I feel it is important to point out that I am not a parent myself at this point in my life. I can’t give much advice regarding the actual art of parenting, but I can provide information and resources regarding one of parenting’s big questions: when do I tell my kid about sex? It will be up to you to decide what information you keep, what you choose to leave behind, and how best to navigate these conversations with your kids.
One day when I was in grade 9, I was minding my own business at the kitchen counter. The exact details are fuzzy, but I think it was around the time I had my first boyfriend. Both my parents stood on the other side of the island counter while I sat on a tall stool opposite them. I don’t really remember what lead us to this point, but my dad said: “I think it’s time we had the talk.”
Cue internal panic.
Because we all know what The Talk is, and most of us probably feel some sense of awkwardness, nervousness, or outright fear.
The grade 9 version of myself decided, in no uncertain terms, that this Talk would not be happening, so I looked at my parents, declared something to the effect of “no way!” and scurried away.
Conversations about sex were typically shrouded in discomfort or a lot of rules that could basically be boiled down to “don’t do it.” There was no sex ed in school, save one video about periods in Grade 5, until Bio 30 when we coloured the reproductive system, and future sex-ed-teacher me loved it. I thought it was hilarious.
For the last 6 years, I have taught sex ed in schools around the city and outside of it. I’ve become incredibly comfortable talking about all things related to sex and healthy relationships. But the conversations about sex can be a point of worry or uncertainty for parents, so I am simply going to share some information to guide you in this topic.
1. reflect on your own feelings about sex.
- What was I taught (or not taught) about sex?
- How do I feel about the answer to the first question?
- What are my values and beliefs about sex and relationships? Have those values and/or beliefs changed over time?
- What do I wish someone had told me?
- What do I want my children to know and learn about sex and relationships?
If you grew up in an environment where talking about sex was a no go, give yourself grace to have to learn new stuff and undo those attitudes of sex as a taboo subject. It’s not like I showed up in my first sex ed class ready to launch into a lesson about pus and genitals and penises and whatnot. It took time. Let yourself first do your own work in order to be able to have these conversations in a healthy way. Therapists or sex educator friends can be a support to you in this work. (and yes, sometimes therapy is required to undo old messages we received!)
2. it’s so much more than talking about sex!
I tell people I teach sex ed but I always feel the compulsion to add on that it’s also about healthy relationships. While I do spend some portion of my time talking about contraceptives and STIs, at least half (and often more than half) of my class time is spent talking about healthy relationships.
Talking about sex is only a part of the equation. How do healthy/unhealthy relationships relate to sex? How can we expect people to navigate sex and relationships without the information they need?
It will be crucial to talk to your kids about boundaries, consent, the right to say no, assertive communication, trust, what do they want in a partner, and who they can turn to for help (You can read more about healthy relationships here and boundaries here but there are also many resources online that are not just my thoughts.)
3. start as soon as you can as naturally as you can.
I really resist the idea of The Talk. It shouldn’t be one talk that all parties feel too awkward to really engage in. It should be an ongoing topic of conversation that has just always flowed naturally. Think of it this way: if you’ve always talked to your kids about sex, you never really need to find the right time to bring it up. They’ll bring it to you.
For example, children should learn their reproductive anatomy as they also learn about all the rest. So yes, as you teach your kid what their eyes are or their nose, you should also get used to telling them “this is your penis” or “this is your vulva” [please note: vulva is the outer part. the vagina is internal].
Not only does this reduce shame or awkwardness around those body parts, it is proven to help protect children from sexual abuse. A child who knows the name of their body parts as well as where and with whom it is appropriate for the genitals to be shown is a threat to a predator. You can read more about this here and here.
That said, if your children are older and you still haven’t started the conversation, it’s not too late! Don’t despair, just get started. A great starting point is when you know they’re having sex ed at school (maybe even with yours truly). Ask them what they learned about, how they feel, if they have any questions – things like that.
It will be up to you to decide how much information is developmentally appropriate for your child. Do you need to launch into graphic detail about intercourse with your 3 year old? No. But you also don’t need to shy away from the word sex or where babies come from (my niece used to proudly tell people about the baby in her mommy’s uterus).
We have all had those moments when we are watching a movie with family and a steamy scene comes on and everyone becomes entirely motionless. These are wonderful opportunities to discuss with your children. Use media, TV, ads, anything your child comes across as an opportunity to discuss.
4. tell your child they can ask you anything without judgment – and mean it.
In my final year of university, I did a research study on the quality of sex ed in Canada. One thing I found so fascinating was that other studies indicate kids really do want to be able to talk to their parents/guardians about sex but they don’t know how or feel uncomfortable.
Build the kind of relationship with your child where they can come to you with anything: any question, any problem, etc. I tell all my classes this: ask me anything! You won’t know all the answers and that’s okay: tell them you’ll look into it and find out.
