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The birds and the bees. The talk. The sex talk. Its lore runs deep through American culture, from hilariously uncomfortable movies and TV shows to an entire genre of books devoted to preparing for or completely replacing it. Indeed, the sex talk has been making all parties involved uncomfortable for generations, but to the great relief of parents, there’s a revolution underway.

The sex talk as a process, not a milestone

These days, more and more often, the sex talk is happening earlier and more gradually. My four- and five-year-olds can already describe the basic ways that babies begin to grow and are born. They can identify their own body parts by the appropriate names. They can and do ask me any question that crosses their minds about sexuality, anatomy, or biology, and I’m not alone in my matter-of-fact responses.    

The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that parents start “early parental discussions” about sexuality at home, using opportunities such as the birth of a sibling to answer children’s questions “fully and accurately.” Similarly, a recent study out of Georgetown University suggests that formal sexual education through schools worldwide should begin at age 10, including information about contraception, sexual orientation, and consent.   

By the time your child is a teen, you might wonder what’s left to talk about. Do you really need to sit down and review where babies come from? If you started talking about condoms and birth control when she was 10, does she need to hear it for the 20th time again at age 16?

Maybe, but that’s not all. To really amp up your sex talk for the 21st century teen, new research suggests it’s not sex itself that needs more airplay.

Change your sex talk to a love talk

By shifting the sex talk earlier, we create an opportunity with our teens to focus more on the emotional side of sex and romance. If you want to set your teen up for a lifetime of healthy relationships and a positive attitude towards sex, you need to shift your teen’s sex talk to a love talk.

As part of a recent national survey conducted by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, over 3,000 teens and young adults from across the country shared their perspectives about the current culture of young people’s romantic and sexual experiences. Through formal interviews and informal conversations with these young people, along with their teachers, sports coaches, parents, and counselors, Harvard researchers wrote a new report titled “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.”

One recurring sentiment shared by most of the teens and young adults surveyed was that the current version of the sex talk doesn’t cover what they really want to hear. Instead, they want to learn more from their parents about the emotional side of relationships, including how to have mature relationships, how to navigate the early stages of a relationship, and how to cope with break ups or hurt feelings.

In short, today’s teens want to know how to nurture young love and bounce back from a broken heart, and they want to hear it from us, their parents.   

How to have the love talk

You can get the conversation started by talking about what being in love means to you. Share your experiences of falling in love and of having your heart broken. Let your kids learn from your mistakes in hopes that they won’t have to make the same ones. Be open about your past romantic relationships, and tell them what worked and what didn’t.

Many young people think they’re in love, when really they’re just caught up in physical attraction or lust. Talk openly with your teens about the difference between love, attraction, and infatuation. Let them know that all of these powerful feelings are normal, but not all of them mean they’re in love.

Encourage your child to identify what he or she finds attractive in a person and emphasize that attraction should be based at least in part on qualities like kindness, honesty, and selflessness. Many other qualities can inspire strong feelings, such as being physically attractive, seeming mysterious, or having a “bad” persona, but none of these should be the basis for loving someone.

In addition, talk about what healthy, loving relationships look like. Again, draw from your own experiences or use examples from TV shows or pop culture. Point out relationships that seem to be working and point out those that seem unhealthy. Ask your teen to consider how each member of the relationship feels and how they make each other feel.

Finally, be open about the fact that nearly all healthy relationships experience stumbling points and go through both easy and difficult times. Reassure your teen that if both members of the relationship work to maintain it and make sacrifices for one another, they can persevere. If only one person is willing to do these things, it isn’t fair and the love may not be reciprocal.

Teaching your teen about love might seem like a tall order but if, like the sex talk, you start the love talk early and have it frequently, you’ll raise a kid who knows how to build healthy, loving relationships and how to cope when young love doesn’t work out.

As Harvard psychologist and researcher Rick Weissbourd notes, “It may be the most important thing we do in life; learn how to love and be loved.”

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