Don’t miss our advice for The Middle School Years and The High School Years.
A child’s education about sex begins from an early age, and as a parent, you are in the best position to teach your own children. We recommend a layered approach, giving age-appropriate information at each stage of life, and revisiting the topic many times as they grow. You may feel like a total rookie with zero skills in this area, especially if your own parents never talked to you about sex. Or you may just feel like you need to get a better game plan in place and update some of your basic ideas. These articles are meant to provide you with a solid outline, so you can draw inspiration and make these messages your own.
Aim to speak clearly and fearlessly with your child, with a welcoming naturalness, even if you have to fake that naturalness at first. Over time, you and your child will become more comfortable talking about this important subject. Keep the overall tone positive and good-tempered, not tense or argumentative. Our sexed bodies are beautiful, and they should inspire wonder and awe. Yes, at times you will have to set some ground rules and warn about some negative things, but always emphasize that the goal of the rules is to protect our bodies from harm and increase our freedom to love others with our whole heart.
Involve Both Mom and Dad. Each parent brings something unique to the conversation about sex. It’s good for sons and daughters to get face time on the topic from both mom and dad, separately. Moms can empathize with daughters about the experience of being female (starting her period, for example); dads can understand what a son is going through. And no one can explain to a daughter the psychology behind male behavior like her dad can. The same goes for mothers letting their sons in on the mysteries of female behavior.
Be the Experts. Your children should come to see you as the experts on this subject: authorities who know the facts, empathize with the feelings, tell their own interesting stories, and above all, keep their cool. This doesn’t mean that you will never feel uncomfortable or awkward when talking about sex with your kids (we guarantee you will). But how you respond to them—especially when they ask a difficult question or share an embarrassing situation—will signal to them whether you are the right person with whom to hash out these issues. So, do all you can to appear unfazed by their concerns, and warmly welcome their inquiry.
Be the First Responders. Aim to speak to your children first, before schoolteachers or peers start talking to them. Sadly, sex talk today is often mixed up with appeals to accept or participate in unethical behavior or even violence. It is better for mom and dad to be the first to introduce the subject, so as to explain the great beauty of and place for bodily love. As we often say at CanaVox, “Better a year too early than five minutes too late.”
Dialogue Often. Once you start these conversations with your kids, aim to continue having them regularly. We have found that initiating the dialogue with a nine- or ten-year-old is much easier than with a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old in the throes of puberty. Interjecting simple, short conversations—even during the most awkward periods of time—is important so that you do not completely lose touch with your kids’ thoughts regarding sex during critical decision-making stages. If you go for a long time without broaching the subject, it can be hard to reinitiate the connection. Also, we recommend a Socratic approach; don’t lecture. Ask good questions, and then listen to their answers so you can meet them where they are and build from there. The more that your children can participate in and add to the conversation, the more ownership they will feel over the ideas exchanged.
From a very young age, children are aware of mommy and daddy’s signs of affection—like speaking and touching kindly, holding hands, dancing, modest kissing, and serving one another’s needs. These physical and emotional displays of love will imprint on your children’s memory and influence their later understanding of love. As they grow, they will find it natural to understand that there are many ways to show love, and that sex is the culminating way in which a couple shows their love for one another in marriage.
Explain to preschool children that they have special private parts. Girls have girl parts and boys have boy parts. Use proper anatomical and biological terms, and explain basic (non-sex-related) functions: “Girls have a vagina; boys have a penis. Girls have three openings (or holes) between their legs: one for pee, one for poop, and one for babies to come out when a little girl becomes a grown-up mommy. Boys have two openings, for pee and for poop.”
When they ask questions, answer with simple, honest replies. If they want more information, respond to them based upon what you think is appropriate for their maturity and curiosity. If your children ask, “Where do babies come from?” you can say, “A mommy and daddy make the baby, and mommy carries the baby in her womb (or uterus), which is like a cozy nest for the baby inside her tummy. Isn’t that neat?” This is usually enough information. If they ask more questions, you can appeal to their imagination: “Mommy and Daddy’s love puts the baby in there,” or “The baby grows in there.”
