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How to Talk About Sex: Early, Often, and in Small Doses

We are sexual beings from the moment we are born. So, why is it so hard for so many parents to talk to our kids about sex and sexuality? More importantly, why should we?


Experts say, when adolescents are asked to rank who influences their decisions around sex, parents consistently rank higher than friends, and they wish parents would talk to them more. It turns out, it's best not to wait until puberty to start talking about sexuality.

According to Dr. Jenni Skyler, certified sex therapist, director of The Intimacy Institute, and the mother of two young children, opening the conversation early…

  • Allows you to give your kids accurate information
  • Lets your kids know you are a safe person to talk to about sex and their body
  • Helps prevent sexual abuse

While young children don't necessarily need to know about sex, it's important that parents talk to them early and often about sexuality – starting with honest answers to their questions about their bodies. One study shows that preschoolers demonstrate greater success learning the names of their genitals when the information is presented by a parent, versus a teacher.

If you're not sure what to say or how to say it, here are two simple points to keep in mind.

Be comfortable talking (and listening)

According to Sandy Wurtele, Ph.D., and Feather Berkower, M.S.W., authors of “Off Limits: A Parent's Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse", it's best to talk to kids about their bodies and sex often, honestly, and briefly. For example, if your preschooler asks how babies are made, instead of asking why he wants to know, respond with a straightforward, age-appropriate answer.

They also emphasize the importance of responding positively to kids' questions. If, for example, your child says she doesn't like the nanny, instead of saying “The nanny loves you!" and discouraging her from saying unkind things about the nanny, Wurtele and Berkower ask parents not to shut the conversation down. Instead, parents should express curiosity and ask follow-up questions, which may shed more light on the situation. For example:

Child: I don't like the nanny.

Parent: Why not?

Child: Because she's not nice.

Parent: What did she do that was was not nice?

Child: She touched my vulva and told me not to tell you.

Parent: I wish that hadn't happened, but I'm so glad you told me.

If you are not comfortable talking about sex with your kids, know that you can change. Wurtele and Berkower recommend practicing with another adult, such as a partner or a friend. Janet Rosenzweig, author of “The Sex-Wise Parent", suggests role-playing the hypothetical conversation you might have with your child.

While you should be open to any of your child's questions, you do not have to give a biology lesson in answer. For example, when your preschooler asks you how a baby is born, a sufficient answer might sound like this: “Usually the baby comes out through the mom's vagina, or sometimes a doctor makes a cut in the mom's belly to take the baby out through her belly."

If your child has follow-up questions, answer them honestly. But remember, you don't have to give them a lot of information at once.

Use anatomical terms

From the day my daughter was born, I talked through diaper changes, explaining, “I need to get your vulva totally clean" in the same matter-of-fact way I spoke while getting her dressed. “First your right arm goes in the right sleeve. Now the left arm…"

According to Berkower and Wurtele it is imperative that parents use the appropriate anatomical terms when talking about the genitals. This communicates that there is nothing shameful about our kids' bodies. Rosenzweig cautions parents not to “skip from the knees to the belly button when naming the body parts." When a kid uses the correct terms with a sexual predator, it is a signal that this child talks openly with an adult about his body and is not likely to keep abuse a secret, say Berkower and Wurtele.

Skyler recommends telling kids what their body parts are, where they are, and what they do. For example, if a boy asks what his penis is for, you can simply tell him, “Your penis is for urinating." You don't have to say more that, unless your child asks. If he follows up with a question like, “Why does it feel good when I touch my penis?" don't panic. This doesn't mean he's asking you to explain the mechanics of sex. You can say something like, “Our body is built to enjoy touch, and certain body parts, like your penis, feel better to touch than other parts."

Although girls' genitals are harder to see, that doesn't mean you shouldn't discuss them. Generally, according to Skyler, it's enough to start by telling preschool age girls, “You have different holes for different things. One is for pee, one is where a baby comes out, and one is for poop." If your daughter expresses curiosity in learning which hole is which, Skyler suggests explaining things with the help of pictures, or even while sitting on the floor with a mirror, if you're comfortable.

