The Importance of Sex Education
Many parents are afraid to provide sex education for their children and struggle to know how much to teach and at what age they should begin (1). Parents have been identified as ideal sex educators because of their ability to provide information that is time-sensitive and responsive to the needs of their children (2).
Unfortunately, research has shown that a lack of parental communication skills can cause children to be avoidant and anxious about sexual topics (3). Additionally, parents tend to be hesitant to talk to their children about sex due to a self-perceived lack of sexual knowledge, personal discomfort, or general communication issues (4). Parents also expressed concerns about sex education possibly encouraging sexual experimentation, because they struggled to promote abstinence when sex education of their children was left to them (5).
Further, sex education in the United States tends to focus on pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention without a focus on holistic sexual health, which includes topics including healthy relationships, sexual pleasure, and the skills to achieve both (6). In a survey distributed to adolescents, the most frequent questions centered around sexual interaction, the logistics of first-time intercourse, relationships, masturbation, and pornography (7).
Why Should I Teach My Kids About Sex?
Parent communication extends beyond lowering the future sexual riskiness of their children’s behavior because sexual health in childhood can guarantee sexual health in the upcoming years (8). The best way to promote sexual health in children is to provide a safe environment where they can experience normal sexual growth as well as preventing cases of sexual abuse.
Experiencing a higher perceived quality of education about sex with their parents was associated with lower chances of having one or more sexual problems (9). An environment of safety surrounding sexuality and conversations about sexual topics will ensure sexual health in the future. Sex communication with mothers specifically was associated with “less perceived difficulty talking to partners about sexual topics” (10).
With all of these benefits in mind, the question remains: How do I talk to my kids about sex?
- Open modes of communication by answering their questions
The role parents have in children’s sexual socialization greatly influences the sexual health of adolescents and young adults, and the topics taught to play a large part in shaping the decisions adolescents decide to make in regards to their sexuality. Unfortunately, many parents are unsure how to communicate about sex with their children effectively, with the average number of times parents providing some kind of sexual education amounted to only one or two times.
A large part of providing holistic sexual education to your child includes treating the topic of sex like any other your child may ask questions about. Respond calmly and confidently to show that sex is an appropriate topic for them to ask about. There are a few ways to kick start conversations about sex:
In elementary and middle school, give them books about anatomy or puberty and let them explore on their own. Check in with them to ask what they learned, what was confusing and answer any questions they may have.
Check-in with them regularly about what’s going on with them and their peers at school. Ask them how they feel about their friendships, and help guide them through any troubles they’re having.
Once they’re older, ask them about crushes or dating, or relationships. Ask them how they think they’ll know when they’re ready to have sex, including the responsibilities that come with it (like preventing unintended pregnancy and STDs).
- Refer to body parts by anatomically correct names
Parents often respond to their children’s questions with avoidance, and sometimes based on their religious beliefs (11). In a study completed in 2011, it was found that mothers tend to avoid using the proper anatomical terms of genitalia with their children, and would instead use euphemisms such as “weenie” or “coochie.”
This is ultimately to the child’s disadvantage because proper anatomical terms and evidence-based education are important to help children and adolescents make safe, positive, and informed choices about healthy relationships, their sexual activity, and their reproductive health (12).
As soon as kids start learning to talk you can teach them the names of the parts of their bodies. As soon as they start being around other kids, you can teach them about respecting other people and talking about their feelings. This lays the groundwork for healthy relationships and boundaries later on.
- Tips for answering their questions
- Don’t jump to conclusions about why they’re asking what they’re asking. You can say: “Can you tell me what you already know about that?” or “What have you heard about that?”
- Keep your answers short and simple, and explain new words that your kid might not have heard before.
- After giving an answer, keep the conversation open. You can say: “What other questions about stuff like this do you have?” or “What’s going on in your life/at school that made you think more about this stuff?”
- Check their understanding. After answering a question you can ask “Does that answer your question?” or “What do you think about that?”
