What is it about sex? It’s the only subject where we hold on to knowledge in a little box and one day decide our children are old enough to hear about it, so we dump the contents of the box into their laps, says Deborah Roffman, teen sexuality expert and author of Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex.
“We don’t teach anything else that way,” Roffman points out. Instead of dumping the box we need to provide info about sex and gender in a spiral that becomes increasingly complex as kids are able to handle it, she says.
The essential goal: To become your child’s go-to person on the subject of sex from a young age. “You want to be approachable so they can ask you anything,” she says. “You want to be the voice in their heads and the lens on their eyes—because if you’re not there first you can guarantee that someone else is going to fill their heads or popular culture will be the default instead of you.”
RELATED: Talking to Kids About Masturbation
When should you talk to your kids about sex and what should you say? The importance of timing is something that Roffman has learned after more than 35 years teaching sexuality education to grades 4-12. Here are some of her age-by-age recommendations for teachable moments:
Ages 4-6 years
At this age children want to know about their origins. But when they ask, “where did I come from?” they’re not asking about adult sex, says Roffman. They want to know where was I (inside mom’s uterus), how did I come out? (Mom pushed you out of an opening called a vagina), and how did I get in there (dad makes sperm and mom makes eggs and there are parts of their bodies—the penis and vagina—that fit together like a puzzle to get the sperm and egg together to make a baby). When given this information, the child will probably say, “Oh.” “You’ve answered their questions,” says Roffman; it’s unlikely they’ll want to know any gory details about the sex act, she says.
In second grade kids become very curious about gender. This is a great time for parents to get proactive about helping children understand what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl—and to dispel gender myths. “Most of what kids are exposed to about being a girl or boy is totally arbitrary,” says Roffman. “You can point out to them, for example, that everything is sex-typed for girls and boys for purposes of making money; that’s why there’s a pink bingo set and a blue bingo set.” But how boys and girls are “supposed” to feel and act can be guided by what you tell and teach them, she says. Dispelling gender myths early on (that girls have to be “pleasers” or that boys need to be bossy and in charge) can have an impact on sexual expectations and roles later.
A lot of playground chatter starts in third grade as kids suddenly pay attention to this thing called “sex.” Some kids are exposed to lots of misinformation about “doing it” as well as derogatory terms like “slut,” says Roffman. Instead of letting them draw conclusions based on third grade logic (and since talking about sex may be taboo at school), it’s important for Mom and Dad to be “askable.” Kids this age still expect their parents to set limits and are very interested in “fairness,” so it’s a good time for parents to talk about hurtful words related to sex, in addition to going over the mechanics of “doing it” if asked.
Early adolescence involves a lot of body changes and an increasing interest in sex and the media. It’s important for kids to have an adult help them process what they’re going through, feeling and seeing as well as telling them things like “here’s why you want to start wearing deodorant!” Roffman recommends It’s Perfectly Normal, a Robie Harris book that shows a range of bodies and how they’re shaped. “Kids want to know that they are normal,” she says. They also want to understand how sex fits into American popular culture—clothes, music and media, which provides conversational openings. Learning about sexual behavior in the context of your own family values makes it a safe topic, Roffman says.
Middle adolescence is the time do what Roffman calls “educating for yes.” That means acknowledging that sex is going to be part of your child’s life as they grow. Sex, however, doesn’t mean “intercourse.” Kids need to learn that sex is a range of behaviors along a continuum of increasingly intimate behaviors. Once they understand that it’s not all about intercourse, they can make smarter decisions about what is right for them at different stages of their development and relationships. Research shows, Roffman says, that people make more deliberate thoughtful choices when they’re taught how to think about things. Many adolescents “let things happen” in sexual situations because they don’t know their own “terms” or “limits.” Parents can help their kids establish their own parameters for acceptable sexual behavior.
These are very tricky years, says Roffman: “This is the age group that scares me the most because they’re hiding—they’re working out so much internally,” she says. These early high school years are when kids feel the need to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to grow up, and that makes it harder for them to reach out and ask for adult support. Parents need to honor kids’ growing independence but shouldn’t buy into the idea that their children now know everything about sex. They still need practical sexual health information as well as comfort if they’ve suffered romantic woes. Parents can continue to use what they see in pop culture to talk about understanding the relationship between sex and intimacy or even that there is a relationship since popular culture—and often their peers—frame sex in purely physical terms.
At this age, your talks should be about how to be a healthy adult—socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically, says Roffman. It’s not just about safe sex; you’re reinforcing your earlier conversations about limit-setting and what adulthood really is, she says: “It’s not just about ‘adult’ things like driving or having sexual experiences; it’s about how they conduct and take care of themselves, not just what they do.” If you have been there to talk about all that life involves, including sex, in the earlier years, the chances go up that kids will come to you when it comes to making major decisions now.