Oftentimes, parents are interested in talking to their children and teens about sex. However, they do not know how to and feel uncomfortable or awkward starting the conversation. Sex plays a role in the lives of nearly all people; everyone will likely be exposed to or experience sex in some capacity. Thus, it is understandable that many parents want to educate their children and teach them accurate and helpful information about sex. These parents want their children to make safe, healthy, and informed personal decisions about sex as they grow up.
Before parents talk to their child about sex, it is important that they are aware of the multiple other sources that expose children to information about sex. There is no guarantee that the information that they hear will be accurate. Following are a few of these sources from which sexual knowledge may be acquired.
Sources of Sexual Knowledge
In today’s society, where people are constantly exposed to the media, children and teens are being bombarded with sexual images and sexual content in magazines, television, the radio, and movies. Media messages from TV are oftentimes a child's first introduction to sex.1 Instead of learning the importance of values and responsibilities surrounding about sex, many teens receive mixed messages from highly sexualized and romanticized characters portrayed in the media.
A quick fix many parents resort to is censoring the media content that their children are exposed to. However, instead of merely censoring the media content, it is important to talk to children and teens about what they are seeing. After all, even with the most advanced censoring technologies, media is nearly impossible to block out completely. One way to open up discourse between parent and child is for the parent to join their child while they are watching television, and discuss with them some of the sexual stereotypes presented in shows or movies. Similarly, the parent should point out specific advertisements and ask their child what messages they think the ads are conveying.
Media is not limited to television. The internet is increasingly becoming a significant source of entertainment and information we consume every day. Sexualized internet ads, online articles, public photos and videos, and pornographic websites all expose viewers to sex. In addition, video games can often have sexual themes. Parents can use the internet to help them discuss sex with their child. There are multiple online resources that can help teach children about their sexuality. Parents can decide to direct their children to such a website. Parents can even sit down at the computer with their child and browse sex education websites together.
One type of online media source that many children and teens (primarily adolescent boys) may consume is pornography. It is important that children understand that viewing pornography is a normal habit, and that they do not need to be ashamed of it. However, parents should discuss with their child that pornography may create certain expectations about sex that are unrealistic, especially when it comes to the appearance, desires, and behavior of women. Emotional intimacy, although severely lacking in most x-rated productions, is a huge part of sex. Finally, parents should remind their child that although sexuality may be a new part of their life which worth exploring, they should resist getting carried away. Children should activities like excessive masturbation, and they should continue to cultivate other productive activities, such as sports, clubs, and friendships.
A main source of sex information for children and teens is talking with friends and peers. However, peers often give incorrect information regarding sexuality. Sexual conversations among adolescents and teens are more likely to be centered around sexual conquests and how-to tips. These conversations may also involve teasing or passing judgments about perceived sexual behaviors or attitudes, and can lead to name-calling or more serious negative behaviors.
Not all schools have a sexual education curriculum, and if they do they often do not provide a comprehensive course. School sex educators tend to only present the health and clinical information regarding sex, and generally do not talk about the emotional issues. Teens have reported that the information they learn in school is not realistic or helpful.2 Few schools provide guidance about relationship issues and communicating sexual desires.
Having “The Talk”
For various reasons, many parents are hesitant to talk with their children about sex with their children. Some parents feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their children, while others think that talking to their children about sex is unnecessary. It is extremely important, however, for parents to realize that their children will almost certainly be exposed to information and often to misinformation about sex from other sources. Thus, parents should prepare their children to understand what sex is, the potential consequences of having sex, and how to make safe decisions about sex.
Rather than having one uncomfortable conversation about sex, a more effective way to communicate with children about sex is for parents to take advantage of multiple opportunities. Additionally, all conversations should be conducted in an open and honest manner. Learning about sex from their parents is the best way for teens and children to receive guidance and emotional support. You can help your children learn facts as well as personal and social responsibility. Children whose parents talked to them about sexuality were most likely to postpone sexual activity and not engage in risky behavior.3 It is OK if you feel uneasy about the subject - your child probably does too! The important issue is that you provide your child with the skills to make wise decisions about his or her own sexuality and have healthy, loving and responsible relationships.