It is enough to say, “Your urethra is where your pee comes out. Your vagina is the hole a baby comes out. Your anus is where your poop comes out." Similarly, while you can't necessarily see the clitoris, when your daughter touches hers or asks about it, consider it a teachable moment, beginning by simply telling her what it's called.

Skyler emphasized the importance of giving children information about their bodies in “bite-size" chunks, early and often, and that these conversations be “non-events." In other words, do your best to treat your kids' questions about their bodies as you would their questions about where clouds come from, or why they have to take a bath – honestly and comfortably, using age appropriate explanations that aren't too detailed.

Of note, in the Netherlands, where parents commonly have these types of casual, age-appropriate conversations, the rate of teen pregnancy is far lower than it is here in the United States.

If you're like me, the parent of preschooler and a toddler, worries like head lice, swimming pools, and trampolines take precedence over the prospects of sexual abuse, STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and rape. But the best way to deal with big-kid problems is to start early, when with the little-kid questions arise.

Think of it as beginning to wade into a heated pool now, rather than going head first off the high dive into freezing water later.

Additional Resources

For parents of children ages 0-18

Off Limits: A Parent's Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse

by Sandy K. Wurtele, Ph.D. and Feather Berkower, MSW

children Preschool to 2nd Grade

What Makes a Baby

by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smythe

For children (kindergarten to third grade)

It's Not the Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends

By Robbie H. Harris

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Sometimes it's easy to overlook this amazing work we are doing, my love. On the surface, our lives couldn't be less extraordinary. We work our jobs, we care for our children—we embody a simple life. (Though, don't get me wrong, we love every second of it!)

But especially when I think about the work you do for our family, work that largely goes unsung, I'm reminded that, really, it's my job to make sure you know how much it's appreciated.

We both came into this marriage so young, so untested, and so blissfully unaware of the hardships that would come our way through the years. As we grew up together, we weathered our own storms before finally realizing we were ready to expand from a party of two to a party of three.

You were more nervous than I was, but you stayed strong for me, making me feel stronger and shouldering my own moments of uncertainty like the hero I needed.

When our daughter was born, pink and sweet and impossibly small, I never felt safer than when I saw her in your arms. From her first breath, you were there, ready to give her the world if she asked. Your dedication to her, to me, and to this family we continue to build never wavered from that moment forward. From the first moments, you were an incredible parent.

But life has a way of distracting us—blinding us to the everyday heroism even when it's right under our noses. As Edna Mode sagely reminded us in The Incredibles 2, "Done properly, parenting is a heroic act", and I see your heroism.

So thank you, my love…you are incredible to me.

Thank you for stretching to pick up my slack, even when you’re just as tired as I am.

Somedays you walk through the door from work, and you were slammed all day and your commute took an hour longer than it should have, and you're immediately bombarded by a needy toddler and an (almost) equally needy wife. But when I watch you shake off the day in an instant and throw your arms around us both, ready to help, I don't think words can truly express how grateful I am.

Thank you for being strong in my moments of weakness, even if no one else ever knows about them.

I play it so strong all the time, but you know the truth. You know the moments I'm about to break or the days when I truly can't take on another thing. And how do you respond? You make it okay. You let me crumble, you let me whine, you let me cry when I need to. You make it a safe space where I don't have to be #supermom, if even just for a moment. You are my safe space, and I love you for that.

Thank you for the thousands of practical, “little” things you do every week.

From taking out the garbage to changing the lightbulbs to actually remembering to replace the toilet paper roll (something even I forget to do!), those little things don't go unnoticed—even if I often forget to thank you in the moment.

While I may take on the bulk of housework as the stay-at-home parent, you do your part in little ways I never forget. Those little things? To me, they are incredible feats, trust me.

Thank you for being the incredible father I always knew you would be.

I wouldn't have married you if I didn't think "Dad" was a mantle you could take on successfully, but it still makes my heart burst every time I see you excelling at this difficult role. You make our daughter feel supported, safe, and loved every single day, and I'm so, so happy that you are the person I chose to do this life with. Your instincts and commitment to our children amaze me every day.

So for all the million things you do—and for all the millions of times I forget to say it—I thank you. For all the million things you have yet to do for us—I thank you.

