A Better Way To Have The Birds And The Bees Talk:
And if you’re a parent, sooner or later you’re going to need to discuss sexuality and reproduction with your kiddo. But what’s the BEST way to talk to your kids about sex?
If your own upbringing was like that of many people, you want to do better than your parents did when it comes time to discuss the birds and the bees with your child.
But what is that better way? (Or, for that matter, when is the right time to have The Talk with your child?)
I was one of the lucky few whose parents did a good job with this subject. But in talking with peers over the years – first as a teen and a college student, and more recently with other parents – it seems that many others haven’t been as lucky.
So if you want to know how to rock the sex talk with your kids, this post is for you:
How to Talk To Your Kids About Sex
Also known as
How (NOT) To Have The Talk With Your Child:
1. Having “The Talk” Is SO Last-Century
How many times a day do you remind your kids to do really basic things? Like hang up their coats, put their shoes away, make their beds, clear the dishes, flush the toilet, or wear their bike helmet?
I’m guessing that whatever important life lessons you try to teach your child,
a) the lessons started when your kids were really young, and
b) they’re things you’ve had to repeat more than once.
Why should talking to them about human sexuality and reproduction be any different?Having 'The Talk' with your child about the birds and the bees is so last-century. Here's a better way to discuss sex with your kids.Click To Tweet
Hear me out:
The nuts and bolts of reproduction (and perhaps sexually-transmitted infections) that you learned in middle-school health class are only a tiny sliver of human sexuality. Especially in the #metoo era, your kids need to know about boundaries, consent, and so much more.
And believe me, in the era of the Internet and sexting, they WILL be learning about sexuality one way or another. (Probably far younger than you can imagine.) The earlier you begin this conversation with them, the better your chances of being able to steer the narrative.In the era of the Internet and sexting, kids WILL learn about sexuality. The earlier you begin this conversation with them, the better your chances of being able to steer the narrative.Click To Tweet
2. Broaden your thinking
Because human sexuality is about so much more than the birds and the bees, it’s important to start laying a healthy foundation from the time your child is born. Here are some of the ways you can do this:
- Use correct body-part names with your child from the time they’re an infant. Instead of “wee-wee,” “winkie,” or “down there,” say “penis” or “vulva.” Teaching the correct names of ALL body parts – not just the ones like head, shoulders, knees, and toes – sends a message that all parts are equally good and OK to talk about, and none are shameful.
- When you’re changing your child’s diaper, avoid negative judgments or statements like “Eww, yucky, isn’t that gross?” Even such innocent comments can start to create negative connections in your child’s mind between their genitals and what comes out of them. Instead, focus on more positive statements – “There, I bet that clean, dry diaper feels better.”
- When your child goes through those fun phases of running around without clothing, or touching their own genitals because it feels good, don’t overreact or scold them. Doing so will only teach them to associate their own naked bodies and pleasurable feelings with shame. A better approach is to say something like, “I know that feels good, but those are things we do in the privacy of our own home, when other people aren’t around – they’re not things we do in front of other people.”
3. Teach – and model – healthy boundaries from an early age
Do you allow your kid to go around walloping other kids all the time? I’m guessing not.
Teaching children that we don’t hit, bite, kick, etc. other people is an important first step in teaching healthy boundaries.
And understanding their own (and others’) boundaries is a critical starting point for future consensual relationships of all sorts, whether with a dating partner or a workplace bully.
I remember being so impressed when I volunteered in the girls’ preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Their teachers were already hard at work teaching kids to respect each other’s personal space.
Here are some ways you can teach your child about respect and healthy boundaries at home:
- Your child doesn’t want to give Great Aunt Alice a hug? Or begs you to stop tickling them? Respect their wishes. They need to know that their voices matter, and that the boundaries they set for themselves are valid.
- When you’re bathing your small child, teach them to properly wash their own genitals (using correct body part names, e.g. vulva/clitoris/penis/scrotum) just as you teach them to properly wash their other body parts. As you do so, it’s worth mentioning that except for parents or medical professionals in certain settings, it’s not OK for other people to touch or look at their genitals without their permission. (Nor should they be touching other kids’ – or adults’ – genitals.)
- While you’re at it, teach your child that if someone ever says or does something to them that hurts or doesn’t feel right – especially if they ask your child to then “keep it a secret” – your child needs to tell you or another trusted adult as soon as possible.
4. Acknowledge all questions positively
Whom do you want your teenager turning to when they have questions?
Or their friends (who probably aren’t the most reliable sources of information)?
Becoming an askable parent starts at birth.
Whatever your child asks, no matter where, no matter how young, it’s important to respond positively.