The problem is that if kids are not talking to parents or other trusted adults, they will go elsewhere for that information, most often the internet and especially pornography. Pornography is not a good source of education. It is often brutal, degrading, and predatory, and the age at which children are exposed to pornography keeps getting younger and most of the time, it’s by accident. A majority of kids have already been exposed to pornography by 13 and some as young as 7 years old! They need to know who they can talk to without getting into trouble, especially since pornography will seek them out – it’s not always a matter of children seeking it out themselves (but even if it is, don’t shame them. Curiousity is natural, but explain the appropriate ways to get those questions answered, i.e. “come talk to me”).
And yes, parents, it is important this comes from you whenever possible. My sister asked me once, jokingly, if I would teach her kids about sex, and I said “NO!” Obviously if there is a topic my sister or her husband don’t know a lot about or my nieces come to me specifically, I’m not going to shut that down. But it is important that, whenever possible, they get this information from their parents/guardians – and that their parents/guardians are a safe place for them to do so.
5. model best practice from an early age.
My 3.5 year-old niece knows a lot about consent and boundaries – not that she could tell you that’s what they are! My sister and brother-in-law have been very careful around hugs, etc.: if my niece doesn’t want to give someone a hug, she doesn’t have to. I know this can be a difficult thing to get used to, but it’s so important to instill that lesson very early on.
The reality is that I don’t want her to ever hug me out of a sense of obligation. I want her to hug me because she wants to! When I see her, I always ask, “Can I have a hug?” and most times, she happily obliges. But she has said no to me before. While I felt the slightest little twinge of sadness, it evaporated quickly because 1. I know she still loves me and 2. I’m so happy she trusts me enough to say no to me.
It’s important that parents model this for their children as well. It goes beyond hugs and even goes beyond consent. One thing I’ve learned from my niece is that little ones are like sponges and they pick up on everything: how you talk about yourself, how you talk about and treat others, how you handle conflict in your home – model the best practices. That said, you cannot be a perfect parent. Simply acknowledge when things didn’t go quite right and use it as a teaching moment. Growth, not perfection.
6. you don’t have to have all the answers.
I’ve been teaching sex ed for a long time, and I still don’t have all the answers! There’s always new things coming up, things are changing, and the internet is a weird place. You don’t have to be the all-knowing expert, but be willing to have those conversations and find the answers (even find them together!)
Depending on how you were taught about sex and relationships, there may be some gaps in your knowledge. Take the time to fill in those gaps. Verify the information you think you know, and research what you don’t. But be mindful of biases. There is a list of resources at the end of this post.
7. be open-minded.
Your kid might come to you with a question or concern that you have a hard time with or don’t want to talk about. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging your own discomfort or lack of awareness, but please don’t make your child feel bad for asking.
This is especially important when talking about sex. I have had the distinct joy of turning the tables on my parents and making them feel uncomfortable especially as I insist on using the proper terms for things (not that this comes up often – we don’t spend a lot of our time talking about penises and vaginas). But sometimes, my parents would get a little… squirrely. Try to withhold those reactions as much as possible: this is telling your kids that there is something inherently wrong or shameful about discussing sex. There isn’t! And yes, my teenage brother should be able to hear the word vagina or even talk about periods! (All kids should know about the menstrual cycle whether or not they will ever menstruate. It’s a bodily function, not something dirty!)
Of course, it’s important to set expectations for what topics are appropriate in what settings. Sitting down for family dinner at Grandma’s may not be the right time to ask a question about x, y, z. Just ask my coworkers: no one wants to talk about pus and discharge at the lunch table!
8. never stop learning and unlearning.
You very well may find that the lessons you were taught are not ones that you wish to teach your children. This will require you to unlearn some things and learn new stuff. That can be a hard and at times painful process. There are plenty of newsletters, websites, books, podcasts, and the like to keep your knowledge ever increasing.
You can never know it all but also don’t be too content learning nothing new.
9. check in often.
Even though I cover a lot in my presentations with students (seriously, it’s a good thing I talk so fast], I cannot cover it all. Plus, kids’ needs change as time go on and they have new experiences. These presentations are not a replacement for ongoing conversation.
Check in with your kids! Ask what’s going on in their lives, their friends’ lives, or otherwise in the world around them. As they get older, talk with them about social media and the internet (could be a second post about that sometime in the future)!
Build that bridge and continue to have conversations – the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Here are some resources you might find helpful:
- @teachingoutsidethebinary [LGBTQ+]
- For Goodness Sex – Al Vernacchio
- Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend
- https://teachingsexualhealth.ca/ [Go to the “For Parents” tab]
- sexgerms.com [STI info]
- Centres for Disease Control [STI and contraceptive information]
You got this. The important part is to show up.