Talking to kids about sex


Most of us have an insatiable interest in sex. (You are reading this column). Our kids carry that same curiosity. And though it may make you squirm, talking to your kids about sexuality is vital for their development.

If you don’t want your kids to get their sex education from school playgrounds, MTV, or hyper-sexualized Hollywood movies, you need to start communicating with them. This week we offer guidelines on when to start and what to include in those difficult yet important conversations.

Years 0-2: Talking to your little one starts as soon as they exit the birth canal. Practice using correct terminology, for your child and yourself. This empowers your child with knowledge, and allows you as a parent to role model confidence with your body.

Don’t forget non-verbal messages.

Snuggling and showing affection in front of your kids is also a great way to role model love — and keep it going as they grow.

Years 2-5: As your child enters toddlerhood, you may notice an increase in self-pleasure via rubbing or touching. This is very normal. Allowing your child to explore his or her body without shame or embarrassment can be the best gift you ever give them. Of course, they may need some gentle re-directing to private areas of the house like bedrooms and bathrooms. But don’t push hands away or say it’s a dirty activity. Rather, give permission to explore their body and their pleasure.

Years 5-9: As you continue to reinforce correct terminology for private parts, this is a good time to encourage “good touch” versus “bad touch.” Kids need to understand that privates are sacred places of pleasure to be touched only by their own hands.

Feather Berkower, director of Colorado’s Parenting Safe Children, teaches parents body safety rules and how to prevent sexual abuse. Little kids explore their world in very natural ways, like playing doctor with siblings or neighbor children. However, Berkower warns that when kids are playing beyond their years, it may be a sign of abuse. She encourages parents to start early with sex education, giving direct, honest information and using literature to help educate.

“Just as you nurture a child’s mental and physical development with nutrition and academics, you must nurture their sexual development.”

Years 9-13: Oprah’s leading sex therapist, Dr. Laura Berman, suggests parents begin incorporating age-appropriate sexual physiology. Prepare your girl for ovulation and menstruation, and your boy to be ready for semen and nocturnal emissions. As they get closer to puberty, normalize the changes they are about to experience, including hair growth, deepening voice, oily skin, growth in breasts and penis, and the increase in sexual thoughts and feelings. You are carving the path to being that safe place to ask questions — whether now or later.

Years 13-18: Welcome to the hormone hurricane! Don’t freak out, even if your teen is. This is a great time to introduce birth control options and teach proper condom use.

A study in Pediatrics found that the greater the sexual communication between parents and adolescents before sexual debut, the greater the condom use. Timing, as well as content, was critical in helping prevent STDs and pregnancy.

So keep talking. Don’t assume your child knows how to say no, or how to negotiate safer sex. Also include current events in your conversations. Dr. Laura reminds parents about ‘rainbow parties’ where girls wear a different color of lipstick and the guy who accumulates the most colors on his penis at the end of the night wins. There are also ‘jelly bracelets’ whereby different colors represent different sexual acts a girl is willing to do.

These are times to ask if they think it’s appropriate to be sexual and, if so, to note that pleasure is something to be both given and received equally. Make sure that if they plan to be sexual, they understand the basics of the human sexual responses, as well as how to communicate in romantic relationships. (You may want to take a marriage enrichment class to brush up on your own emotional literacy)!

Tips for all ages: Your comfort level is contagious. Practice what you want to say with your partner, other parents, or in the mirror. If kids catch you off guard, answer as best as you can, then come back to the question when you’re more grounded. Remember, talking about sex is not just for knowledge building. You are instilling values around how you want your child to construct a sacred, safe and pleasurable sex life. So start early and do it often.

Jenni Skyler, PhD, is a sex therapist and board-certified sexologist. She runs The Intimacy Institute in Boulder,