When you become a parent, you commit to rolling up your sleeves and having a series of uncomfortable conversations. Since it’s a parent’s job to guide kids and set them up for success, that means discussing a gamut of topics, including sex.
Where some parents struggle when it comes to talking about sex with kids is identifying the right time to start those conversations. They can actually begin during the first few years of a child’s life, because experts say that sex education really isn’t just about sex.
“It is important for parents to understand that sex education covers a wide variety of topics outside of sexual acts,” says Sara C. Flowers, DrPH, the vice president of education & training at Planned Parenthood, known for its work providing healthcare and sex education. “These include everything from self-esteem, to being kind and respectful to others, to learning the correct names of body parts and what those parts do.”
Parents can begin setting the stage for their kids to have a positive relationship with sex and their bodies as soon as they become aware of them, which can begin anywhere from ages two to five.
“Parents may not realize that they are setting the foundations of sex education at home when they teach their kids the correct names of body parts, but they are,” Flowers says. “Believe it or not, there are a number of other concepts kids are able to understand at young ages, including consent, setting and respecting personal boundaries, and healthy friendships.”
When it comes to teaching boundaries, Flowers says that may look like not forcing kids to hug people if they don’t want to, which some of us may have experienced as kids. Empowering children in this way teaches them to have autonomy over their body. It can also teach them to respect others’ bodily autonomy too.
As kids progress in age, parents can continue providing education around sex and tailoring the talks to their developmental level. Flowers says sex education is made of “building blocks” so you keep adding information and perspectives as you go along. Planned Parenthood has a range of resources on their website to help with this in case you’re stuck and don’t know where to start or continue.
With that in mind, it’s important for parents to remember that these conversations aren’t one and done–they should be ongoing and integrated into everyday life.
“There are tons of opportunities in our everyday lives that we can use as conversation starters, like asking questions about things that happened in school or about scenarios depicted on screen through film and TV, ” says Flowers.
She also recommends asking open-ended and scenario-based questions to gauge your kids’ values about sex and provide education. Perhaps one of the most important things to do during these discussions is to reassure your kids that you’re providing a safe, shame-free, and judgment-free space for them to share. That means putting any outrage or unsolicited opinions aside and listening to their views, concerns, or confessions with an open mind.
One of the benefits of keeping sex conversations going and starting them early, is that it can help kids make more informed decisions about the types of sexual experiences they choose to have and when. Some parents may be worried that having frequent sex talks could encourage their kids to engage in it too early. However, research shows that when kids discuss sexuality with their parents, they’re more likely to delay their first experience.
Likewise, parents who have strong values around abstinence may impose those values on their kids. However, if the goal is to create a trusting and safe environment, try and avoid imposing your views on your child. In some cases, it could have the opposite effect and lead to undesirable circumstances. Two scientific review papers found preaching abstinence to kids doesn’t prevent unwanted pregnancies or the transmitting of STDs. Instead, comprehensive sex education has been shown to reduce the occurrence of teen pregnancies.
The reality is that some kids still cringe when it comes time to talking about sex and related topics. What do you do in said scenario? Flowers suggests asking your kids which other trusted adults they may be more comfortable chatting with about it if not you. You may also refer them to Roo if they’re teens, as it’s Planned Parenthood’s 24/7 chatbot, which answers teen’s questions about sex, relationships, and sexual health. No matter the method, keep channels for conversation open and available for your kids.