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Parenting with a PhD: Let's Talk about Sex, Baby!

I cringe at the very idea of writing this article. I realize we’re both adults and you know the ins and outs of this sex stuff (Sorry – poor choice of words…) but, still, this is a touchy subject and I don’t think many parents relish the idea of covering it with their kids. I have to confess right off the bat that my husband and I haven’t fully had THE TALK with our kids yet. What follows are some tips I’ve gleaned through research that I hope will be helpful but I’m not speaking from experience on this one. I may write a totally different article a few months from now – I know THE TALK is coming soon.

The biggest question many parents have is when is the “right time” to talk about sex. Kids are naturally curious, as you may have noticed from the hundreds (or is it thousands?) of questions your child asks daily. At some point, you’re going to get quizzed about where babies come from and it might happen earlier than you expect. Instead of stalling until you think your child is old enough for THE TALK (age 25?), consider starting the conversation from the beginning. Teach your kids the correct names for body parts. Having them use cutesy nicknames (e.g., “wee-wee”) can send the message that there’s something shameful or embarrassing about these parts or their bodies. Instead, teach that these parts are special. Use bath time as an opportunity to talk about keeping these parts private. Explain that you will have to help your child wash these parts and that his doctor may need to look at them but that they are not for other people to see or touch. Tell your child that you want to know if someone else asks to see or touch them so you can keep him safe. If your preschooler asks where babies come from, you can explain that babies are made from a very small part of the mommy’s body and a very small part of the daddy’s body, and that the baby gets bigger and bigger inside the mommy’s tummy. (I realize that surrogacy is an exception to this process but you may want to wait to explain more complicated issues like that). By the time you’ve gotten all that out, your preschooler has probably moved on to something else (and it’s probably snack-related).

For elementary-aged children, there are several great books that might be helpful when you start the sex conversations. Some to look into are Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle and Let’s Talk About Sex by Robie Harris for younger kids, and Let’s Talk About S-E-X: A Guide for Kids 9 to 12 and Their Parents by Sam Gitchel and Lorri Foster for older kids. Also, we probably all had a copy of What’s Happening to My Body? growing up (although the title is slightly ominous…). There’s also a cool NOVA series called “The Miracle of Life,” and a film called “From Conception to Birth” that show fetal development from inside the mother’s womb. (P.S. Neither are nine months long – don’t worry). If you run an internet search, you’ll find more options, too – just check them out first. The key is that you look at these resources together and use them as a jumping off point, not as the entirety of your child’s sex education. You may find that you handle a little of the information at a time and go weeks or even months in between conversations. Your six-year-old might be ready to know about the sperm and the egg, but she shouldn’t be hearing about gonorrhea and oral sex just yet. You may have to set reminders in your phone to revisit these topics in the future (and I don’t mean when she graduates from high school) because the first talk is not the last talk and it’s easy to forget that more work is needed.

Encourage your child to ask you questions about sex as they come up and do your best not to visibly squirm (squirm all you want on the inside). You don’t have to know all the answers – a carefully worded and closely supervised internet search can be your best friend in these situations. If you’re uncomfortable bringing this stuff up with your child or think you may react badly to questions, role play the conversation with your spouse or a friend first. At the very least, that should be entertaining. Just know that explaining sex to your kids, even telling them that sex is fun and pleasurable, is not going to encourage them to try it. In fact, research shows very clearly that kids are more likely to delay sex until they’re older when they felt welcome to bring up sex-related topics with their parents. You do want to tell them the reasons they should wait to be sexually active and how factors like emotional maturity, safety, and the quality of the romantic relationship should come into play. If you expect your child to wait for sex until marriage, tell him that. Just avoid making threats about will happen if he doesn’t meet this expectation so you can keep communication open. Be sure to cover non-intercourse sexual activities so they aren’t blindsided when it comes up in a romantic situation (which it will!!).

The idea of one of your kids walking in to see how she got started in the first place is, well, kind of terrifying. If this hasn’t happened to you, go ahead and invest in a bedroom door lock now. If it has already occurred, just know that this is a pretty common occurrence and we’re not in the “scarred for life” territory. If your child is five or under and she seems unfazed, you may want to play it cool.

Do listen for questions or comments indicating that she’s confused or upset by what she saw but don’t feel like you have to give a detailed explanation if her biggest question was why you were awake with the lights off. If your child is six or older, you might want to use this opportunity to start explaining sex. If you don’t think she’s ready to handle the full story, give her a brief explanation: “That’s a way mommy and daddy show love to each other” and move on. Don’t lie but don’t over-explain.

The most important thing for parents to keep in mind is that THE TALK is actually a lot of little talks. Yes, the initial explanation is pretty crucial but you can’t stop there. As your child gets older, he’ll be exposed to more and more sex-related information and will need your help processing it all. Some will be factual and easy to confirm or deny (“Can girls get pregnant by using the boys’ bathroom?”) but some will make you uncomfortable (and possibly a bit horrified by what your kid is hearing and wondering about). The good news is, if your kid is getting help understanding from you, then all his information about sex isn’t coming from the 14-year-old who lives next door. Rejoice that your child trusts you enough to ask weird, awkward questions about sex – this is most certainly a parenting success.

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