You're our hero, and you're pretty incredible.

This article is sponsored by Disney/Pixar's The Incredibles 2 on Digital October 23 and Blu-ray Nov 6. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

As I sit here and write this, I kind of feel like I'm just waking up from a newborn fog myself—like I had been living in a dream and a nightmare all at once. With all the highs and lows of newborn parenthood—I'm realizing that literally nothing could have prepared me mentally or emotionally for it. How could it have?

It's like—how do you prepare the sweet baby you're growing inside you for the warmth of the sunlight they'll feel on their cheeks or the sound of the birds chirping in the spring? Nothing you could ever say could prepare them for that kind of simple wonder.

And nothing I can tell you will prepare you for the simple wonder of being present in the first moments of your baby's precious and irreplaceable life.

Take a mental snapshot of your home as you leave for the hospital. It will never be the same again. Try to remember the way the light poured in through the windows, the way the air felt on your face. I'm thankful I was able to remember to do this myself. Months from that day when the light pours in and the air brushes against your face in a similar way you'll be filled to the brim with heartwarming nostalgia of the day your sweet baby was born.

There is nothing I can say to you that can prepare your body for the excitement, the nerves, the exhaustion, or the hard work that is giving birth. The inexplicable awestruck wonder of your baby's first breath, their first blink, their first cry. The first time you meet them—the only person in the world that knows your heart from the inside. You will be the most beautiful sight they have ever seen, as they will be yours.

There are no words for those moments. But there are actions.

Take a picture in the hospital holding that sweet soul—a picture that includes you. The postpartum you with no makeup on, your hair disheveled, your hospital gown draped over your tired body. Don't wait to be "ready."

Take the picture. I wish I had.

There aren't any words to describe your first night home and the first weeks to follow. They'll be some of the most emotional days of your entire life—highs and lows of epic proportions—waves of pride, frustration, invincibility and defeat. Take them all in and let them shape your experience.

Trust the process. I wish I had been more trusting.

Breastfeed if you want to. Formula feed if you want to. That is your choice. Make it for the right reasons. Don't do either because someone else wants you to.

Make the choice that makes you and your sweet baby happy, healthy and able to be present. I wish I had.

Don't let anyone pressure you into decisions. Don't let anyone make you feel less than for the first choices you'll make as a mother. There is no one on the earth that knows your son better than you. Yes, the diaper is on right. No, the swaddle isn't too tight.

Be confident in your abilities and instincts. I wish I had been more confident.

With that said, be open to support from those around you—particularly from the women in your life. Accept and embrace your vulnerability and surrender, at least for a little while, to the hands of your village.

My mother-in-law told me on the way home from the hospital that she was never more grateful for the presence of her mother than in the days and weeks after my husband was born. She said I would feel the same. And she was right.

Let your mom or mother-in-law or a mother figure of sorts come to your rescue. Let her put cream on your back after the shower and stroke your hair as you take a nap. Be her baby. Now you'll understand the depth of her love for you.

Try to enjoy the moments right from the start. Rock your baby to sleep. Smell their precious newborn scent. Snuggle them endlessly. Let them fall asleep on your chest and keep your skin touching theirs as much as you can. All of this will be pretty difficult as you run on likely very little sleep, so don't be hard on yourself when you feel overwhelmed (we all feel that way at times!).

But as you can— try to be there in those moments. I wish I had been more present.

Know that the first weeks and first months come with a lot more exhaustion than you could ever really imagine—but then they will end. They. Will. End. The sleepless nights eventually become more restful and your days a little more routine.

For many weeks, your nights and days will be mixed up and your schedule shot. Try your best to roll with it. Don't try to force a routine or a schedule—it will re-establish itself in time.

Have faith in those chaotic moments that things will settle. I wish I had had more faith.

Things started to get really fun for me and my son at three months and things seemed to feel like my "new normal," my body included, around five months.

In time, your sweet baby will let you put them down. They will eventually get the hang of eating. There will come a moment where your baby takes a nap in the crib. Life on this side of the womb takes a little practice. Your baby will get the hang of it, mama.

