Kirsten Drysdale discovers how to talk to kids about sex with help from sex columnist Maureen Matthews, and sexual health nurse, educator and founder of talking the talk, Vanessa Hamilton.
Bumpin’ uglies. Getting down and dirty. Doing the horizontal tango. Making love. Getting laid. Shagging. Rooting. Bonking. Humping.
There are all kinds of creative ways to talk about the birds and the bees. But when it comes to equipping our children with the information and skills they need to navigate the most intimate realm of human behaviour, not all of these terms are going to be … well, helpful.
Now, you might be thinking, Gaaah, don’t the schools have sex education programs to deal with this stuff? And the answer is yeah … but they’re woefully inadequate. We’re talking ‘the-penis-enters-the-vagina-okay-class-dismissed’ inadequate. Because let’s face it: sex ed isn’t just about knowing how babies are made—it’s about teaching kids to appreciate the pleasure and fulfilment that comes with healthy, respectful, intimate relationships; helping them to understand the full range of sexual identity and expression; and making sure they know how to manage their bodies and relationships in a positive and joyful way.
What to say and when
First point of order: there’s a lot more to it than just The Talk. This isn’t going to be one conversation strategically timed to take place on a long car drive so that your kids can’t escape and you all get out at the other end ashen-faced and pretend nothing ever happened. It should be a normalised, ongoing dialogue, established from the get-go—think of it more as a series of The Talks.
As Vanessa explains: “Learning happens all the time. You set up the conditions for this learning by being approachable, so that the child knows that it is okay to ask questions.” Start by properly naming the sexual parts of human bodies from birth onwards. (That means no more peepee-fufu-willy-fanny-dingdongs!) It’s not a big deal—when you teach nose, eyes, knees and elbows, don’t forget vulva, vagina, clitoris, penis, testicals, scrotum, bottom, anus, breast and nipples. “This gives kids a vocab for life,” says Vanessa. “Your children will have the ability to name a problem they might have, and they’ll also be less vulnerable to abuse from predators.”
Yup, that’s right: simply knowing the right anatomical language helps keep the bad guys away. And don’t wait for kids to ask questions before teaching them how to spot inappropriate behaviour—it’s essential that they know what that is from as early an age as possible. “Personal safety conversations need to start at toddler age,” says Vanessa. “Protective behaviours start with knowing the names of body parts and knowing who can touch them and under what circumstances. Teaching early warning signs and how to access adult help is an essential empowerment strategy to facilitate resilience in dangerous situations.” (An added benefit to good sexuality vocabulary is that down the track, when your children are old enough and ready to enter a physical relationship, they’ll be more confident negotiating intimacy and pleasure with a partner.)
Beyond those crucial, early lessons about body parts and personal safety, you’ll find a lot of sex education can occur organically, as and when questions like “Where do babies come from?” arise.
And here’s a good rule of thumb: if they’re asking the question, they’re ready for the answer. Feel free to respond honestly, at a level appropriate to the child’s age. A primary schooler probably doesn’t need the full biological breakdown of how a sperm fertilises an ovum (unless they’re gunning for a spot in the advanced science class), but by the same token don’t be afraid of giving too much information—your kids will zone out when they’ve heard enough (just like they always do!), and will only absorb as much as they can handle. Vanessa also suggests being careful about wording: “When explaining intercourse, let’s change the language to ‘the woman accepts the man’s penis in the vagina’ rather than the man ‘puts it’ there, or the penis is ‘placed’ into the vagina.”
It’s also a good idea to make sure you’ve had a chat about puberty by the time your kids are nine years old. You know, a helpful ‘heads-up’ that their body is about to sprout hairs from all kinds of places, grow new lumps and bumps, release blood or wet dreams, and probably get a few pimples to boot. Fun times! Not gonna lie: those years will still be a mortifying onslaught of hormonal upheaval, but at least your kids will have some sense of what they’re in for.
Don’t make it weird
Just as important as what you say when you’re talking about sex with your kids is how you say it—they’re very good at picking up on tone! Be aware that you might find talking about sex openly and positively with your children especially challenging if you’re carrying around your own emotional baggage about it. ‘Cause let’s face it: we’ve all got this kind of ‘stuff’ to deal with. It stems from our cultural and religious backgrounds, our parents’ levels of anxiety and embarrassment about sex, our own personal experiences such as abuse or teasing, and the lifetime of unhelpful messages we’ve seen reflected in the media. But if your own attitudes towards human sexuality are negative, you’ll risk coming across as disgusted or fearful. This is why Vanessa is keen to emphasise the importance of talking about pleasure, as well as reproduction.
