My five-year-old daughter and I sat in the Wal-Mart parking lot one weekend waiting for my husband to return. Suddenly out of nowhere, she asked, “Mommy, what does f— mean?” I consciously locked my jaw to keep it from falling to the floor mat and exuded a studied calm as I asked where she’d heard that word.
She was at the neighbor’s. Her friend’s dad said it. “But what does it mean?” she insisted.
Though her question arose from hearing profanity, not curiosity about sex, I realized the need to have “the sex talk” had arrived a few years earlier than expected.
So, what in the world do we say when it’s time to tell kids where they came from? Actually, it’s not too tough if we begin the conversation shortly after birth…
• Talk about it from the beginning. Children pick up their parents’ attitudes. If the parents seem to feel weird about it, the kids will too. If parents seem unashamed, the kids will think bodies and sex are no big deal. From the start use the real names for body parts. A Gallup Poll showed that about a third of parents always use euphemisms when referring to male and female genitals. Avoid joining that group.
• Storks. Birds. Bees. Cabbage patches. Keep agriculture and creatures out of the discussion unless you and your child inadvertently witness two animals mating and you see an opportunity to talk about human sexuality. Talk about how God made human bodies beautiful, but ever since He provided humans with animal skins, certain body parts have been considered private. (Looking for a resource to help you? Consider Ken Sande’s Peacemaking Families. Though it’s about conflict resolution, not sex per se, it helps parents lead by example with their kids, finding teachable moments instead of calling awkward meetings.)
• Emphasize privacy without evoking shame. Genitals are private. If you discover your child and a sibling or neighbor engaging in sexual play, stay calm in voice and facial expression. Express in a matter-of-fact way that it’s unacceptable to show genitals to someone else, to receive such intimate touch, or to touch someone else’s private parts.
• Hopefully hugs and kisses from family members have been a part of your child’s life since you welcomed him or her into the family. Explain the difference between this and unwanted and/or inappropriate sexual touch. Children need to know what parts of their bodies are excluded from others’ eyes and hands. Ask your child to tell you if anyone ever makes him or her feel uncomfortable by how or what they touch. With a teen, talk about all the peer pressure that suggests different parameters from God’s about what’s appropriate.
• Listen. Kids see images and hear about sex much earlier than most parents realize. Find out what your kids know, what they’ve heard, and what they have questions about. Often the most difficult part is initiating the discussion. If your child doesn’t bring it up, you can start by referring to television or movies, a pregnant friend, or some exposure your child has had to sexual or sexy behavior or images. Ask what he or she has heard about it and already knows. Then find out “What do you think about that?”
• Bodies change in puberty, which can feel embarrassing for the boy with unwanted erections or the girl having her first period. Encourage your child that puberty is normal and it is nothing to feel embarrassed about.
• Not everyone has the same opinion about sexual activity. Because of that, you have to tell your child about what you expect and about what you consider right or wrong. You can begin by saying “Sex is good. God made sex. It is so special, in fact, that he gives rules about it—not because he wants to ruin anyone’s fun, but because of love.” You don’t have to go into detail, but because so much in the world promotes wrong thinking on the subject, you have to let your child know what you believe is morally right and why.
• Think in bigger terms than having “the sex talk.” Think plural—“the sex talks.” Expect to have ongoing conversations about body changes, sex, and reproduction. By taking this more holistic approach to bodies, privacy, and development, when the season for discussion about sex arrives, you will have already spoken at length about toilets, training, and other normal functions. You can marvel at this “bonus function” as yet another part of God’s design.
• Avoid giving your kids more information than they need at each stage. One grown daughter joked with her sex-therapist father, “When we do the sex talk with your granddaughters, we plan to exclude all the charts you used.” But during conversations about sex, discuss more than body functions. Talk about God’s design for marriage, and describe the spiritual and emotional aspects. Especially for older kids, when warning about STDs such as AIDS, include the emotional and spiritual turmoil that accompany sexual sin.
Studies show that when parents talk about sex, children are more likely to talk about it themselves, to delay their first sexual experiences, and to protect themselves against pregnancy and disease when they do have sex. Teens who feel closely connected to their families are also less likely to have sex at an early age or to engage in other risky behaviors than are those who feel more distant from their families.
Our kids learn a lot about sex from neighbors, movies, magazines, the internet, classmates, ads, and relatives. And a lot of what they learn is wrong. As parents, we have a responsibility to make sure they also hear the truth about sex. And the best place for them to hear that is directly from us.