How to talk to your kids about sex

Written by Cam Fraser

With more and more people spending an unprecedented amount of time indoors, at home and online due to the current global social conditions, it is not only a worrying time for parents who may be concerned about what their kids see or read while surfing the web, but it is also a perfect opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about such things. And one of the things that has been notoriously hard for parents to talk to their kids about is sex.

While it is somewhat of a joke to say that you’re asking Dr. Google to diagnose a certain symptom you may have, it often goes unacknowledged that we turn to the internet for advice and education about sex as well. This is true for people of any age who access the internet. Unfortunately, there is a whole host of misleading, disingenuous, and factually incorrect information on the internet about sex and sexuality.

The problem of inadequate and inappropriate information about sex is compounded by the new Terms of Service and Community Standards introduced by major Social Media platforms at the end of 2020. Although the intentions behind the introduction of these changes is noble - they were enacted in an attempt to curb sexual exploitation - the unintended impact is that sex educators and sexuality professionals are having their accounts suspended or entirely deleted for sharing content that breaches the exceedingly broad definitions of exploitative material outlined in the new guidelines.

That is why it is important for parents to know how to talk to their kids about sex. And what better time than while they’re all at home together. I acknowledge that it might be awkward and uncomfortable, but it is necessary and extremely beneficial for parents to intentionally have conversations with their kids about sex.

Having “The Talk”

In fact, a recent study in The Journal of Sex Research, published in January 2021, has found that although communication between parents and kids about sexually transmitted diseases and avoiding unwanted pregnancy is effective in increasing safe sex practices, parents also implicitly (or explicitly) communicate their own values and attitudes about sex in conversations with their kids that can have impacts on their kids’ sexual feelings and behaviours beyond adolescence.

This means parents don’t just have “The Talk” with their kids and that’s the end of that. Parents are also conveying messages about sex and sexuality even when they think they aren’t. So, to begin with, it is important for parents to expand the way they talk to their kids about sex from one “Talk” where they sit down and explain the birds and the bees to multiple, ongoing conversations about consent, sex, expression, boundaries, autonomy and pleasure, among other things.

When to talk about sex

For example, when kids are younger it is really beneficial to teach them the anatomically correct terms for their genitals. This might sound daunting, but being casual and treating the words “penis,” “vulva,” “testicles,” “vagina” and “clitoris” like the words “arm” and “leg” can help overcome any discomfort. This is necessary because kids need these words to communicate health issues or injuries.

When kids start asking about how babies are made, the amount of detail parents go into really depends on how much they think their kids can comprehend. Parents might try something like, “Two grown-ups get their bodies together and share the sperm and the egg to make a child like you, or sometimes they get the sperm or egg from someone else.” It is important not to lie and remember that more information can always be discussed later.

As kids start to explore their bodies, it may be time to tell them about when it is appropriate for them to be naked and to touch or play with their genitals as well as discussing how it’s not appropriate to handle other people’s genitals. This can help kids establish that they have a say over their own bodies, which helps keep them safe. Parents should also convey to their kids that they can disclose about inappropriate actions at any time, even if they’ve previously kept it a secret.

We know that kids are spending more time on the internet, so as a parent it is important to be prepared to have them stumble across pornography at some point. Explaining that these websites are about grown-ups doing grown-up things can be a good starting point. This can also be a good time to talk about masturbation and when it is appropriate.

During early adolescence, kids may have more freedom online, so it is also important for parents to periodically talk to them about internet safety. For example, talk frankly about how sharing nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves or their peers may be illegal. This may also be an appropriate time to talk about media literacy, explaining that what they see in pornography is not how sex is in real life. This is when conversations about birth control and safe sex may begin.

Empowering kids

It’s also important for parents to frequently discuss consent in sexual relationships. Frequent conversations around healthy relationships are crucial because they help kids feel more comfortable talking and asking questions about such things. If parents are worried that they don’t know enough about certain topics, especially more contemporary issues such as gender and sexual diversity or alternative relationships, it is necessary that they educate themselves first. By doing this and by discussing the right topics at the right ages, parents can empower their kids to be able to evaluate risks and make good decisions.

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