Body Safety. It is important to introduce basic body safety at this age, giving your children clear instructions: “Other people should not touch your private parts except mommy or daddy (grandma, etc.) or a doctor who has our permission. If anyone ever asks to or starts to touch you or tickle you close to a private part, I want you to say ‘No,’ and move away from that person. Tell Mommy or Daddy about it right away,” and “I want you to cover up in front of brother/sister or other people when you are naked.” It’s also good to help them get into the habit of refraining from potty language or making jokes about private parts. These small messages help them to begin to understand that our private parts are not mundane and laughable but beautiful and delicate—to be protected.
When your children enter elementary school, they are ready to grasp basic plant reproduction, which can serve as an analogy for how a baby grows from seed. Look for a teachable moment, like the pregnancy of a friend, to raise the issue: “You know what? Babies also grow from a small seed, kind of like the way the bean grows in the plastic cup at school!” For some kids, this is enough new fascinating information. Others may ask for clarification. Keep answers simple: “Mommy and Daddy’s love makes a teeny tiny baby. Daddy has a seed, which we call sperm, and mommy has an egg, and when the two come together, it makes a baby deep inside mommy’s womb. Then the baby grows there!”
Some inquisitive children may ask about the mechanics—“How does daddy’s seed and mommy’s egg come together?” You can continue to use metaphor: “Mommy and Daddy have a special hug that puts the seed into Mommy’s body.” Or you can be more direct: “Boys and girls have different body parts, remember? Well, Mommy and Daddy’s different body parts fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The parts come together to join the seed and egg.” This may fully satisfy their curiosity or further mystify them. Let them take the lead in the conversation. If they ask for more clarification, it is reasonable to repeat it again with precise biology: “A woman’s vagina and a man’s penis fit together, and when they touch, the seed and egg come together.”
Sleepovers. At this age, some kids begin to stay overnight at extended family’s or friends’ homes. It is wise to speak to your child about personal safety while sleeping away, giving specific guidelines: “Always stay with your friend when you are at that friend’s house”; “Always ask for privacy if you have to undress to bathe or change clothes”; “Never share a bed with an adult unless Mom or Dad say it’s okay”; “Call home if you ever feel uncomfortable, especially if they are showing movies or talking about stuff you don’t like.” Consider a family policy of replacing sleepover nights with “stay-lates,” picking up children late in the evening. This makes it simpler if there are any concerns about unsupervised kids in the house: “It’s nothing personal; we just have a family policy.”
During this stage, children are usually rational enough for a clear explanation of the mechanics of sex. A good strategy is to raise the topic with a question: “Do you remember about the special hug that makes babies? Do you remember what it is called?” Leading with questions helps you to start a conversation informed, figuring out what they already know or don’t know, so you can build from there. Explain what sex means, about the “puzzle pieces” of the penis and the vagina coming together (the husband inside the wife). Most kids will find the whole topic weird or gross, and you can tell them it’s okay for this to sound gross, because it’s an act for adults anyway, not kids. But it’s important for you to plant the idea that it’s a beautiful way for a husband and wife to express their love for one another and the most amazing way to make a new baby: in the loving arms of its parents.
If children have not initiated the conversation about how babies are made by the age of ten, it is a good idea for you to initiate it. Don’t wait around for them to come to you. This is too important a topic to let slip through the cracks. Plus, if you don’t inform them, they may hear something that puzzles them on TV or from friends, which might lead them to go looking for information on the internet. Remember too that your child’s social environment can be a factor when deciding how early you should discuss these matters. Children who spend a considerable amount of time away from adult supervision are normally exposed earlier to the topics of sex and sexuality.