“I’m so glad you asked me that. That’s a really good question!” is always a great way to start. (And if you’re nervous, they are also great ways to stall for time while you collect your thoughts!)
If the time and place aren’t great – say, you’re in the middle of a checkout line – follow with “Let’s discuss that more later on the car ride home/when we get back home/someplace where it’s not so noisy”/whatever. (Then be sure you follow up!)
Telling your child to “shush!” will signal that you are NOT someone they can turn to with important questions like these.
This won’t stop them from asking; it will just mean they no longer ask you.
Affirming their question – even if you’re momentarily embarrassed in a public place – will send the message that you’re someone they can talk to about these important matters.Becoming an askable parent starts at birth. Affirming your child's questions with 'I'm so glad you asked me - that's a great question!' sends the message that you're someone they can turn to with their important questions about human sexuality.Click To Tweet
5. Instead of “The Talk,” think “ongoing conversation”
Kids are naturally curious. When they ask questions, keep your answers to the point and age-appropriate.
If your preschooler grumbles about eating vegetables, you’re not going to give them a ten-minute talk about all of the macronutrients in every vegetable on their plate, followed by another lecture on scientific studies linking vegetable consumption to better lifelong health outcomes. (At least, I hope not!)
Instead, you’ll probably tell them something short and sweet, like “Eating vegetables helps you grow up healthy and strong.”
Likewise, a preschooler who wants to know where babies come from doesn’t need the full story of the entire human reproductive cycle from puberty onward. And a child who asks “Where do babies come from?” is probably asking, “Where did I come from?”
A short-and-sweet answer like “A baby grows inside a woman’s uterus until it’s ready to be born” is specific and uses correct terminology, while answering your young child’s question.
This raises another important reminder:
6. Figure out what your kid is really asking
Rather than diving right into a flustered answer, make sure you know what your kid is really trying to find out.
A good way to do this is to ask THEM questions back.
For example, after validating their question (see #3 above), you might add, “What made you think of that question?” or “Where did you hear that term?” This will give you additional insight, so that you can answer what your child really wants to learn (and find out what they already know/think they know), without giving them a whole lot of extra info that doesn’t really address their concern.
It’s also important to figure out whether your child is asking a fact-based question or a values question.
Answering fact-based questions:
If you know the correct answer, you can answer the question. If you don’t, this is OK to admit to your child!
All you have to say is,
“I don’t know, but I can find out.”
Then be sure to do your research (see the Resources section at the end) and follow up with your child.
Answering values-based questions:
As a parent, you SHOULD share your values with your child. But at the same time, you need to encourage them to think critically about values (yours as well as others’), and learn to make their own decisions based on all the information.
There’s no point in pretending that values different than your own don’t exist. Your kids are going to figure it out sooner or later anyway (if they haven’t already). Acknowledging that other viewpoints exist will both raise your credibility as a reliable source of information, AND give your kids the parental guidance they want as they form their own values.
Speaking of which,
7. Kids want to know your values
As kids get older, they want your guidance as a parent on values. THIS is what you should share with them – not graphic examples of your own experiences and/or missteps. You are their parent, not their peer.
If kids of any age ask about your own sexual relations with your spouse (or previous partners), you should tell them that this is private information between you and the other person, and you don’t discuss these things with others.
Instead, use this formula to answer your child’s values-based questions:
“For some, _______; for others, _______; for our family, _______.”
This formula will make clear where your family stands on the question, while acknowledging that not everyone shares your family’s take on things:
- Let’s face it, your child has probably already encountered these other viewpoints, which may well be why they’re asking the question!
- This response both acknowledges what your child has heard, AND makes clear the values that you want to teach your child.
This formula is also super-helpful when balancing a child’s questions with your own fears that your child may run off to school and rock the boat with their newfound information:
- I’ve had to explain to both my kids over time that, while our family discusses these topics at home, not all their peers’ parents feel the same way.
- Because of this, my girls need to understand that their friends’ parents should be the first ones to raise these issues with their own children. Just as not all my daughters’ friends go to church or have been practicing math at the dinner table since they were toddlers, not everyone gets to grow up with access to some of the books I’ve mentioned below. While these topics are important, my girls need to respect that most of their peers’ parents would rather be the first ones to discuss these subjects with their own kids.
8. Consume media as a family
It’s important to stay on top of what your kids are doing online, and what shows/movies/YouTube channels they’re watching. You can then use this knowledge as a starting point for family conversations about sexuality, values, boundaries, and consent.
If your kids are obsessed with something they heard about from their friends, use this as a teachable moment: sit down and watch it with them. Then you can debrief them on what they saw, what they thought of it, and whether the characters made good choices or treated other people with respect.
