Sex is an important topic to discuss with your kids. Many parents have trouble talking with kids about sex. They may feel awkward, embarrassed, or unsure of what to say.
Conversations about sex shouldn’t be limited to one big “talk.” Instead, parents can discuss it with their kids throughout their childhood. Breaking down how to talk about sex by children’s age range can make the topic more approachable.
Talking about sex throughout childhood can encourage responsible sexual behavior in children as they grow up. These kinds of conversations can also strengthen trust between parent and child.
Conversations about sex can involve many different topics. Being aware of all of these topics can help you have more meaningful and helpful discussions with your child.
Gender. Gender identity, gender roles, and gender stereotypes are relevant to sex. Children may assume that all people show certain behaviors based on their gender alone.
Consent. Consent is the act of giving permission. It’s relevant in both sexual and non-sexual contexts. Teaching your kids about consent in both these contexts can help them understand it and build safe relationships.
Pornography. The internet makes pornography easier to find than ever. The age and context in which someone first views pornography can influence their beliefs about sex.
Masturbation. Masturbation can be an important part of sexual development. Children may or may not masturbate. Talking to your child openly about masturbation can help them understand their own body and sexuality.
Partnered sex. Partnered sex is a key part of human sexuality. Understanding what partnered sex should and shouldn’t be like will help children make informed decisions about sex later in their own lives.
Sexual orientation. People of all genders can engage in partnered sex with each other. Understanding this can help a child respect others and understand their own attraction.
Body parts. Sex can involve many different parts of the body. Children may ask about their own genitals, or how other's genitals work.
Generally, conversations about sex can start with simple information when a child is young. As they get older, you can explain and talk in more detail.
Ages 0-5: Early childhood
In early childhood up to age 5, children are learning about the world around them and will ask a lot of questions. Some of them will be about sexual topics.
Your child may ask where babies come from or what’s between their legs. Answer your children's questions about sex with simple sentences. For example, you could say to a 4- or 5-year-old that a baby grows inside its mother.
When your child asks a question about sex, only answer the question itself. Children will usually be satisfied with a straightforward answer. You don’t need to explain everything at one time.
Always use the proper names for body parts like “penis” or “uterus,” not nicknames. Using nicknames could create a sense of embarrassment and shame about these body parts in the future.
You don’t need to wait for your child to ask you questions. Bring up topics when they’re relevant. For example, if you’re bathing or dressing your child, point out the names of all their body parts including their genitals.
Ages 5-10: Pre-Puberty
As children enter school and learn more from their friends and teachers, they will have more questions. You can get an idea of what they already know by asking what they think the answer is. For example, if your child asks what a slang word means, first ask them what they think it means.
Puberty is a period between childhood and adulthood where the body grows and develops in order to produce babies. Introduce children to the topic of puberty before they reach it. Talk to your child about what to expect during their first period, or what an erection is. This helps prepare them for the changes their body will go through.
Ages 10-16: Puberty and onward
By now, your child may have gotten their first crush and may start having relationships. Talk with your child about what a crush is, what they think a healthy relationship would look like, the risks of having unprotected sex, and other topics they might be thinking about at this age.
Figure out how your child is most comfortable talking about sex. Certain settings may put them at ease, such as in their bedroom, in the car, or over text.
Make sure your child knows about safe sex. You can also encourage them to talk to their doctor while you’re out of the room if they want more privacy.
Other tips you can apply across all age ranges include:
- Bring up examples of sexual topics from movies and TV.
- Encourage positive behaviors instead of framing all advice as “don’ts.”
- Let your child know you want them to be safe and happy.
- Encourage your child to ask you any questions they may have about sex.