Talking to Children About Healthy Sexuality and Sex

One often hears the horror stories about parents trying to give “the talk” to their children, complete with mumbling, inaccurate terminology and a look of relief when their child has no questions for them and both parties can flee from the room.

In the United States, 13 percent of teens have had sexual intercourse before the age of 15.  Seventy percent have had sexual intercourse by age 19.  We live in a country founded by people who thought sex was rather evil, and we as a nation are obsessed with sexuality and sex in our media.   It is an odd paradox to say the least.  Our children are bombarded with messages about body image daily.  The freedom of the Internet and media in many families has led the average age of children to see their first pornographic act on the Internet at age 11.

These are serious facts, and the discussions about healthy sexuality and healthy relationships to counteract the messages our children receive every day can only begin with YOU by layering in talks about these subjects from an early age in a healthy, developmentally appropriate way.

First of all, like all things in parenting. these discussion have to start with YOU.  How do you feel about sexuality and sex?  Do you view sexual activity as an awesome thing or a negative thing?  Do you think or know about communicating with a partner, loving your body, and healthy relationships?  That your partner can be your “best friend plus sexual desire”?   Think about how you want to answer personal questions, because teens may ask you – were you only with my father/mother/your partner sexually?  what was your first sexual experience like?  So, think about how you would want to answer these questions.  Think about how you would like to develop your child to go on and be happily involved in a passionate, intimate and committed marriage or relationship.

Talking to children about sexuality is not a one-time talk.  It is an ongoing modeling of our values; it is an ongoing discussion about life, love, communication and how we relate to others.  It builds up throughout all the daily interactions we have with our children every day and how we love them unconditionally and show them the world is a good place.  Sexuality is  (can be)  part of that good world!  This can take a lot of work if one has negative sexual experiences and experiences of abuse.  Hard work.

These ongoing interactions involves talking in a healthy way about the beautiful diversity of bodies and how wonderful all different sizes and shapes of bodies are.  It is using correct terminology for all body parts and treating ALL of  those body parts as though they are beautiful.  It is talking about privacy – this is especially important in this day and age as these early conversations about privacy lead into what a child does with sexuality on the Internet and through texting and other media.  Talking about sexuality means guiding how children how to love their bodies and themselves.  Loving oneself and understanding that we are made up of  a beautiful body, soul and spirit is healthy sexuality as we are sexual beings,  and knowing one’s body, how it feels and functions and yes, eventually, how to deeply share that within an intimate, passionate, committed relationship.  It is also important to remember that being a sexual being and being sexually active are two separate things.

Watching for how inclusive our language is can also be important.  Sexuality is made up of gender identification, gender expression, and sexual orientation.  Most sexual educators look at “commonly understood labels” for sexual orientation such as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and perhaps the not so common labels as well. The following are listed in the book “For Goodness Sex:  Changing the Way We Talk To Teens About Sexuality, Values and Health” by Al Vernacchio:   omnisexual or pansexual (attracted to all gender identities and expression), asexual (having little or no natural sexual or romantic attraction to anyone), demisexual (developing strong sexual or romantic attraction only after establishing a strong emotional connection), MSM (man having sex with men but not identifying as gay or bisexual), and WSW (woman having sex with women but not identifying as lesbian or bisexual).  It is important for you as a parent to know and understand about human sexuality and what are facts, what are your opinions and what are your values so you can talk to your teens.

Modeling healthy relationships are so important, and so are conversations about what is a HEALTHY relationship.  Al Vernacchio, again in his book  “For Goodness Sex:  Changing the Way We Talk To Teens About Sexuality, Values and Health”, lists aspects of a healthy relationship:

  • A healthy relationship is equitable.  He gives the example in the book of his own experience teaching high school and how a relationship between a senior and freshman in high school is not equitable, and why. Very interesting take on a common situation in this section….
  • A healthy relationship is one in which you can maintain your own individuality and your own space, hobbies, interests and friends.
  • A healthy relationship is one in which you can express your positive and negative emotions, comments, opinions.
  • A healthy relationship means a real, in-life relationship with an imperfect person!  (and no, teens, you cannot develop that just by texting each other no matter how often you text!)

Talking to our children about sex means that we help them,  and that we  share with them what our family’s values and boundaries are about sexuality.  What are your boundaries??   Our values help guide us with why we do what we do, and it is something that publicly we don’t feel ashamed about.  This requires thought ahead of time and a lot of discussion.

So, instead of thinking of just “the talk” think about the ways you can layer in all of these topics and discussions over time. Most of all, get really clear about your own experiences, opinions, values and boundaries for your children.  They really do want that from you – even if they walk out of the room.

Blessings,
Carrie

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15 thoughts on “Talking to Children About Healthy Sexuality and Sex

  1. I agree with most of what you said. I find it important to tell things in age appropriate bits and pieces. When the kids were little they’d ask or we would tell a mom and dad make a baby together , when the were a bit older we’d tell the specifics and when my oldest was 12 he asked, right in the middle of a relaxing taco dinner, how gay people physically have sex (the day before we had discussed gay love 🙂 ).
    Both kids now, at age 13 and 15, know about all aspects about sex and I don’t think they are scarred for life :). I’d like to add that my husband and I met when I was 16 and he was 21. Maybe inappropriate or even illegal in the US but not uncommon or unheard of in Europe. It all depends on the personalities or level of maturity of a person. I have not discussed ‘appropriate’ ages with my children to have sex. Based on our previous chats I trust them on making good decisions.