- If you don’t know the answer to something, you can look it up on your own or together. You can say, “I’m glad you asked that question. I’m not sure how to explain it/what the answer is. Let’s look it up!”
Remember, it’s OK if you feel a little awkward, or if you or your kid get embarrassed. Try to work through your embarrassment. It’ll be worth it for both of you. Plus, the more practice you get answering tough questions, the easier it becomes.
- Age-appropriate books about teaching kids about sex:
- Ages 4-8: “Where did I Come From? The Facts of Life without any Nonsense” by Peter Mayle
- Ages 4-8: “Amazing You! Getting Smart about your Private Parts” by Gail Saltz
- Ages 4-10: “What’s the Big Secret?: Talking about Sex with Girls and Boys” by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
- Ages 9-12: “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health” by Robie H Harris and Michael Emberley
- Ages 6-12: “It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families” by Robie H Harris and Michael Emberley
- Resources for Parents
- “Talking to Your Kids About Sex: turning ‘the talk’ into a conversation for life” by Dr. Laura Berman
- “Sex Positive Talks to Have with Kids” by Melissa Pintor Carnagey
- “Talking to Your Kids About Sex: How to Have a Lifetime of Age-Appropriate Conversations with your Children About Healthy Sexuality” by Mark Laaser
- “The Focus on the Family Guide to Talking with Your Kids about Sex: Honest Answers for Every Age” by Baker Publishing Group
- “A Chicken’s Guide to Talking Turkey with Your Kids About Sex” by Kevin Leman and Kathy Flores Bell.
- Hyewon Shin, Jung Min Lee, & Ji Young Min. (2019). Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Attitudes, and Perceptions and Actualities of Sex Education among Elementary School Parents. Child Health Nursing Research, 25(3), 312–323 Jang HJ. Effects of sex education programs for preschool parents [master's thesis]. Seoul: Hanyang University; 2016. p. 1-74.
- Krauss, B. J., & Miller, K. S. (2012). Parents as HIV/AIDS educators. In W. Pequegnat & C. C. Bell (Eds.), Family and HIV/AIDS: Cultural and contextual issues in prevention and treatment (pp. 97–120). New York, NY: Springer
- Afifi, T. D., Joseph, A., & Aldeis, D. (2008). Why can’t we just talk about it? An observational study of parents ’and adolescents ’conversations about sex. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23(6), 689–721
- Jerman, P., & Constantine, N. A. (2010). Demographic and psychological predictors of parent-adolescent communication about sex: A representative statewide analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 1164–1174.
- Aronowitz, T., & Agbeshie, E. (2012). Nature of communication: Voices of 11–14-year-old African-American girls and their mothers in regard to talking about sex. Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 35 (2), 75–89
- Kantor, L. M., & Lindberg, L. (2020). Pleasure and Sex Education: The Need for Broadening Both Content and Measurement. American Journal of Public Health, 110(2), 145–148.
- Bauer, M., Hämmerli, S., & Leeners, B. (2020). Unmet Needs in Sex Education—What Adolescents Aim to Understand About Sexuality of the Other Sex. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67(2), 245–252.
- Aboksari, Z.B., Ganji, J., Mousavinasab, N., Rezaei, M., Khani, S., (2020). A review study on educational interventions promoting sexual health of children under 12 years. Journal of Pediatrics Review 107-199.
- Foshay, J. E., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2020). Home-based sex communication, school coverage of sex, and problems in sexual functioning among adolescents. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 29(1), 25–31.
- Hutchinson, M. K., & Montgomery, A. J. (2007). Parent communication and sexual risk among African Americans. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 29(6), 691–707.
- Martin, K. A.; Verduzco-Baker, L.; Torres, J & Luke, K. (2011). “Privates, pee-pees, and coochies. gender and genital labeling for/with young children.” Feminism and Psychology, 21 (3). 420–430.
- Breuner, C. C., & Mattson, G. (2016). Sexuality Education for Children and Adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics.