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Let's Talk About Sex

By Greg Rienzi
Ditch the cryptic birds and bees lingo. Experts say honesty and openness are key when discussing sex. Here they offer age-appropriate strategies for broaching "the talk."

Not long ago, my then 10-year-old daughter arrived home from school in a red-faced huff and promptly ran to her room and slammed the door. No hellos. No beeline to the game console to play Minecraft. Something was amiss. “What happened?” we asked once we made our way inside the room. “My teacher used words I don’t want to hear!” she bellowed, rocking back and forth as if awaiting an aftershock.

The trauma-inducing terms that put her into this state, we would eventually learn, were “penis,” “vagina,” and other vocabulary that can prompt adolescents to snicker, blush, or, like my daughter, duck and find the nearest shelter. They were spoken by her homeroom teacher during a sex education talk packaged as a two-day “human growth and development” module. The terms were not foreign to her, but they came from someone who up until that day taught fractions, verb tenses, and U.S. presidents. Then, wham: human anatomy 101—with 10-year-old boys present.

Adolescence can be full of such awkward and confusing moments, especially when it comes to human sexuality. As parents, how do we help our children navigate around a topic that, quite frankly, many of us want to avoid? Some postpone the sex talk as long as possible, and when they finally do dive in, the results are often uneven for both parties, says Chris Kraft, a clinical psychologist and co-director of clinical services in the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins.

Part of the problem, Kraft says, is that many of us lack good role models, as we didn’t converse openly about sex with our own mom and dad. “That’s why it’s hard for so many parents, and adults in general, and why they struggle with these kinds of conversations,” he says. “In Europe, especially in places like Scandinavia and Holland, conversations about sexuality are just something families do. In the U.S. we keep it separate. We go about our lives, pause for the briefest moment to talk about sex, and then go about our lives.”

Kraft and others who specialize in human sexuality believe this should change. Conversations about sex don’t have to be traumatic, clumsy, infrequent, or force anyone to run for cover—especially today, when sex, sexuality, and gender are more public and complex than ever, and kids are regularly exposed to these topics. So what’s a parent to do? Looking for answers, I spoke with leading psychologists, pediatricians, and sexologists on how best to break the ice with our kids and why it’s more important than ever that we do so.

Toddler to 10: Start Early

Experts agree that parents should start the dialogue around sexuality early in a child’s life, as young as age 2. No, this doesn’t mean setting up a TV in the nursery to watch the deli scene from When Harry Met Sally. The conversation can begin by innocently talking about body parts during bath time. “You can talk about hygiene and the importance of cleaning yourself,” Kraft says. “And you’re going to have to decide what to call [these body parts]. Are you going to tell your daughter she has a vulva? Or that she has a vagina? Just use the proper terms and language.” Avoid slang like “wee-wee” or even the generic “privates,” experts say, as it’s important to establish an accurate baseline, and euphemisms might imply a body part is bad or off- limits to talk about.

Stay positive and be matter-of-fact when it comes to anatomy. Toddlers will explore their bodies and touch or poke themselves when naked. Better to ignore it than to scold and say to stop. “Don’t be shaming and say [genitals] are bad or dirty,” Kraft says, as overt shaming could lead to sexual dysfunction in later years and decrease one’s body confidence.

Robert Blum, an expert on adolescent medicine and chair of the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says it’s vital to empower toddlers with decision-making skills. These conversations don’t have to directly pertain to sex, but they should be about making healthy choices and caring about one’s body. Blum suggests yielding some ownership of decision making by giving toddlers healthy alternatives and allowing them to ask questions. You can start with something benign like breakfast. “Ask them, ‘Do you want oatmeal or cream of wheat?’ Of course, they come back with neither and say, ‘I want Sugar Puffs.’ But tell them why that’s not a good option and go back to the original choices,” he says. “If your message to a 2-, 3-, or 4-year-old is that you have no choices and just do what I say, they are not going to learn how to make decisions.”

These decision-making skills will come in handy later. “Sexual decision making is not just about sex; it’s about choosing what’s best for you. You want them to learn at an early age how to think and say, ‘This doesn’t feel right to me,’” Blum says.

Kate Thomas is a clinical sexologist and co-director of clinical services at the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit, who blends the fields of biology, psychology, epidemiology, and sex research in both her research study and consultation work. Thomas says kids become curious about their bodies around age 4, maybe even sooner, and they’re hardwired and eager to learn. So talk about the differences between boys and girls. “Even at age 4 they comprehend a lot,” Thomas says.

