Having the often dreaded “talk” about sex and where babies come from is typically recommended when kids are in about second grade. If you wait until they’re older, they may learn inaccurate or harmful information from their friends or media.
When you have “the talk,” use medical terms for body parts and present information on sexual intercourse in a matter-of-fact, serious manner—it’s just a normal part of life that they’re old enough now to learn about. Ask if they have questions and say that because you want them to know the truth about sex, you’ll talk about it more as they grow up and want to answer any questions they have later on. This will help establish yourself as your kids’ primary source of honest information early. If they see you as unembarrassed and interested in talking about sex, they’ll be more likely to come to you with questions and concerns, including during puberty.
These “birds and bees” talks are early opportunities to help kids start to form healthy sexual attitudes. You can do this by talking positively about sex as an expression of love between two adults (older people, or whatever term you prefer indicating maturity) who care about each other. Reassure them about any worries. A common worry for girls is if intercourse hurts. I suggest saying that it doesn’t when they grow into women and when sex is something they want to do. Tell both boys and girls that sex should only happen when both people want to have sex.
When it’s not OK
Talking about other types of sexual activity other than penile-vaginal intercourse may be harmful at this young age, but should be discussed in early middle school. However, even preschoolers need to know the difference between safe touch (nice touches of body areas not covered by a swimsuit) and bad touches. As soon as young kids can understand, say, “It’s not OK and please tell me if someone tries to touch or touches you in places covered by your swimsuit.”
The several year periods of time during which children’s bodies change into adult forms is normally filled with angst and wonder. Today, puberty is accompanied by exposure to high levels of detrimental sexual messages and material. And sex is infused into every aspect of teen culture including speech, dressing style, entertainment, music, dance, peer pressure, and dating. Sexual coercion, sexual dating violence, sexual assault, and rape are unacceptably common in the lives of teens and young adults, particularly females.
Today’s entertainment media like TV, movies, and music are very influential on adolescent sexual behavior. Studies clearly link media exposure to earlier sexual activity, sexualization (objectification) of females, male sexual aggression, and beliefs that sexual promiscuity and impersonal sex are normal for young people. So parents have quite a job on their hands to counter these dangerous messages and replace them with healthier ones. Here are 5 suggestions to accomplish this.
1. Define sex during discussions. Teens often falsely believe that sex only equates to intercourse and so engage in touching, oral sex, sexting, and other intimate activities involving genitals and breasts while thinking and claiming they aren’t having sex. Any sexual activity can be considered assault if coerced or nonconsensual, and many activities other than intercourse can spread disease or result in regret when not part of romantic, caring relationships.
2. Watch and listen to media together and discuss harmful sexual messages and portrayals. Ask teens what they think about situations and say what you think, countering unhealthy portrayals such as glorifying sexual pressure or assault of a character (making perpetrators look sexy or powerful and showing few negative consequences for perpetrators or victims). Point out and disapprove of females being spoken about as body parts or portraying their worth as equating with their sexual behavior or attractiveness instead of whole people with thoughts, talents, interests, and feelings. Express disapproval of and don’t allow pornography because it results in unrealistic and unhealthy expectations for sexual activity.
3. State your disapproval of sex outside of established (or “committed” if this reflects your values) romantic relationships such as experimentation, friends with benefits, one-night-stands, and booty calls. Luckily, what you say matters. Also discuss the risks including regret, feeling lower self-esteem or being used (thinking that a romantic relationship will begin when it doesn’t), being sexually assaulted or accused of it, sexual infections, and unintended pregnancy.
4. Discuss the benefits of delaying sexual activity and that you expect them to do that, not because sex is bad, but because delaying it will allow them to be kids longer and enjoy full childhoods free from the angst and pressure that dating and young sexual activity bring. They’ll also have more time to form and maintain close relationships with family and friends and to enjoy them. Everyone only has one childhood and it goes by way too quickly, right?
5. Encourage dreaming about and looking forward to healthy sexual relationships with partners who care about them during their adult lives. Don’t be afraid to say that private self-touch (yes, masturbation) is a normal, healthy activity, even for kids. This makes you seem open to talking about anything sexual, which is what you want. Let your kids hear you say that sexual activity is a pleasant part of a normal, healthy adulthood but you want them to be able to enjoy being a kid for as long as they can.
Discussions like these can give your children the lasting gift of healthy expectations for the sexual part of their lives.
For information on youth sexualization, sexual abuse, and other sexual aggression and violence, see Dr. Berdahl’s new book, WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression and website www.warningsignsforparents.com.