Don't worry about it. I wish I had worried a little less.

Cry with your partner when you have to. Laugh together when you can. Take too many pictures. Have patience with each other. Try to hug every single day—sneak quiet moments together when you can. Try to step back from it all and observe it quietly.

You'll be amazed at yourself, at your partner, at your new family. I wish I had stepped back more often.

…And then one morning you'll wake up from a good night's sleep. You'll wake up from that sleep and you'll sit down to HOT coffee again and you'll realize the fog has cleared a bit.

You'll see that your life is forever changed. You'll realize now that when you gave birth to your baby, you also gave birth to a mother and a father, too. You'll realize now the magnitude of what you've done.

When the fog clears and you realize the enormity of this accomplishment, I hope you reflect back on your experience and marvel at the gift you have been given and also at the gift you have given to the ones you love.

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A new mother looked at me recently during a conversation we were having about sleep deprivation during the beginning of baby's life.

As a postpartum advisor and doula, I talk to a lot of new mamas.

But I hear all the time from women in the midst of transition to motherhood who are struggling to get their little ones to sleep and to respond to the demands of infant life.

This mama looked at me in desperation and asked, “So do you just not get anything done then??"

Mamas, I want to tell you the truth. Here it is:

You will not get anything done when you are home with a baby.

And anyone who told you otherwise is not being very forthcoming (or perhaps they just have a lousy memory).

You might get yourself fed.

You might get yourself dressed (then again, you might not).

You might take a walk (it makes baby happy).

You might have a short phone conversation or start a load of laundry, neither of which you will finish.

This is your new-mom normal.

So what are you doing all day?

Not much that can be measured, really.

You're simply responding appropriately and with patience (through fatigue) to smiles, to tears, to hunger cues and to drowsiness, teaching your baby how to navigate this complex and (to a baby) highly emotional and raw world.

You are keeping your baby clean, which on some days involves more costume changes (for both of you) than any non-mother can begin to fathom.

You are teaching a tiny, helpless person all about the world—at least the important parts, like how we treat each other and what it means to be connected to a family.

You are creating a foundation of love and trust between you and your baby, one that will help you set your parenting compass, inform your future interactions, and provide a basis for the way your child relates to the larger world.

You may be breastfeeding your baby—another time-consuming task (though once established, it takes less time than bottle feeding) that reaches forward through time to heal and protect your child, and simultaneously reduces your risk of disease.

Oh, and you're becoming a mother.

It started the day your baby was conceived, and it continues beyond birth.

Your baby is stretching and growing into this new body, and you are too.

But that's about it, really. That's your day.

Our culture doesn't have a good way to measure what you are accomplishing.

Your baby will grow and meet milestones: check.

To the untrained eye, most of this work, at the end of the day, will look like nothing.

But we know better.

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There is no greater task than the "nothing" you did yesterday, the "nothing" you are doing today and the "nothing" you will do tomorrow.

Caring for a baby is all about the immediate experience, yet the first two years are all about investment.

It's give, give, give and give some more.

These are hard-fought, rough-and-tumble years that can cut us down to our core and take us soaring high above the clouds, all in the space of five minutes.

And yes, as you do the hardest work of your life, it will seem like you're not getting anything done at all. Crazy, huh?

But here's where it gets interesting...

As much as you need and want a break now (and you should take one whenever you can), no mother has ever looked back on this time and thought, I wish I had held my baby less.

You will not remember the dishes that didn't get done, the vacuuming that you just couldn't make happen or the dirty clothes you wore more often than you'd like to admit.

You will remember the first smile, the first belly laugh, the first words, the first steps.

You will remember the way you looked at your baby and the way your baby looked at you.

So the next time you find yourself wondering how another day is gone and nothing is done, stop.

Hold your baby—feel the way that tiny body strains to contain this giant soul—complete and full of potential all at the same time.

Take a deep, slow breath.

Close your eyes and measure your day not as tasks, but as feelings, as sounds, as colors.

Exhaustion is part of it.

And it's true, you will get "nothing" done.

But the hard parts will fade.

The intense, burning love is what remains, and it is yours to keep forever.

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