“It’s all too easy to communicate the idea that sex is dangerous or naughty,” she says. “These negative messages can cripple a person’s ability to enjoy sex as an adult. This can be particularly devastating for girls, who are told ‘Don’t do it’ all their lives and then expected to enjoy intimacy as adults.”
So, try not to let your own hang-ups get in the way of having a relaxed and open conversation with your kids. Strip back the layers and focus on answering their questions honestly, and you’ll be giving them the best shot at a happy and healthy sex life of their own (one day!).
It’s also important to be aware of the way you discuss gender and sexual diversity. Try not to perpetuate limiting gender roles and inequalities, like the idea that a boy who has lots of girlfriends is a stud but a girl who does the same is a slut. Straight, gay, bi, trans—lay it all out on the table, and your kids will be better able to figure out where they fit on that wonderful spectrum of human sexuality (and know that, wherever that may be, it’s perfectly normal).
Oh, boy. Isn’t this one a thorny thicket? Here’s the thing: unless you’re gonna commit to a full-on off-the-grid Amish lifestyle, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ your child will view internet porn. You need to prepare them for it. (Don’t you wish we were all prepared for it?) The average age of first viewing is thought to be around eleven years old, whether that be by accident or intentionally. That might seem shocking, but Vanessa says there’s no need to freak out: “Kids are vacuums when it comes to wanting to know how the world works, and they’re naturally especially curious about sex and sexuality—a healthy way for every child to be. You need to be the main provider of information about human sexuality.”
So, make sure your kids understand that (most) porn is not a realistic portrayal of how sexual relationships work, and be open to answering any questions they might have about things they’ve seen—as confronting as that might be. And talk about sexting, the use of technology and online behaviour as soon as they start using the internet. “From the time your kids are at preschool age, your conversations need to include privacy, consent, coercion, and appropriate language and behaviour,” Vanessa says. “Start with examples while they are playing games or watching videos, and these skills will be taken through to their independent use of technology, such as unsupervised use of social media.” Encourage them to tell you if they come across anything online that doesn’t seem right, and reassure them their gadgets won’t be confiscated for reporting this to you and they won’t be in
You’re not alone
Talk to your partner or your children’s other main carers about how you want to approach the subject. There are huge benefits to all of the relevant adults in a child’s life being on the same page with this stuff, and it’s useful for you to be able to share the load. Plus, it’s great for kids to hear the information from a mix of genders, experiences and outlooks.
And where people can’t help you, books can! There are heaps of great sex ed books out there that you can use as props to support you through tricky explanations and conversations. Many of these include positive images to satisfy the curiosity of children, which might otherwise lead to unsafe internet searches. Vanessa highly recommends The Amazing Story of How Babies Are Made by Fiona Katauskas, and you can find a list of her other favourite age-appropriate books on her blog (talkingthetalksexed.com.au).
Are you sure this is a good idea?
Even armed with all this knowledge about how best to approach the topic of sex with their children, some parents hesitate to bring it up at all because of a few common myths. So let’s clear a few things up.
They are more likely to engage in sexual activity if we tell them about it. Nope. Not so. In fact, the opposite is true. Countries where comprehensive, accurate sex ed starts from a young age and continues through schooling and home life have much better sexual outcomes, including the delaying of first intercourse to a later age, fewer teen pregnancies and lower rates of STIs.
I don’t know the right answers. Don’t sell yourself short! Children see their parents as the most accurate source of information. Your knowledge is more than adequate to answer their simple questions, and to insert your family’s values. (Although, if it’s that science-genius kid of yours who’s demanding more detail, it might be time to hire a tutor!)
They will lose their innocence. The problem here is that this line of thinking implies sex is dirty or wrong. Try to foster a more positive outlook about sexuality. The reality is that your children are more likely to have negative sexual experiences if they’re not empowered with accurate knowledge in order to protect themselves and make informed behaviour choices as they develop.
It’s all good
In the end, you can’t be there for every experience life presents to your children. (And, frankly, it would just be weird if you were.) Your job is to empower them with the information and healthy attitude they need to navigate the sexual world themselves. Use Vanessa’s acronym—PRAISED—to remind yourself of what’s important in these conversations.
Positive. Always stay positive, because responding in a negative tone can be worse than anything you say.
Respectful Relationships. Always include these messages and themes into your conversations about sex.
Accurate Answers. Tell kids the truth, and don’t joke to avoid it because you find it embarrassing.
Information. Provide content that is relevant to your child and their age, cultural setting, family expectations and minimum knowledge requirements.
Simple. Simply answer the questions they have asked; they’ll ask for more details if they want them.
Empowerment. Give them strategies to avoid harm—such as from viewing pornography—and teach protective body safety.
Diversity. Remember, not everyone is heterosexual or gender binary. Learn about all the normal versions of human sexuality so you can be inclusive.
And don’t panic: you got this!