How to Teach Your Kids About Sex: An Age-by-Age Guide

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It’s a moment parents—and kids—dread: The uncomfortable discussion about the “birds and the bees.” The media depicts this cringe-worthy conversation as a one-time event in a child’s life, typically with the parent awkwardly delivering facts about sex and the child quietly dying of embarrassment. But the dynamics around “the talk” have changed significantly in order to keep pace with the ever-evolving and increasingly complex issues of sex and sexuality.

Today’s kids are living in a world where it’s no longer just about preventing teen pregnancy and STDs, but also #metoo, LGBTQ, gender expression, consent, boundaries, pleasure, body image and more. And (good news) it doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable situation for either party—at least not always. Use these tips to learn how to talk about sex with your kids in the 21st century.

“The talk” isn’t one conversation.

In some ways, it would be nice if “the talk” was a one-and-done conversation. But it’s not. In fact, if you want to make the topics surrounding sex and sexuality less awkward, having open, frequent discussions is the best way to do it. And, more importantly, research suggests that kids, especially girls, who communicate with their parents about sex regularly are more likely to make safer choices with sex and take less risks with their sexual health.

It’s never too early or too late to start talking.

As parents, it’s not uncommon to feel anxiety over having to discuss sex with your child, but in reality, having ongoing discussions that start at an early age can take the pressure off. Instead of thinking big, think small and age appropriate:  

From birth, use the anatomically correct names for genitals, which can be easily incorporated during bathtime and potty training. Using the correct names will allow your child to learn the vocabulary he or she needs to express health issues, explain injuries and ask questions. It will also set you up to use these terms for future conversations about sex.

During the toddler years through kindergarten, the discussion should focus on touching and boundaries—and what is and isn’t appropriate. This doesn’t explicitly mean talking about sexual touching, but that should be included. At this age, discussions about sharing, physical aggression (such as hitting or pushing), hugging or tickling other people can all help children understand consent and boundaries. Make it clear to your child that he or she is in charge of their own body and that other people are in charge of theirs. And while you don’t need to scare kids or get into details, now is the time to start telling them that other people should never ask or try to touch their genitals.

Young kids will also be curious about their own bodies. Teach them that touching yourself is OK, but it needs to be done in the privacy of their own bedroom and when they are alone. You can also lay the groundwork for more complicated conversations about gender expression and inclusivity by not connecting biology to gender. Experts suggest using phrases like, “a child with a penis” or, “a child with a vagina.” At this age, it’s likely the topic of how babies are made will come up. Remember: There are age-appropriate answers to this question without citing storks. A book like, What Makes a Baby, can help parents explain all the ways a baby can be made in the 21st century.

During elementary school, kids will need to begin hearing about puberty, as well as the range of gender expression and sex. This may require a more formal talk to discuss mechanics, but that conversation should plant the seed for many other, smaller conversations. A good book can make it easier. Here’s a few age-appropriate choices for the elementary-school set: The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls; Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys; and It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. Sexual identity and expression will become more apparent around this time, so make sure you are using inclusive language, compassion and open mindedness to discuss these topics. Whatever you do, don’t brush off or shy away from questions about gender. Educate yourself if you’re feeling unsure how to approach these topics.  

Once kids are in middle school, the topics are bound to get trickier, but the importance of these conversations can’t be emphasized enough. Kids will have questions about their bodies, about relationships and about the rapidly changing social landscape. Discussions should begin to focus on making choices about sexual activity and normalizing safe sex practices—and those conversations need to encompass more than condoms and birth control. The internet should be a big topic of conversation as kids are beginning to have more freedom online. You’ll need to establish clear rules and boundaries about their digital behavior, including not sharing sexually explicit photos of themselves or others and refusing to engage in online bullying behavior.

When your kids are teenagers, your commitment to talking about sex and sexuality from an early age will pay off, as you’ve laid the groundwork for them to feel more comfortable discussing these issues with you. While conversations about safe sex practices should continue, topics like healthy relationships, sexual pleasure and consent should be front and center—that goes for girls and boys. Too often, girls this age are taught to be ‘gatekeepers’ of sex, and that’s no longer acceptable. Both girls and boys need to be aware of their own sexual boundaries, comfortable voicing consent and saying no, respectful of other people’s boundaries and able to cope with rejection in a healthy way.

If you find yourself attempting to navigate these conversations without having set the stage early in your child’s life, that’s OK too. It’s truly never too late to start talking about sex and sexuality—and you don’t have to jump right into the tough stuff. Consider starting the conversation by telling your child that you haven’t been talking to them regularly about these issues, but these conversations are important and you’re going to start.

Use normal life events as conversation starters.

There’s a lot of ground to cover—even if you have approximately 16 years to cover it—but everyday events can be the best way to approach these subjects in an unforced way. For young children, a pregnancy is a simple way to begin talking about how babies are made. For teens and pre-teens, news stories about #metoo can be an opening to conversations about consent. And don’t forget to ask about the events of your child’s day. When bits of information are shared (your daughter’s best friend has a new boyfriend; a child at school is identifying as gender nonconforming), these topics can open the door to small, critical and somewhat less awkward conversations about often confusing and tough topics.