The birds & the bees, but make it Gen Z.
The antiquated iteration of the ‘ol “birds and bees” spiel you may have received as a kid has certainly been ruled out of the sex talk lexicon. What with The Internet, social media, streaming networks, etc., it would be near impossible to shelter contemporary children from all things sex. Nonetheless, knowing how to breach the topic can be...difficult, at best. How young is too young? How old is too old? How anatomical should you get? Maybe you ought to make a Powerpoint deck?
There is plenty of research that shows that talking about sex with kids is beneficial: Teens who discuss sex with their parents are far more likely to practice safe sex and make healthy choices when they do become physically intimate. While it might feel embarrassing to have these conversations, just know that you’ll be setting your kids up to feel more confident and empowered when it comes to their sexuality and their body.
Of course, there are no state-issued rules and guidelines available to guarantee the ideal sex talk with your children many states try to avoid the subject altogether. But there are small pieces of information compiled from parents, psychologists, and school counselors throughout the years that might help to alleviate some of the supreme discomforts that accompany saying the word “vagina” several times to your kid. As a starting place, we’ve gone ahead and answered some of your most pivotal FAQs in the hopes of helping you avoid relying on the “stork” euphemism at all costs.
When should I start talking to my kids about sex?
The mantra goes “early and often” but that still begs the question, how early, and how often? While children all mature at different ages, it’s unlikely that your preschooler will be ready to fully grasp the concept of sex. That said, this is a great age to help kids understand their bodies anatomically, and to help them grow comfortable using the proper vocabulary words (yes, penis). Throughout elementary school, while it may seem early to address full-on intercourse, be sure you’re talking about puberty and the changing of your children’s bodies. Whether at the end of elementary school or the beginning of middle school, this will evolve naturally into conversations about sex. In some cases, that’ll mean using discussions of period flow, and in others, masturbation, as a foray into larger sex talks. But either way, you’ll want to make sure your children are processing this information as they learn to navigate their aging bodies.
Two things you can discuss with your child starting when they’re a toddler? Consent and healthy relationships. These concepts don’t have to be explained in sexual frameworks, so they’re easy to express to a kid that might be too young for the true birds and bees talk: Model consensual touching by asking if they want a hug and allowing them to say no, and discuss what healthy friendships look like. An early grasp of these concepts will naturally apply to their eventual understanding of more intimate partnerships, and make it easier to have those more serious conversations down the road.
Should I discuss all types of sex?
The short answer is: yes. We’re talking vaginal intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, self-pleasure. Be careful not to assume heterosexuality, and take a broad approach here. Odds are, if your child doesn’t learn about anal from you, there will be a whole lot of misguided Google queries punched in later on. Plus, it often goes overlooked that most of the risks we associate with vaginal penetration are just as present in oral or anal sex: HIV/AIDS, Herpes, Chlamydia, the list goes on.
How do I actually...bring it up?
While some kids will come forward and ask you directly, this is certainly not to be counted upon. Fortunately, life itself provides plenty of available transitions and teachable moments. Wait for a cultural opportunity, then weigh in. Do you have a friend or a family member that’s pregnant? Do birth control or condom ads play while you’re watching TV together? Is there a romantic plotline in a film or a book you’re consuming together? Use these opportunities to jump in and ask your kids what they already know. Do you know what’s happening right now? Do you know why you’d need a condom? Do you know how she got pregnant? See where they’re at––and if they seem open to discussing––then go from there.
Topics like gender identity and sexuality can be brought up early by bringing in examples from pop culture: Kids books (like I Am Jazz and Princess Princess: Ever After) can help kids understand the basics of these ideas when they’re very young, and as they get older, they may be better equipped to talk about their own identity and sexuality. Representation does matter.
Should I address pleasure?
Understandably so, your child may not be quite ready to learn the ins and outs of orgasm. That said, love and pleasure are both important parts of the conversation here. Whether or not you’re passing along a manual to the G-spot, you want to make sure your kids understand that sex is intended to be a pleasurable experience for men and women. And that it’s generally an act of love, not mere reproductive efficiency. Surely, there will need to be some clarification down the line (perhaps with your help, or maybe of their own volition), but for now, make sure that on a top level, pleasure and love are part of the narrative here.
What about contraceptives?
Yes. Absolutely yes. Again, you need not go into unnecessary specifics when a child feels too young to make sense of the details, but be sure that any conversation you’re entertaining around sex includes the importance of using contraceptive options, and eludes to the consequences when you choose not to/ No matter how young, it’s ideal for you child to understand that sex and contraceptives go hand in hand.
When you’re talking to a teen who may be interested in becoming physically intimate, you can also talk to them about birth control: Let them know that it’s an option that’s available to them, and a great way for them to stay safe (though condoms are still non-negotiable). At the end of the day, teens are going to make their own decisions, Planned Parenthood says, but parents and guardians can still have an influential role in those decisions. You don’t have to channel Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls to let them know that you want them to make safe decisions with regards to sex—and that you’re there as a resource if they have any questions about how they can do that.
What shouldn’t I do?
While every sex talk will be different, make sure you haven’t framed your version around “don’ts.” We know you want to police how young your kids have sex, who they have sex with, and how they approach it. They’re your kids. This is natural. But creating a dialogue around sex that’s riddled with negatives rather than positives will keep your children from asking you questions as they come up in their own lives.
What if I’m embarrassed? What if my child is embarrassed?
Let’s just get this out of the way: You are certainly going to be embarrassed. So is your child. This conversation will be near impossible if you don’t enter it with the full knowledge that some discomfort awaits you. But don’t let that stop you! The longer you wait, the odds are, the more uncomfortable you’ll feel. If you have an open dialogue about sex early on, you’ll never hit that insurmountable preteen brick wall, where the word “penis” is enough to send your daughter into anaphylactic shock. Plow through your embarrassment –– we assure you it’ll be worth your while.