The most common question I hear from parents is, “At what age should I start talking with my kids about sexuality?” When this happens, I usually ask what they think.
Some of the responses I hear include:
- “I wait for my kids to start asking questions”
- “Right around puberty”
- “High school – that’s when most of them starting having sex, right?”
Behind these answers for many is an implicit desire to not have to talk about sexuality at all, let alone with younger children. Behind these answers is a range of thoughts and concerns:
“If I don’t bring it up, maybe they won’t”
“If I talk with them about sex, aren’t I encouraging them to start doing it?”
“Maybe they haven’t thought about it yet”
“But s/he’s my baby – can’t I keep them innocent just a little while longer?”
It’s normal to feel nervous about talking with our children about sexuality. But as you will read, there is nothing to be afraid of.
Fear Keeps Us From Doing Our Job As Parents
When I encourage parents to talk with their children about sexuality, they often hear “sex” and think sexual behaviors; they hear “sexuality” and think “sexual orientation.” This is how so many social conservatives are effective at scaring parents out of school-based sexuality education, screaming about how schools want to teach their kids how to have sex; that there is a “gay agenda” trying to inculcate their children.
Having been a sexuality educator for more than 20 years – and a parent for 13 of those years – let me tell you, neither is true. The only thing to be afraid of is what happens when you don’t talk with your children about sexuality.
Let’s go through each of the statements I mentioned above and explore why none of them provides an excuse for not talking with your children about sexuality.
“If I Don’t Bring It Up, Maybe They Won’t”
You WANT your kids to bring it up. You want your kids to feel they can talk with you about any and everything. That’s one way you know you have a good, strong connection with them. If you never bring up sexuality-related issues – or you change the subject when they do, or label a question or situation as “inappropriate” and then move on – you are telling them loud and clear that you are not someone they can talk with about sex and sexuality. That means they won’t come to you when they have questions – they’ll go elsewhere. Like to a friend, or online.
“If I Talk With Them About Sex, Aren’t I Encouraging Them To Start Doing It?”
Nope. In fact, research shows just the opposite to be true. When parents talk with their children about sexuality – including their values and beliefs as well as factual information – young people tend to wait to have sex, and to use birth control and safer sex methods more correctly and consistently once they do have sex. When you talk with your children about sexuality, you are telling them sexuality is not a taboo or hidden topic, and their questions are nothing to be ashamed of. You can provide positive messages about how they want to be treated in relationships, and how they should treat others. You demonstrate that you are there for them, no matter what.
“Maybe They Haven’t Thought About It Yet”
Of course they have. Unless your child does not watch television or listen to music, they have already heard quite a bit about sex and sexuality — even if they are only elementary school-aged. They have seen images and heard messages about how people are supposed to interact based on their gender, age and appearance. They have heard language they don’t quite understand, but get the sense is risqué to use. You can let the media educate your children about sexuality – or you can use it as a way to get these conversations started and keep them going.
“But S/He’s My Baby – Can’t I Keep Them Innocent Just A Little While Longer?”
There is nothing about discussing sexuality that takes away a child’s “innocence.” Information is information – and just as we talk with our children about other aspects of the world around us, it is imperative that sexuality be part of those conversations. It just has to be basic and age-appropriate. We teach children how to look both ways before crossing the street so they can do so safely – we do not wait until they have almost been hit by a car to talk about it. Similarly, we need to teach young children — from the moment they can speak — about their body parts and that no one has the right to touch them on these parts. We cannot wait to talk with them about this until after something has happened to them or someone they know.
It’s Never Too Late to Start
Since I always push parents to start talking to their children early – and to keep talking throughout their kids’ lives – I will occasionally meet a parent of a high schooler who will say, “my child is 15 – it’s too late for me to talk to him, s/he knows it all already.”
Neither is true.
Is it late to start? Yes. Is it too late? Not at all. And while your child will probably know a lot by that age – especially if there is any kind of sexuality education in their schools – they do NOT know everything. Developmentally, high school-aged kids are supposed to be pulling away from their parents, to start to gaining and showing their independence. But they are still your kids. And our job as parents is to parent them – no matter how much they say they know, no matter how strenuously they roll their eyes at us.
There are many resources out there to help you talk with your children of all different ages about sexuality. You can find a range of books and web resources here.
It’s never too late to start. Make a commitment to talk with your child, and to keep talking. If you have a spouse or a partner, talk in advance so you know you are consistent with the messages and beliefs you communicate to your child.
Talking with your kids about sexuality isn’t always easy – but it is always, always important.