6 tips for talking to your kids about sex

When it comes to the parts of parenthood that people dread, well, there’s so much to choose from. There are poopy diapers. Vomit. Tantrums. Nasty teenagers. But all of that pales in comparison with … The Talk.

The talk about sex, that is.

Nobody wants to talk to their kids about sex. Nobody wants to think about their kids having sex — the same way nobody likes to think about their parents having sex. As biologically unlikely as it might be, we’d prefer to think that ours is the only generation that has ever gotten or will ever get any.

But … along with changing diapers, cleaning up vomit and disciplining toddlers and teens, it’s our job to talk to kids about sex. So here are six tips for parents as they take on this daunting task.

Start early. If you wait until middle school, there’s a reasonable chance your kids will know more than you do. Plus, you’ll miss the opportunity to give your kids some context when they start learning about sex from things like TV commercials. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail (more on that below), but at least teaching them the names of body parts and steering away from The Stork explanation for where babies come from is a start. The idea is to set the stage for understanding that those parts are meant for something, that reproduction is normal and that we are all sexual beings. Doing this means you will need to …

Get over yourself. We all have hang-ups when it comes to sex, and it’s not entirely realistic to ask people to get over them completely (at least not in time to explain sex to their kids). But if we are going to provide honest and useful information to our kids , we need to find a way to get comfortable talking about the facts, feelings and values associated with sex. To get ready, you might want to…

Practice the words. Like “penis.” Or “vagina.” Say them out loud a few times, so you can sound natural when you talk to your kids. Not only is it a good idea to give kids the actual words, so that people can understand should they ever have to (God forbid) explain something that happened, it helps avoid future hang-ups if we are matter-of-fact and biological about reproduction.  Yes, you want to impart your values, and those are important conversations to have (more on that below). But if you want kids to be able to make safe choices, they need scientifically accurate information. Which means you might want to …

Read up on the details. If you aren’t entirely clear on things like how ovulation works or what chlamydia is, you might want to Google them. It’s no fun looking stupid in front of your kid. But as you are reading, remember that …

You don’t need to elaborate. There’s so very much you don’t need to talk about, at least not at the beginning. You don’t necessarily need to explain to little kids how exactly the sperm gets into the vagina, for example — it’s okay to just say it does. If they ask more, answer the question as simply as possible.  Teaching about sex, and all the feelings and values that come with it, is a process. It takes time and lots of conversations. That’s why you need to…

Keep talking about it. There are always opportunities, thanks to the media. And it has a way of coming up in daily life, too — like in the shower or when a neighbor is pregnant or when shopping for clothes with your tween (amazing what they market to girls these days). Dating, of course, brings all sorts of opportunities for talking about sex. When kids are older, I love the car for these conversations: they are captive, and nobody needs to look at each other.

But by then, the hope is that it won’t be too awkward. By then, the hope is that both of you will be used to talking about sex. Because, ultimately, the goal is to make sure you kid knows that as with everything, they can always come to you with their questions and worries about sex — and as with everything, you’ll be there to help.

So take a deep breath, and start talking.

Claire McCarthy is a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. She blogs regularly at Thriving, the health and parenting blog of the hospital, the Huffington Post and Boston.com as MD Mama.

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  • JR

    Hmm, I thought we were encouraging parents to use the word “vulva” to describe what most kids can actually see?

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