Talking to Your Child About the Media and Pornography
Censoring internet access and television programs is a common strategy used by parents to limit the exposure their children have to sex in the media. However, it is nearly impossible that a parent restricts all access to sex-related material because it is so common in today’s media. Thus, parents should instead open up conversation with their children and join them while they watch television to discuss the sexual stereotypes encountered in the show.
When discussing sex with children, parents should keep the following in mind:
Parents may feel uncomfortable using terminology such as "vagina" and “penis”. A good way to overcome the discomfort is to say these terms in private several times.
Plan on Having an Ongoing, Open Discussion with Your Child
Although it is important to start teaching children about sexuality when they are young, it is equally important to continue the education as the child gets older. Sexuality will remain a factor throughout a person’s life. Thus, it is impossible to cover all useful information in one conversation. For this reason, parents should remain approachable as a resource. Children should not feel ashamed to ask questions about sex, but instead should feel comfortable instigating discussions about sex. Once open communication is established, parents can continue educating their children about sex. Parents can use “teachable moments” to engage in conversation with their children. A "teachable moment" can take place, for example, when you see a pregnant woman on the street, or when children hear about sexual incidents on the news. Such moments provide easy transitions into conversations about sex.
Give accurate information
When parents decide to have a talk with their children, it is important that they know the facts. Accurate information about sex can be easily found. Certain sites on the Internet (such as this one), textbooks, and children's books in libraries and bookstores are good examples. If a parent is ever asked a question that they do not know the answer to, they should do the proper research. To help answer their child’s questions, parent can opt to give their child an educational book. One helpful book that is appropriate for ages 8-11 is Asking about Sex and Growing Up: A Question and Answer Book for Boys and Girls by Joanna Cole. Another set of books that are appropriate for preteens are Lynda and Area Maderas’s book series called What's Happening to My Body?, which come in separate versions for boys and girls.
Anticipate the Next Stage of Development
Educating young girls about menstruation or young boys about nocturnal emissions after she or he has experienced it is not the most helpful. Instead, parents should talk to their child about the stages of puberty and other sexual experiences before he or she reaches the stage. Children will feel less anxious about what may be happening to their body when they know what to expect.
Do Not Lecture
Children and teens do not want to be told what to do, especially when it comes to personal topics such as sex. It is important that parents do not lecture their children, but instead try to present information and have an open discussion about sex. Adolescents will make their own decisions regarding sex and it is up to the parent to give them the information and resources needed to make informed decisions. Discussions and conversations benefit children more than lectures, because they are more likely to listen to you and your words.
Teach the Joys of Sex as Well as the Dangers
Sex can be a fulfilling and meaningful part of life. When children learn about the consequences of having sex, they should also be exposed to the joys of sex. While it is sometimes treated as dangerous or scary, in reality sex is often beautiful and natural. All children should be equipped with a comprehensive knowledge of sex and sexuality so they can make informed decisions on what role these factors will play in their lives. Talking about intimacy and relationships with children can help them grow up to have positive relationships in their lives.3
There is no one way to teach children about sex. For parents, the idea of bringing up this topic can be uncomfortable or awkward. However, it is essential for adolescents to learn from their parents about sex. Sex is a core part of human nature and is something most, if not all, people will explore in their lifetime. With the vast amounts of information on sex, children are likely to be exposed to misinformation. Thus, parents should reach out to their children early, before the rest of the world does. Educating early and comprehensively will give children the best chance to have a safe, fulfilling, and healthy relationship with sex as they grow up.
1. Levine, J. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. (2002). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
2. Measor, L., Tiffin, C., & Miller, K. Young People's Views on Sex Education: Education, Attitudes and Behaviour. (2000). New York:Routledge Falmer.
3. Miracle, T. M., Miracle, A. W., & Baumeister R. F. Human Sexuality: Meeting Your Basic Needs. (2003). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Last Updated: 26 November 2016.