“When they were eight years old they all agreed they wouldn’t do anything, but now that they’re hit puberty we’ve got to have the talk all over again…”
–Bill Cosby Those Of You With Or Without Children, You’ll Understand
The most frequently asked question I get from parents when I give an overview of my sex talk curriculum is, “When should I start talking to my kids about sex?” Truth be, told many of them, like Cosby, already spoke to their children about sex prior to entering adolescence, but recognize that a new level of conversation and disclosure needs to be had now that they’ve entered adolescence and puberty.
The concern is that their young teen might not be ready or willing for that conversation. On the flipside there is the concern that they might have waited too late to continue the conversation on sex that began so many years earlier. You don’t want it to be awkward and yet you don’t want them getting the bulk of their information from all the sophisticated fools on the bus, playground, or in the cafeteria. With that in mind here is a general answer to the question of when parents should reengage their young teen on topic of sex as well as four other tips for having conversations on sex with young teens.
1. Don’t Wait Until You Think They’re Ready. A psychologist friend of mine asked me to guess what the national average is for when kids are first having sexual intercourse. I guessed twelve. She said the answer is ten. Surely there are some of you that are thinking that can’t be true and would like to see the research. Like myself you started thinking about all the variables—single parent homes, socio-economic class, education, early onset of puberty in girls—but that’s not the point. The point is on average they’re getting started early so don’t wait until you think they’re ready. Besides, you’re never going to know for sure if they’re ready until you begin to talk to them about it. If they get uncomfortable (which is different than awkward) then use some discernment to know when to stop. You don’t want them to be so uncomfortable about it that they don’t ever want to talk to you about it again, but you don’t know how cold the ocean is until you stick your toe into the water.
2. Do It In Stages. If you’ve never talked to your children about bodies and sex prior to adolescence more than likely it’s going to be really awkward when you initiate that conversation with a young teen (If you haven’t then even more of a reason to not delay any further). There needs to be a general conversation about their body when they’re five about the difference between boys and girls. They need to know that their penis or vagina is private, and they should never let anyone else touch it (You may be caught a little of guard by my choice of words there. More on that in the next tip). By eight years old I recommend you should have a general birds and the bees/“where do babies come from?” conversation. Fifth grade is usually when there is a more in-depth anatomy and mechanics discussion on sex in school health classes. It’s not a bad idea to preempt the school. After that having a more in-depth conversation is fair game as they will be on the precipice of adolescence and puberty. From personal experience my parents talked to me about sex in stages so when it came time to have the more in-depth conversation they had disarmed my ability to try and be awkward about it. They were even able to remind me of and pull out the books they used as resources to have the previous conversations with me.
3. Don’t Talk In Code. I’m likely dating myself with this pop-culture reference, but remember in Kindergarten Cop starring Arnold Swarzenegger when the small boy announces to the class, “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.” Part of the reason that scene gets so many laughs is because typically five year olds are taught code words for their private parts. Once again a psychologist friend of mine was telling me how they and many colleagues have watched defense attorney’s cast doubt in child sex abuse and molestation cases because the child did not know the anatomically correct term for their genitalia. There is also research on serial pedophiles where they confess to avoiding children who know the correct names because they know someone has talked to that child about their body. There really is no reason for us not to use the words “penis” and “vagina” with our children. When we don’t use those words or get awkward about saying them we teach them that those are dirty words. Thus we inadvertently teach them that their bodies are dirty gross and disgusting, which isn’t healthy for their development, nor is it true.
4. Dual Parent Involvement. Both mom and dad need to be involved in these conversations with their children regardless of the child’s gender. In other words girls shouldn’t be having discussions about bodies and sex only with their mother while dad stays silent. Boys shouldn’t be having discussions about bodies and sex only with their father while mom stays silent. The whole point of having these conversations with your children is not simply for transferal of information. It is about shaping and forming a healthy view of bodies and sex in your children. There isn’t so much different roles mom and dad play as much as, depending on the gender, different things they need to hear from each parent. For example, moms are best suited to talk daughters about menstrual cycles, whereas dad is best suited to talk to her about what boys are like. Dads are best suited to talk to boys about nocturnal emissions and moms are best suited to talk to him about what girls are like. Still there is plenty in regards to sex that needs to be both mom and dad talking to children and young teens together. The point being that if they have questions or want to talk further they need to feel safe talking to either parent.
5. Is A Weekend Camping Trip Really Necessary? If you have to schedule a special weekend to go away and have a sex talk with your young teen around a fun activity then maybe it should cause you to question whether or not you are creating regular rhythms where you are caring for the heart of your child (not to mention this tactic typically violates the previous tip). Put another way to drive the point home, if you aren’t the camping type and it isn’t something you typically do with your son or daughter, then they are going to think that something is up. They’re going to be suspicious and it will most likely be real awkward. For example if my dad wanted to have a more in-depth conversation with me about girls, and sex and so forth, then the natural rhythm would have been to initiate it during halftime or commercials of one of the countless basketball games we watched during my teenage years. Some of my fondest memories of spending time with my dad that nurtured my heart was watching the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers go at it during the NBA Playoffs in 94 and 95 while eating pizza from Domino’s. If you don’t know or don’t have a natural rhythm of caring and tending to the heart of your child by investing time in them with out an agenda then it is not too late to discover what it is or create one if necessary.
Conclusion: What Is Your End Game?
What do you hope to accomplish by talking to your young teen about sex beyond simple information transfer? Simply cautioning them to abide by a certain standard or moral code is not enough. You need to ask yourself, “Whom will my son go to first if they’ve gotten someone pregnant? Who will be the first person my daughter will go to if she’s contracted an STD? Who will be the first person my teenager will go to when they’re tired of being teased and harassed about choosing to abstain from sexual intercourse and intimacy until they’re married? They’ll rarely say it but young people are looking for adult mentors who are willing to show them what it looks like to be an adult as they are growing into one. Young people need a safe secure place to talk about how they are living out their sexuality. Teenagers need to feel safe enough to talk to their parents about their sexual lives even if they know they’ll be disappointed at what they hear. Sex is not just a reproductive process of two bodies joining together in a purely physical act, nor is it “the nasty”. There are emotions, feelings, and a sense of self, wrapped up in the complicated beauty that is human sexuality and relationships. Parents always have and always will have the most potential impact in their children developing dysfunctional or healthy sexual lives.