When my younger brother Evan and I were growing up, Evan was forever coming home from the bus stop with tales of the latest R-rated movies. Another boy at the bus stop, Danny, was the same age as Evan – but as a 6, 7, and 8-year-old, he got to watch “R” movies with his older brothers (and his parents’ blessing).
One day my mama got sick of this, picked one of the movies, and insisted that my brother and I watch it with her. Afterward, she led us through a thorough discussion of the choices the characters had made, how those choices had turned out for them, and whether the movies were as wonderful as Danny had made them out to be. My brother quickly realized that Danny’s version of these films had been exaggerated at best.
With online predators, sexting, and pornography just a click or two away in the internet era, staying on top of your kids’ media consumption is more important than ever. Limiting screen time, setting family ground rules for online activities (e.g., limiting device use when adults aren’t around), and staying on top of your kids’ browsing habits are just as important as teaching them appropriate online behavior (e.g., if you’re not OK with your grandparents or future boss seeing it, you shouldn’t post it).
9. Stock your family library with helpful resources
There are so many great resources available to help with becoming an askable parent – the kind of parent your kids will turn to when they have questions about sexuality and relationships.
While you can read these books together with your child, the children’s books I am listing here are also appropriate for kids to read to themselves at the recommended ages.
For toddlers and preschoolers:
Where Do Babies Come From? (The Just-Enough Difficult Topics Made Easy Series) by Dr. Jillian Roberts – A great introduction to the basics from a mother and renowned educator with a Ph.D. in psychology. The Q&A format makes this book super-user-friendly for parents, and is a great “first introduction” to this topic for very young children.
What’s In There? All About Before You Were Born by Robie H. Harris follows two siblings and their conversations as they await their new baby sibling’s birth. Written specifically for kids ages 2-5, it’s an accessible storybook that combines dialogue between the soon-to-be big brother and sister with factually correct information about the growth and development of their not-yet-born sibling.
Though less recently published (and thus somewhat harder to find), another useful book along these lines is Where Do Babies Come From? (DK Books). A great first book about how life begins in seed form, from flowers to ducklings to kittens to human infants. Not too graphic or detailed (if that is a concern for you), this book uses repetitive structure and broad strokes to make its point, with just enough information to cover the bases for soon-to-be older siblings.
There’s also Where Do Babies Come From? Lift-The-Flaps First Q&A (Usborne Books) – Fun lift-the-flap design, although somewhat mixed reviews for its organization and format.
For pre-K through first-graders:
Who Made Me? by Malcolm and Meryl Doney is a great choice for families of faith who want to give their children the gift of accurate information, without denying the role of God in the miracle of life. (Try reading through the Gospel accounts of Christ’s conception and birth with your kids, and getting them to understand why the virgin birth was such a big deal, if they don’t understand the facts of life yet. Ditto why Joseph considered divorcing Mary quietly. My girls and I had quite the discussion about these topics last December when we read through Luke as a family during Advent!)
It’s Not The Stork! by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberly is a classic introduction to human development and reproduction for children ages 4-7. Written with input from parents, kindergarten teachers, and pediatricians, this book covers everything from why boys generally pee standing up while girls usually pee sitting down, to what are “okay touches” and “not okay touches.” Combining factual information and sensitive drawings with a hilarious side running commentary from a bird and a bee, it’s a thorough yet accessible resource for all those questions that young kids might ask their parents.
For early elementary students:
It’s So Amazing, also by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberly, is written for ages 7-10 and is a perfect introduction to human sexuality, reproduction, and puberty. Children are reaching puberty earlier than ever before; girls beginning puberty as young as age 7 is becoming more common, thanks in part to sugary drinks and the obesity epidemic. This helpful book, featuring the same bird/bee and cartoon style as its younger-age companion, explains the process in age-appropriate ways to the early-elementary set, so they know what to expect in case they find themselves among the ranks of “early bloomers.”
The next book by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberly, It’s Perfectly Normal, is written for kids ages 10-13. Like the others in this series, this book is thorough in the bases it covers, and illustrates them with engaging cartoons that make it read more like a graphic novel than not.
Reading the reviews of this book on Amazon is more indicative of parents’ varying comfort level in educating their children about sexuality than anything else:
- While some parents feel the book is too graphic for any children under the age of 13, others have found that kids this age and older are less interested in the cartoon-style presentation of this version.
- In my experience as a trained sexuality educator of children grades K-12, I have found few older tweens who don’t find this book useful. In fact, it’s the required “textbook” for our church’s sexuality education and values formation program for grades 4-6.