From ages 4 to 8, children start to question where they come from and wonder how babies are made. In response, some parents feel the need to resort to fairy tales of infant-transporting birds and miraculous conceptions. Here, again, it’s better to stick to the facts. For assistance, Thomas suggests books about human anatomy written for young readers that describe human reproduction and genitals. Two classics are It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie Harris, and Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle.

“Sit down and read the book with them, or just let them read it on their own,” she says. “Set the groundwork, and then at a family discussion they might bring up what they learned and know it’s something the family can talk about. They soon learn they can come to mom and dad with questions.”

One suggested strategy is to leave such books lying around in plain sight, and let a child’s natural curiosity do the rest.

Still not sure how to frame sexuality to someone still playing with Legos and anatomically incorrect dolls? There are plenty of how-to books for parents, Thomas says, such as Debra Haffner’s From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, and Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex by Deborah M. Roffman.

Preteen: Look for Teachable Moments

Once your child is a preteen, having a sex-related talk out of the blue is often a nonstarter, especially if you haven’t already established a rapport around the subject. Don’t just pick a random Thursday to sit down with Beckie and chat about the birds and the bees. (A euphemism to avoid, by the way.) Susan Rosenthal, a pediatric psychologist at Columbia University, says the formal sex talk can be problematic, as parents want to get it out of the way and wind up being superficial. Subsequently, the child may not retain much of the information because of a low comfort level.

Instead, wait for moments when something sex-related organically presents itself during the course of the day. See two people kissing in public. Ask your child how he or she feels about that. Body changes associated with puberty can also be conversation starters. A parent might sit down with a daughter, Kraft says, to talk about menstruation around ages 11 or 12. “There’s a moment to educate her on tampons, and to do that you can talk about the vaginal canal. You can get more specific, like why they are menstruating in the first place,” he says.

For boys, research has shown that adolescents will typically first learn about sex through friends and porn around the time puberty starts. Don’t stand by the sidelines. The discussion with a son could start with talking about who they are finding attractive or have a crush on, Kraft says, and then you look for an opportunity to talk about those urges and respecting boundaries. If you’re comfortable, segue into a conversation centered on physical contact and what will likely happen to their body if they become aroused.

Music, movies, and television also provide an endless supply of teachable moments. Long gone are the days of I Love Lucy when parents slept in separate beds. The explosion of sexual references in pop culture makes it potentially easier to transition into talks about sex.

Rosenthal advises you to watch TV with your kids to see what issues and material they’re being exposed to, whether it’s premarital sex, nudity, sexual violence, or something else. Beyond shows like Pretty Little Liars and Glee, the news, too, can provide fodder for discussion, like those weeks when Caitlyn Jenner owned national headlines.

“Talking about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner to me is the same as talking about how babies are made. A 13-year-old might want to know what transgender means, or even the details of the surgery,” she says. “Hang out in those conversations. But don’t limit it to that. If they see two boys or two girls kissing on TV, you can talk about homosexuality even if it’s uncomfortable for you. Don’t make talk about sex taboo.”

Rosenthal says it’s natural and normal for parents to include their own ethics and morals into these conversations, but it’s also important to prepare your children to live in a diverse world.

Experts say to beware the avoidance urge. Some parents choose to ignore sexually themed content when it comes on the television, like a plotline that includes teen pregnancy or racy advertising such as a scantily clad Kate Upton promoting a game app. “Don’t pretend you didn’t see it and your child didn’t see it,” Blum says. “Instead, ask them: What do you think? What does that behavior mean to you? It sends a message that I’m going to engage with you about things that surround us. That will leave them socially in a much better position.”

There’s also ample screen and Internet time that happens in secret, including intended and unintended exposure to pornography. So you might try, for example, to broach the topic of respecting women during a Hooters commercial for the Super Bowl. Blum says that porn has become a significant public health concern in that it teaches disrespect and abuse and promotes male domination. “Some porn can be very dehumanizing, especially to women,” he says. If you suspect your child is watching it, “I would strike up a conversation and say, ‘Let’s talk about how women are treated.’”

A good rule of thumb, experts say, is to read your child’s level of interest and let them drive the conversation. Monitor eye contact. When it’s time to move on to another subject, you’ll know.

