I was the last kid!)
- They have accurate information. And you would not believe how much inaccurate information they will pick up from other sources. I know. I hear about it on my TikTok account.
- That they have heard from you, explicitly, your values and beliefs when it comes to sex. While you ultimately can’t control the choices they make, this is truly the gift of being able to articulate your thoughts to them.
- Most importantly, that they know there is someone they can come talk to about these issues when the time arises, and they need to. Because most of us, at some time, really do need to talk to someone we trust about things that are going on with us sexually.
So here is some practical takeaway advice:
It may be that your child will never ask you anything about sex. This could be because they don’t have any questions (unlikely), have somehow picked up that you’re not too comfortable talking about it (more likely) or just don’t have the vocabulary to ask what they want to know (most likely). So you probably have to open the conversation.
Giving them a book to read or reading to them if they are younger is a great way to start talking. Asking about things at school, works well too. “Do your friends ever talk about sex?” But by far the best is to look for openings. When your fourth grader says: “Joanne called Mary a slut today, isn’t that funny?” it gives you an opportunity to respond without judgment and without shame. “Really? hmm… why’d she call her that? Do you know what a slut means? What do you think of that?” These conversations may not feel natural, but it’s so much better than not talking at all. And if you are skeptical that there will be openings, trust me, as soon as you start looking for them, they are everywhere. I dare you to get through 2 weeks of television watching without thinking of something relevant to your child.
Finally, for those of you who are concerned that your children aren’t ready, or are too young to talk to about sex, it may be time to rethink that. Obviously finding age-appropriate information is crucial, but most kids are more ready than we give them credit for. We really like to believe that our children are innocent and can’t handle information on sex.
In case you still have any doubts here’s a fun statistic quoted in my favorite parenting/sex book Everything you Never Wanted Your Kids To Know about Sex but Were Afraid They’d Ask. The average age in America when a child can correctly articulate how a child is conceived and born is 11 years old. The average age in Britain is 9. And the average age in the Netherlands is 7! So, unless you think that the kids in the Netherlands are somehow inherently smarter than ours, you’ll have to admit it’s cultural. And strikingly, incidents of unwanted pregnancy, STIs, encounters without consent and early sexual activity are all lower there than here.
So maybe cancel your dentist appointment and start talking to your kids about sex!