    • Oh and thanks for bringing this up. I think not many people are doing a great job talking to their kids about sex and sexuality!

  2. Pingback: » Talking to Children About Healthy Sexuality and Sex

  3. thank you for this post. my daughter is eight and starting to ask basic questions so its a topic that’s been on my mind. I know how important it is to be open and honest and I also know how hard it can feel to do that. this was a great reminder and I appreciate you opening up the discussion.

    • Thanks barnraised!
      I think at eight pretty simple answers suffice but more heavily on the side of human physical development….development of the breasts, layering in about menstrual cycles and sharing about that in family life…simple, open terms with not too much information.
      Al Vernacchio on his book and blog tells a funny story about a little girl who came home and asked her mother where she came from and the mother launched into a whole explanation of sex, and the daughter looked up at her and said, “So and so was born in a hospital. I meant was I born at a hospital too>?” LOL. So I think being really clear about the questions children ask and also seeing things regarding the human body as just a part of life is important.
      Blessings,
      Carrie

  4. Thank you so much! This came on the exact day that my 10 y.o. son came to me and told me that some of his friends were talking about some things he didn’t understand and made him feel uncomfortable. Exactly the support I needed! Makes me so sad that so many children are exposed to things so early, before they are ready for it and able to process it. The research you cited helped me realized that this is more common than not.

  5. Dear Carrie, thanks so much for this thoughtful piece. On a somewhat related subject, my 7 year old boy asked me today why lots of ladies he sees in pictures or films hardly have any clothes on (he watched Disney’s Aladdin recently!) We don’t have much exposure to media at home but living in London everywhere we go we’re confronted with challenging images, particularly of women dressed in very little and posing seductively. I’m very conscious this will all be adding to his developing sense of how to relate to women but was taken by surprise and thought I might have had a bit more time yet to prepare myself for such questions!. I wondered if you might like to share anything on this or could point towards some other’s wise words on the subject?

    • Hi Tracey!
      Yes, I think with a seven year old, less is more, so I probably would just say something along the lines of “I have noticed that as well! I don’t think I would like to dress that way myself….” and I think you can also start layering in conversations about health vs. image AND modesty AND how many times those images or the way models give “that look” isn’t typical of looks we use in real life with people with love…… As he gets older, you can start to layer in conversations about how men and women in the media are NOT representative of what most real men and women look like. The images are often frozen in time, taken after millions and millions of shots to get one pose – and then photoshopped. Even in TV and movies the images are not typical of most people. Talking about body types – ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph – is important for boys as well because many teenaged boys I know are really, really dissatisfied with the “skinniness” of their bodies because they look at the male images on TV or magazines and think they should have super-hero, lean, hard, six pack ab, heavily muscled bodies. So, I think the body image difficulties work both ways… I am sure I will have more thoughts on this subject as time goes on…
      Thank you for the question, as it is a thought-provoking one.

  6. This is such a great and important post, Carrie. I have always had a very open approach with my kids since they were little. My whole goal has been to keep conversations about our bodies and sex as an open subject and not a taboo. Both of my kids (12yo son and 10yo girl) still feel very comfortable discussing these topics with me, so I think my plan is working. I also feel lucky that the church we attend (UU) has a great curriculum called Our Whole Lives that our national organization developed in conjunction with the United Church of Christ. http://www.uua.org/re/owl I love that it brings the concept of healthy sexuality out of our family and into our trusted and loved worship community. Both of my kids have really enjoyed one of the main books used in the middle grades – “It’s Perfectly Normal” – http://www.amazon.com/Its-Perfectly-Normal-Changing-Growing/dp/0763644846

  7. Wonderful post, Carrie! We gave a basic sex talk to our son (and daughter who’s younger but she wouldn’t stay away :)), then 8 and I will keep the book you recommend in mind for an update that needs to follow soon.

  8. I love your newsletter. Thank you for it. What age do you recommend having the first sex talks with your kids? Our daughter is about to turn 8.

    thanks, Ann-Marie

    • Ann-Marie,
      I think that is so individual to the family, however, I would try to wait until past the nine year change unless there is a lot of physical development going on. I believe it is the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommends that children know and understand about sexual activity before they get their menstrual cycles, for example. So I think you have to look at development and overall maturity first and decide how much information is necessary and when. The book I mentioned in this post was based off of sexual education classes given to ninth and twelfth graders (high school). I think there should be a lot of layering about relationships, pregnancy and babies, breastfeeding, communication, etc long before “just the facts” are presented – remember the layers of facts, your opinion, your value system. The value system may actually be the most important piece. The piece about body image and feeling loved unconditionally by parents comes in long before a talk about sexual mechanics….I know you get my point. Smile.
      Sorry for the long answer – take what resonates with you!
      Blessings,
      Carrie

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