Illustration by Britney Balmer
by Jaclyn Friedman
Is it the right time to have the sex talk with your kids? No matter what their age, the answer is yes.
That’s because the idea of “the talk” is all wrong. If you wait until your child is ready for all the facts all at once, you’ll stress yourself out while missing chances to convey crucial information along the way. Instead, think about sex and gender as an ongoing conversation in your house, one that will ramp up gradually. For example, while a five-year-old doesn’t need to know about safer sex practices, they do need to know that only “yes means yes” when it comes to touching other people’s bodies.
Are your palms getting sweaty thinking about having a neverending sex talk with your kids? You’re not alone. I promise that practice will make it easier, and that knowing this isn’t your only shot to impart everything you want to say will lower the stakes for each conversation considerably. But if that’s not enough comfort, here are some dos and don’ts to guide you as you get into the habit:
Do start with yourself. The single most important thing you can do to help your kids develop a healthy relationship to their sexuality is to heal your own. You can get all the words right when you’re talking to them, but if you still have unexamined toxic beliefs, shame, or other dark shadows clouding sexual worldview, they’ll pick up on it by the things you do and say every day. If you think women who enjoy sex too freely are sluts, or fat people should be ashamed, or victims of sexual violence are asking for it — whatever it is, I promise you will transmit it to your children even if you don’t want to.
So start by doing a deep dive on yourself: How do you feel about your own sex life and sexual history? What judgments do you still harbor against other people even though you know they’re harmful? None of us ever get all the way to perfect, but the more you’re able to live your actual values, the better you’ll transmit them to your kids.
Don’t wait until it doesn’t feel awkward. Look, talking about sex stuff with your kid is always going to feel awkward, for nearly everyone. If you wait until you feel “ready,” you’ll never do it. Just let yourself feel awkward, and do it, anyway. Depending on the circumstances, you can even sometimes cop to it to make it a little easier. Try saying something like “is this awkward for you? It is for me, too.” It’ll help you both breathe a little easier, and model good emotional communication at the same time.
If you lay the groundwork early, it will be so much easier to expand the conversation as they grow.
Look for organic opportunities to bring up these topics in smaller ways, so it doesn’t feel like you’re springing it on your kid. See a headline about a sexting scandal? That’s a great chance to talk about applying consent principles to photos, emails and texts. See something about sex or gender on TV? Make the best of it with a little post-viewing chat about what you saw, whether you want to highlight something positive (“did you notice how he asked how she was feeling? I wish we saw more of that.”) or less so (“I liked most of that episode, but I didn’t like the transphobic jokes.”)
And don’t force it. If you try starting a sex conversation and your kid seems really uncomfortable, check in. Ask them if they want to stop and do this again some other time. If they say “yes,” do just that. Same goes for if they tell you to stop before you even ask. If you want to raise kids who feel comfortable both respecting and setting boundaries, this is a great chance to model that.
Do start early. If you have little ones, start by calling body parts by their actual names, normalizing childhood genital play (if you see your child touching their genitals, let them know that’s super normal and fine, as long as they do it in private), helping them reject body shame (this means you can’t engage in negative self-talk about your own body! They’re watching!) and teaching them about affirmative consent. If you lay the groundwork for this stuff early, it will be so much easier to expand the conversation as they grow.
Do focus on the positive. A lot of times, the reason these conversations can feel so fraught is because we get caught up in our fears about the sexual risks and cultural biases our kids can be exposed to as they grow up, especially if they’re not straight, cis boys. Try to counteract that by spending some time thinking about the kind of relationship with sexuality you most want them to have when they’re fully grown. Let that positive vision guide you past the roadblocks fear can throw in your way.
Do get on the same page. If you have a co-parent, or if there are other adults with a close relationship to your child, have a conversation with them to make sure you’re on the same page about the big stuff. Not only will it mean your kid gets a more coherent message, it will be a chance to practice having awkward conversations about sex! And it might even bring you closer together.
