As a parent, you may be dreading the day you have to have “the talk.” But it doesn’t have to be that way! Even if you’re feeling anxious or awkward around conversations about sex, those conversations provide an opportunity to empower both yourself and your child, and to grow trust and understanding between you.
We’ve come a long way since the time that we called sex “the birds and the bees,” and thank goodness. These days, parents can talk about sex with their kids without using euphemisms or instilling a sense of fear or shame about sexuality in their kids. But if your parents didn’t know how to handle these topics, chances are you don’t, either. Fear not, mama—we have guidance for you.
Here are some of the best tips for having age-appropriate conversations about sex with your child.
Make sure your kids know that sex—and curiosity about it—is totally normal.
In any conversation you have with your child about sex, sexuality, and bodies, it’s important for them to understand that these things are normal and natural parts of life. Some parents (maybe including your own, in the past!) worry that having conversations about sex will encourage their child to engage in it sooner, and avoid these conversations entirely or frame sex as forbidden as a result.
The good news is that the opposite is actually true. According to the Centers for Disease Control, teens who reported that they could have open, honest conversations with their parents about sex also delayed having sex longer and had safer sex than their peers. Normalizing age-appropriate, nonjudgmental conversations should start early so that by the time your children are making decisions about sex, they know they can come to you.
Start early with conversations about bodily autonomy.
If you have little kids, the best way to start having conversations about bodies is to talk to them about bodily autonomy. While the phrase might be too much for them to understand when they’re really young, they can certainly grasp the concept: Everybody gets to decide what happens to their own body.
Parenting presents plenty of great opportunities to talk about autonomy and consent. For instance, bathtime is a good time to talk about appropriate and inappropriate touching. If your child doesn’t like hugging, or doesn’t want to give someone a hug, it’s important to let them know that they don’t have to hug or be affectionate to anyone they don’t want to—and to help them find ways to express love and affection that they are comfortable with. Throughout their life, you’ll want to help your child understand they have the autonomy to decide when and how their body is touched and by who.
Even getting dressed in the morning presents an opportunity to talk to your child about autonomy. Give them the opportunity to choose from a few different options of outfits for the day. That way, they gain a sense of independence and know that what goes on their body is their choice too (within appropriate boundaries).
Be careful which words you use.
While it may feel uncomfortable to some parents at first, it’s important to use the correct anatomical terms for your child’s body so they understand that they aren’t “dirty” words, they’re just factual names. Likewise, parents can sometimes give children the wrong impression by using language like “dirty” or “gross” about body parts and bodily functions. Avoid that kind of language when discussing your own parts and pieces, as well as your child’s.
This also applies to the way they touch their own body. Especially as your child enters the toddler stage, they may begin to play with themselves or touch their private parts. this is actually a great way to organically begin a conversation about consent and autonomy. You’ll need to use simple language your child will understand to explain that while there’s nothing wrong or bad about touching themselves, there is an appropriate time and place for masturbation. This helps reinforce appropriate social boundaries around masturbation without causing shame or embarrassment to your child. Instead of shaming a child for exploring their bodies, parents should be redirecting them and reinforcing boundaries around when it’s appropriate.
Give your child age-appropriate books about sex and hygiene—and read them yourself.
As your child gets older, your approach to conversations about sex should adapt. While talking about autonomy and consent is appropriate at a young age, it’s also the groundwork for later conversations about sex, relationships, and hygiene. Most schools begin sex education and genital hygiene lessons around fifth or sixth grade, just as kids are about to start puberty. Feel free to align your conversations with your child with what they’re learning in school.
One way to help you ease into the conversation in a natural way is giving your child educational books. Around this age I would recommend you give your children a few books including one about where babies come from and one about hygiene (It’s Perfectly Normal is a great classic standby, and The Care and Keeping of You is a great option for girls, specifically). You should also read these books! Whether you need a refresh or you just want to be prepared for any questions, reading these books will help prepare you for these conversations and reduce any nervous feelings.
Let your child know it’s safe to ask you any questions they have about sex and bodies.
As your child grows into a young adult, it’s important to provide a calm, safe and welcoming environment for them to come with any questions. Whether it’s questions about birth control methods or accessing protection like condoms, you want to be sure you’re prepared. It may feel jarring as a parent to answer these questions, but it’ll help your child grow up to be a healthy, happy adult—and sexual relationships are a natural part of that. This also may be the time where your child is also discovering new aspects of their gender or sexuality and having that foundation of trust and understanding will help them feel comfortable and capable of having those discussions with you as a parent.
Reflect on your own discomfort around talking about sex.
What it comes down to is that we’re often just scared. As parents, we want to make the right decisions and sometimes our own insecurity and discomfort with sexual topics gets in the way. This discomfort typically stems from having a lack of education or knowledge, which leads to fear and can (unintentionally!) lead your child to feel insecure with themself. Dig deep and reflect on where your own unease is coming from. By starting small and building your child’s sense of self confidence and bodily autonomy you’re helping them to become a flourishing adult capable of setting boundaries and having healthy relationships later in life.