Warn about Porn. The average age at which boys are first exposed to pornography is around eleven, but it often happens younger, so it’s important to address sex, its purpose and beauty, as well as the dangers of pornography, beforehand, so as to help protect your child from harm. Again, you can start with a question, followed by a simple description of what pornography is: “Have you heard of the word pornography or porn before?” Wait for a response, and then clarify the facts: “Some people take pictures or make videos of naked people to show their private parts, and then they share those pictures with others, often in sneaky ways. Those pictures are called pornography. You see, porn shows things that you have never seen in public, because it is inappropriate to watch other people having sex, and that is what pornography shows. Do you understand?” Compare pornographic depictions to real life: “Sex is supposed to be a very special, intimate bond of love between a husband and wife. It’s their gift to each other. It’s not other people’s business.”
Continue with specific examples of porn-exposure danger zones: “Some kids accidentally see porn on a computer or a phone; other kids will see porn when a friend or an adult shows them these pictures, thinking it is funny or cool. However, I want you to be super smart and protect yourself from porn. So, if you ever see anyone looking at pictures of naked people doing weird things, close your eyes right away and separate yourself. Find an adult you trust, and let that person know about it.”
You might further explain some of the consequences of viewing porn—intrusive mental pictures, emotional difficulties, addiction, shame: “Porn images are very dangerous. They can be very sticky or hard to get out of our memory. The pictures can just pop up into the mind at times we don’t want them there, robbing us of our ability to pay attention to more important things. Porn tricks your brain into wanting to see more and more of it, and then the images begin to change the way you look at people. They rob you of your ability to view others respectfully by focusing too much on their sexual organs. Another way pornography can trick us is by showing sex in violent and cruel ways, but sex should never be violent or mean. People can feel very ashamed to tell someone they love that they saw porn, whether it was accidental or on purpose. I want you to know that you can always tell Mom or Dad if you see porn, and we will never punish you or be angry with you. We will always be here to help you and protect you. But we can’t help if we don’t know.”
Girls’ Fertility. Around this time, girls start their periods. Whether your daughter is tapping her foot waiting for her period to start or hoping it never comes, you can reassure her that Mother Nature arrives at the right time for each girl. In addition, how mothers talk about their own periods in front of their children can influence how their girls view their own bodies and processes. A mom’s grumbling or complaining can introduce dread or disgust into a daughter’s lifelong attitude, which can lead to her suppressing her natural cycle the first opportunity she gets (with artificial hormones, etc). Dad can show patience and be accommodating about his wife’s cyclical changes, and this tenderness toward the female body will not be lost on his daughter.
That said, when your daughter’s period does come, it’s important for Mom to empathize. Let her know that you understand her discomfort: “I know it can be messy, inconvenient, and painful.” Try to make her feel better however you can. Perhaps shop for a cute cosmetics bag just for her, in which she can keep her extra pad or tampon, Tylenol, change of underwear, etc. This will help her feel special and prepared. Also offer her encouragement that her cycles have a higher purpose: “You see, your body is designed to make room for another human being, which is amazing. Every month, your body makes this little bed to nourish any baby that might be created that cycle. Each month that you are not pregnant, which is the right thing for now, your body gets rid of that unused bed to make way for a fresh one. During those difficult times of the month, take extra sweet care of yourself, to let your body do its thing.” Statements like these will help your daughter embrace her femininity as a unique gift rather than as something unfair or cruel for women to bear. All of this influences a daughter’s later view of sex, her vagina, her cycle, and pregnancies.
Respectful Touches. Lighter conversations can happen with both sons and daughters about how people can touch appropriately in different scenarios. Kids hugging kids or physical-contact sports can provide you with natural opportunities to reflect on these matters together. By this age, opposite-sex siblings should learn to respect each other’s physical space by, for instance, refraining from play-wrestling they might have done when younger.
By talking to your kids about these matters during the elementary school years, you’ll lay a great foundation for them to understand the beauty of human sexuality as they grow. Come back here next week, when we turn to conversations for the middle school years.
For hard copies of the booklet “Tips for Talking to Kids about Sex,” from which this article is excerpted, please email email@example.com. Other suggested readings about the natural law understanding of sexuality and marriage can be found at www.CanaVox.com.