Adolescence and “the Talk”

Kids clearly learn about sex outside the home, but what they glean may not be the full picture. Most elementary schools confine sex education to a two-day lesson to prepare kids for middle school and beyond. There’s greater variety among private schools, and some religious-based schools promote an abstinence-only message. Kraft and others say the school-based conditions are not ideal. “Public schools are limited in what they can do, and faculty are going to vary on their comfort level and styles,” he says, adding that there’s no standardization of what’s being taught and peer awkwardness can get in the way.

Rosenthal believes the conversation on sexual health needs to happen regularly. “Sex ed is not a vaccine,” she says. “You don’t have two lessons in school and then say, "You’re done; my child knows all that he or she needs to know and is protected.’ You need to revisit the topic and build upon what they know.”

In the absence of facts, adolescents will often fabricate theories, like you can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up. They will fill in the blanks through peers, the media, and the Internet. “If you’re not regularly checking in with them, you may not be able to correct misinformation,” she says.

If you’re not comfortable talking about sex, Rosenthal suggests identifying an adult whom the child trusts. “But you want to make sure the information matches your values,” she says.

Maria Trent, a Johns Hopkins pediatrician specializing in adolescent health, often partners with parents to deliver sexual health information during well visits. If a child is comfortable, everyone is in the room together. “Or when the parent leaves the room, I can ask if they have any questions or concerns. But the parent needs to be in the loop,” she says.

Potential obstacles for parents to sexual conversations are often assumptions, personal beliefs and biases, and the lore passed on by those who taught us. One approach has been to go negative. That’s understandable, Kraft says. “Some scare tactics are legitimate fears that parents have. I don’t want [my daughter] to get inappropriately groped. I don’t want her to get pregnant at 16. We all think along those lines,” he says. “But how do you have a conversation that’s not built on negatives? It can be positive. It’s good to feel good about your body. You can’t ignore that sex can be pleasurable.”

Some parents try to eliminate exposure to sexual subjects, placing strict limits on what kids watch or read, or they might advocate an abstinence-only approach. While nobody argues the merits of limiting exposure to graphic material, information deprivation can have consequences, Kraft says, as the person won’t be aware of how to protect him- or herself from sexually transmitted infections or risks of certain behaviors.

A common parent-held belief, many told me, is that if you talk about sex, kids are going to engage in sexual activity.

“That is a big misconception,” says Kamila Alexander, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Research has shown that the more educated you are on sex, the longer intercourse is delayed. In fact, teen pregnancy rates have declined significantly in the past 20 years, as have rates of teens having sex with multiple partners and the percentage of ninth graders who have intercourse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reason sex talk delays intercourse, Alexander says, is because it better prepares kids to make sound decisions. They understand the consequences of choices. Research has also shown talking about sex in the home makes the topic less of a curiosity and mitigates misinformation.

Teenagers and Talking

The sulky teenager who doesn’t talk is a common trope for a reason, but the good news for parents is that kids actually want to hear from you. In a recent Gallup poll, children ages 15 to 17 were asked who the most important person in their lives is, and a majority said parents.

“Kids look up to you,” Blum says. “When we asked kids [in a separate study] who is your hero, hands down it was mom or dad. Kids look to their parents for support through adolescence and beyond. There is no end. My own [adult] girls felt comfortable enough to talk about their gynecological visits with me. I was happy to be there for them when they had concerns and questions.”

Blum says you want to be in a position for your child to come to you with anything. While teenagers can be secretive, if you’ve had good discussions in the past, they know your door is open.

A question parents should ask themselves is: Do you want a facade that sex doesn’t exist, or would you rather arm your kids with truths? “Parents want to maintain this veil of ignorance, and kids pay the price for that,” Rosenthal says. “It might be a comfortable place for you, but it’s not best for your child.”

Parents should go easy on themselves and realize they don’t need to broach every subject. “We need to cover some of the basics and open the door to conversations, and give kids good resources and then check in with them periodically,” Kraft says. “When they’re older, ask them if they’re dating. Are they in a physical relationship? Are they happy? Let them know you’re interested.”

Experts stress that both parents should be involved in their child’s sexual decision making. While moms tend to provide more sexual information, men can be excellent role models. “Fathers tend to be less comfortable with sexual matter. Socially, there is a big fuss about expectations of masculinity and how it’s conveyed,” Thomas says. “But men should talk to both sons and daughters. Frame sex talks in a way you’re comfortable with and at your own pace.”

Parents can’t control all the information and messages, but they can consistently be there to ask and answer questions. “It’s a natural part of our health,” Alexander says. “So be part of it.”

Illustration of a woman and child with a balloon
Illustration by Anna Parini

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