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Talking about sex with your children


cartoon of boy and father having a sex talk (speech bubble contains sperm)
Illustration by Carey Sookocheff

Early and often the best strategy

There is no avoiding it: children are curious, they talk about sex, ask questions about sex, hear about it on the radio, and see it on TV and in magazines. One way or another they will learn about sex, and probably long before parents expect it.

While many parents want control over what, when, and where their children learn about sex, they may also be dreading the moment when they take charge of the message and have the “birds and the bees” talk with their child.

Fortunately, sex educators have found a way around the problem: parents can avoid the “the big talk” provided conversation about sex begins when the child is very young, and continues as the child develops.

“Curiosity about sex is a natural progression of learning about the body,” says Barbara Neilson, a social worker at Toronto’s SickKids hospital. For several reasons, Neilson recommends starting to give age-appropriate sex information to children at a very early age. “Sex education helps kids understand about the body and helps them feel positive about their own bodies. It also provides an opportunity to instill your family values in your kids.”

Neilson says when children find out about sex from somewhere else, the information will not likely be conveyed in a manner that the parents would have wished. “If you come from a family that believes intercourse should be saved for marriage, when the topic of sex comes up, you can let the kids know this early on rather than lecturing a teenager about it later.” There is significant risk that the teenager will not be receptive to such a lecture.

“I’ve had parents say they can’t and they won’t talk to their kids about sex,” says Kim Martyn, sexual health educator with the Toronto Public Health Department. “When these children become teenagers, the parents have more or less forfeited their right to offer their opinions. They can speak to them about sex as much as they want but these teens will not be receptive.” Martyn, who has written several kid- and parent-friendly books about sex education, says that this problem may begin with avoiding sexual matters but it does not end there. “When parents close the door about sex they close the door on lots of other things when the kids grow up. The child thinks ‘I’ve been shut off and that’s it’ and as teens they are less likely to speak about relationships, money, depression and all the other trials of adolescence.” Martyn says that though the door may not be nailed shut forever, opening it up again can be very difficult.

Having open communications with children about sex and other matters is healthy and safer in the long-run but that does not mean there will not be awkward moments. “Even though you’ve set up a positive pattern of communication, teens are still very private people, but at least they will only have that hump to get over,” Martyn says. “This means that teens will be more likely to approach parents when difficult or dangerous things come up.”

Learning from somewhere else: sex education at school

Not speaking with children about sex also means that they will learn somewhere else and much of what they learn is liable to be incomplete or incorrect. Depending on where a family lives, sex-ed at school may not be much help. In Ontario, Canada, for example, children in Grade 3 are supposed to be taught about reproduction, animal and human. In Grade 6, children are supposed to be given so-called “puberty classes” which include information about relationships, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases.

“The problems is, we’re not even following our own guidelines,” says Martyn. “There is the odd teacher who will go out and do it, but by and large, it’s not being done.” Martyn says much of the deficiency can be put down to not enough resources and conflicting priorities rather than moral objection. At the same time, students at Catholic schools in Ontario are probably not going to get any instruction on birth control. Once children get older and into higher grades, the situation does not get much better. “There is only one mandatory health credit in high school and that class includes everything from nutrition to drug abuse. If you drop out of Physical Education after Grade 9 which many do, that’s it. They don’t get anything else.”

Learning from somewhere else: sex education in the schoolyard and media

Other sources of sex information include a child’s peer group and the near non-stop depictions of sexuality in the media. A child’s exposure to both sources of information will probably begin much earlier and have a greater effect than many parents imagine. In the schoolyard, at best, what a child learns will be incorrect. At worst, it will be demeaning and dangerous. Moreover, recent studies have shown that children who are exposed to sexual images in the media are more likely to engage in sexual behaviours at a younger age. At the same time, children who have had sex education at home are less likely to engage in risky sexual activity. So turn off the television and get talking.

Okay, but how do you actually do it?

Birds and Bees tips as suggested by Kim Martyn and Barbra Neilson:

  • It is really important to find out what children are actually asking about. Sometimes when they ask where babies come from, they really want to know what ‘adopted’ means.
  • Read. There are great books for both parents and kids. Reading also helps get over any embarrassment.
  • When kids ask questions about sex, gently throw questions back at them. Find out what they know already and where they heard it from. This way, you can correct any misinformation from the start, and it slows the conversation down giving you time to think.
  • Do not worry if you do not know the answer yourself. Tell your child that the question was a good one, that you do no know the whole answer and that you can both look up the answer together. Again, this helps slow the conversation down.
  • Give age-appropriate answers. There is no need to answer questions they haven’t asked. Don’t overload them with information. They will glaze over and nothing will get through. Try to keep the exchange as a dialogue. This way you’ll have a better idea when to stop.
  • Think about how you were taught about sex as a child and ask yourself if you want your child to have the same or a different experience.
  • Some kids are just naturally shy and don’t tend to ask a lot of questions about anything. Do not wait. Initiate a conversation with the child about sex. Ask them what they know and what is being taught at school. Using examples from nature is also good. Even in the city, animals are courting and mating all around us. Addressing animal reproduction first is a great way to introduce and reinforce sex education about people.
  • Get ready for the fact that sex talk will come up at inopportune moments, like in a bank line up, and at full volume. Do not feel you have to answer but rather say “great question, let’s talk about that in the car.” Moments like these are also a great opportunity to explain about privacy issues. As the child learns about sex, you can let them know that speaking about it everywhere is not appropriate.
  • Start naming all the body parts before the child can speak. You can also use this opportunity to let them know that certain parts are not for others.
  • Answer truthfully. This will help create a positive dialogue and trust in the long term. If you lie, they will eventually find out.
  • Remember that sex education is a continuing process. There will be a certain amount of repetition necessary for children to understand.
  • If the child is asking you personal questions answer in the abstract. Tell them you understand their curiosity but some things are a private part of your life. For example, if they ask if mummy and daddy have sex every night they go to bed together, you can answer that when people sleep together that does not necessarily mean that they are having sex.
  • Get on with it. Kids grow up and learn faster than parents often imagine.

Jonathan Link
Medical Writer


Jane D. Brown, PhD, MA, Kelly Ladin L'Engle, PhD, MPH, Carol J. Pardun, PhD, MA, Guang Guo, PhD, Kristin Kenneavy, MA and Christine Jackson, PhD, MA. Sexy Media Matter: Exposure to Sexual Content in Music, Movies, Television, and Magazines Predicts Black and White Adolescents' Sexual Behavior. Pediatrics Vol. 117 No. 4 April 2006, pp. 1018-1027