Don’t fake it. Do your kids have questions about sex that you’re not sure how to answer? Look it up together. It’s a great way to teach them that everyone has something to learn, and to guide them on which sources are reliable.
Do prepare them to do their own research. If you’re worried they’re missing some crucial information because they don’t want to talk with you, make sure they know where else they can turn. If they’re teens, I highly recommend introducing them to scarleteen.com, where they can read fact-based, shame-free articles about nearly everything under the sexuality sun, as well as rely on their world-class direct service staff if they have questions they can’t find the answers to. You can also leave around age-appropriate books for tweens and teens like Wait, What?, Sex is a Funny Word, and S.E.X.
Your child’s gender and sexual orientation is up to them to define. Your job is to make sure they know that they can talk with you.
Equally important: Let them know what sources are unreliable. I have a friend who tells her kids to fact-check with her anything they hear about sexuality from their peers. You could give similar advice about porn: Make sure they know it’s a fantasy, and doesn’t really represent what actual sex is like most of the time, and to check in with you or a trusted resource if they have questions.
Don’t assume your child will share your sexual values. By all means, let your kids know how you hope they’ll behave when it comes to sex. Maybe you want them to only have sex with someone they’ve known a long time. Maybe you want to make sure they never send naked pictures of themselves to anyone else. Talk with them not just about what you want for them, but why. When you let them in on your process, you’ll model for them a way of being thoughtful about sex.
But also, make sure you prepare them to make good decisions for themselves, even when they decide that means sending that selfie or having that anonymous fling. Teach them to use their reliable resources to assess risk for themselves and their partners, and to weight the potential downsides of whatever they’re considering doing against how much they want to do it. And whatever you do, make sure they know that even if they make decisions they think you’ll disapprove of, you’ll always love them and be there for them.
Don’t assume anything about your child’s sexuality or gender
You’ve probably assigned your kid a gender identity (girl or boy) based on their genitals at birth. That’s ok—most parents do. But think about that assumption as merely a placeholder. Don’t let it trick you into thinking you know more about them than you do. Until they tell you, you don’t know what genders (if any) your child will be attracted to, or even what gender they identify as. For example, if you have a little girl, don’t call her male friend her “boyfriend” if you wouldn’t call her female friends “girlfriends.” Don’t assume your young kid is “flirting” if they’re being friendly toward an adult of the “opposite” gender.
If your child is a little older, ask your prying questions in a gender-neutral way. “Is there anyone you have a crush on?” is so much more inviting than “Are there any girls you like?” And if you’re having a talk about safer sex, don’t assume that pregnancy is a risk. Instead, talk with them about the kinds of sex that can result in pregnancy, and say something like “If you’re having sex with someone where a pregnancy could be an outcome…”
Because ultimately, your child’s gender and sexual orientation is up to them to define. Your job is to make sure they know that they can talk with you if they are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation, or if they have new information about their identity to share with you. Don’t worry: If this feels confusing or overwhelming, you don’t have to go it alone. This interview is a great place to start if you think you child might be transgender, or if you just want to know more about what signs to look for and how to respond if you see them. And PFLAG can connect you to all kinds of further resources, as well as local chapters of other parents who are adjusting to the idea that their child is queer and/or transgender. Your job is to get the support you need so you can love and support your child unconditionally.
Don’t freak out. This one’s important: if you want them to know they can always come to you with questions, you have to prove you can be trusted. No matter what they tell you or what kind of questions they ask, try to react with openness and care, instead of panic and judgment. If you need to freak out later, in private, go right ahead. But keep a lid on it around your kid.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you want to study up some more, by all means check out Scarleteen Confidential, Scarleteen’s website for parents. But whatever you do, forgive yourself in advance. You won’t do any of this perfectly. No one does. If you do it from your heart, your kids will learn that you care about them, and that you want them to be healthy and safe and have pleasure in their lives. And that’s the most important thing.