I received a free copy of *this book in exchange for my honest and unbiased review; all opinions are my own.
Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, by Ruth Bell, is a thorough handbook for teens that covers everything they and their friends may be facing or wondering. Written in conjunction with teenagers, and featuring interview excerpts from hundreds of actual teens, it covers everything from bodily changes, relationships, and teenage hormones to eating disorders and living with violence or substance abuse.
In my experience working with 7th- and 8th-graders in our church’s sexuality education and values formation program, middle-school students would rather NOT discuss these topics with grownups. But this classic book, currently in its 3rd edition, gives them thorough answers to many of the questions they’re afraid to ask, or encounter in conversations with their peers.
*In Case You’re Curious: Questions About Sex From Young People, With Answers From The Experts (Planned Parenthood) is somewhat more narrowly focused on sexuality, anatomy, reproduction, and relationships than the previous book – but is also even more accessible. Just released in 2019, it’s the newest book I’m including here, and it’s definitely a book written for the 21st century.
Much as I love the previous book, it reads like something written for the pre-internet era, when attention spans were longer – and the photos can definitely come across as dated. This newer book answers hundreds of questions in “sound-byte” format (one question per small-format page), and includes an entire chapter of Q&A on consent. Though the questions are grouped into topic-specific chapters, its format is perfect for either a cover-to-cover read or use as a quick reference guide.
Resources for parents:
From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, from Infancy to Middle School is the revised version of Rev. Debra W. Haffner’s landmark parents’ guide. Haffner writes from the unique perspective of both ordained clergy and a longtime sexuality educator. Because of this, Haffner’s book is an excellent “best practices” guide for parents on how to teach values to your child while raising them to be healthy, responsible individuals. (It’s also worth checking out her other books on talking to your kids about sex and growing up.)
If you’ve made it this far and are still squeamish about the thought of discussing sexuality with your children, Deborah Roffman’s Talk To Me First: Everything You Need To Know To Become Your Kids’ “Go-To Person About Sex is the book you need. She tells it like it is to 21st century parents – yes, kids ARE “learning” about these things earlier than ever before, and it’s up to parents to get to the conversation before their kids’ peers do. Moreover, she makes her case in a way that gives parents the tools they need to discuss sexuality with their children.
For those already comfortable with the thought of discussing sexuality with their kids, Mary Gossart’s There’s No Place Like Home…For Sex Education covers similar information and talking points as the previous two books, but in a quick-read format. Like Haffner’s book, each chapter addresses a different age range, so it’s easy to jump around and read just the chapter(s) most relevant to your offspring’s current age(s). But whereas the previous two books require a more sustained attention span, this short book’s quick-read format makes it easy to zip through relevant sections while waiting in school pickup lines.
10. Know where to go for more information
The wealth of information – and misinformation – available on the Internet is a blessing and a curse for kids and parents alike. Knowing where to go – and being able to steer your kids toward trusted resources geared toward them – will put you many steps ahead:
Resources for parents:
Advocates for Youth Rights, Respect, Responsibility Curriculum for K-12 – a searchable database of downloadable lesson plans on a wide range of topics pertaining to sexuality and health.
Answer’s Parent Resources Page – links to books, websites, and other resources for parents to help them discuss sexuality with their kids, from Rutgers University’s Answer center (formerly the New Jersey Network for Family Life Education).
Power to Decide #TalkingIsPower Resources for Parents – tools and resources for talking to your kids about sexuality.
Resources for youth:
Scarleteen – a reliable and comprehensive resource, written for teens by teens (and rigorously fact-checked by knowledgeable adults) – the original go-to source of reliable sexuality information online for teens and young adults.
Sex, Etc. – a blog with articles by teens, for teens, published under the oversight of Answer at Rutgers University (see above).
Resources for both parents and their youth:
Go Ask Alice – established in 1993 for Columbia University students only, this online Q&A forum for all health-related topics (including, but not only, questions about reproductive health). Here you can search their entire online repository of previously asked and answered questions, as well as submit new questions for answer. Older Q&As are regularly revisited, and updated as needed, to keep pace with the latest medically accurate information.
Sex&U.CA – Easy-to-navigate informational website, well-organized by topic, from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.
Gender Spectrum’s Resources page – with links for parents, youth, and educators who want more information about gender-nonconformity.
It’s OK if you’re not comfortable talking about sexuality with your kids. But if you want them to grow up happy, healthy, safe, and making responsible choices, it’s important to become your children’s first and most important teacher.
The sooner you begin the conversation, the more input you’ll have into what they ultimately learn about this important topic, and the values they ultimately adopt for themselves.
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