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Talking about SEX

Guiding Your Kids to a Healthy Understanding of Sex

Where did I come from? What are the birds and the bees? What is sex?

Sooner or later, if you are a parent, you will have at least one of these questions or a similar one posed to you by your child. The mere thought of it might make some parents turn red in the face or get sick to their stomach. It might send others over the edge. Isn’t it interesting that we don’t hesitate to talk to our children about looking both ways before they cross the street or the dangers of playing with fire, but the thought of talking to them about sex—something equally as dangerous—sends shivers up the spine? Why?

But if we talk about it…

There are many reasons why parents are hesitant to talk to their children about sex. Some fear the discussion will promote sex instead of discourage it. Some fear their child might ask them about their sex life as a teen or ask questions that they just can’t answer. Many parents say that it’s just too embarrassing. These are legitimate concerns. However, there are ways to lessen the social discomfort, and your child or teenager’s safety is worth it.

Consider the Facts

  • By their 18th birthday, 6 in 10 teenage women and nearly 7 in 10 teenage men have had sex.
  • 18 percent said they have had four or more sexual partners.
father talking to his son
  • 38 percent said they have had sexual intercourse in the past three months.
  • 9 percent said they had sexual intercourse for the first time before age 13.
  • Each year, roughly 4 million new sexually transmitted disease infections occur among teenagers in the U.S.

Can Parents Really Make a Difference?

Studies show that parents can have the most dramatic impact on their children’s behavior if they clearly define what they expect their children to do and not do within the context of close family connectedness. According to the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, parental disapproval is a significant factor in a teen’s decision to delay sexual activity.

The best time to start talking with children about sex is when they are young. Look for natural ways to begin the discussion, such as a pregnant woman or a friend of your child that has recently had a new brother or sister.

Knowledge is Power

Children hear about sex in many different places, and a lot of the information they receive is incorrect. As a parent, you can insure that your child is getting correct information by talking with him or her. Knowledge is power. It’s OK if you don’t know the answer to a question. Suggest that you go find the answer together. If your child asks you a question about your sex life that you are uncomfortable answering, don’t lie. You can say that you aren’t comfortable answering the question, or you can use it as an opportunity to share why you care so much about how they conduct themselves sexually.

What’s Age-Appropriate?

When talking with elementary age children, the focus of your conversations should be: the correct names of sexual organs and body parts, explaining sex and reproduction, personal boundaries, pregnancy, and building healthy relationships. If they are old enough to ask questions, they are old enough to receive correct answers. Make sure you clarify your child’s question. When you understand the question, answer it briefly and simply. If they want to know more, they will ask additional questions.

Middle school students need to talk about sexually transmitted diseases, emotions, the consequences of sexual relationships and the benefits of abstinence. Parents, as embarrassing as it may be, it is imperative that you talk with your teen about all aspects of sex including oral sex. This is also a good time to begin talking about why people date and what healthy dating relationships look like.

Discussions with high school students should continue to be about sexually transmitted diseases, healthy dating relationships, wise decision-making when it comes to sex, setting a standard and living by it, and self-discipline.

The Information Highway

If children aren’t learning about sex from their parents, where do they turn to find out the answers? Many parents may be surprised to learn that numerous surveys of teens and young adults indicate that television is one of the top sources for information and ideas about sex, followed by schools, parents and peers.

Today’s children are hearing about sex much earlier and are exposed to sexuality at virtually every turn in our society. Recent research has shown that by the time a child turns 18, he or she has witnessed 250,000 sexual acts on television. More than 75 percent of the videos on MTV show some sort of sexual act in which the woman is a sexual object.

However, when the Barna Group posed the question, “Who should be responsible for teaching young people about sex?” to over 1,000 Hamilton County residents, the overwhelming response was that parents should be the ones to teach their children about sex.

An Ongoing Talk

Contrary to popular belief, the sex talk should not be a one-time talk but an ongoing dialogue that begins early in life and continues into the teenage years. Discussion should be open and honest, not giving more information than the maturity level of the child can handle and always being careful to use the correct names for body parts. Preferably, both parents should sit down with the child to discuss the issue and answer questions. Parents can help normalize a discussion of sex by offering matter-of-fact answers and taking advantage of life experiences to highlight what they want their children to learn.

Preparing Them for Peer Pressure

There is tremendous pressure in the teen world to be cool. Parents need to give their teen ammunition to deal with the pressure they may feel from peers to have sex. Talk with them about the difference between being in love and feeling sexual desire.

Fathers need to tell their daughters they love them frequently. Tell your daughter how beautiful she is, so when the first guy comes along and says “I love you and you look beautiful,” that isn’t the first time she’s heard those words. Warn her about classic lines such as, “If you loved me you would,” “Trust me,” and “Everybody’s doing it.” Explore options for comeback phrases, such as, “If you really loved me you wouldn’t ask me to” or “It takes more guts to hold out than to give in.”

Julie Baumgardner, MS, CFLE

Julie Baumgardner is the executive director of First Things First, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at

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