Talking to Your Kids About Sex: Tips for the Modern Parent

talking to kids about sex

A few days ago, we featured sexuality expert and author Cory Silverberg’s Children’s Book Project What Makes A Baby? as our One Cool Thing. The book describes all kinds of ways babies are made for kids ages Pre-K to 8, including ways to help your kids understand surrogacy, donor parents, co-parenting and adoption. So naturally we followed up to ask him a few questions about talking to kids about sex.

Should I be proactive about telling my kids where they came from, or should I wait until they ask? If I should start the conversation, at what age is appropriate to have that conversation?

CS: I think a lot of parents are so concerned about screwing up their kids, and it’s easy to get into the mindset that there’s one “right” way to do parenting. There isn’t, and that’s as true for sex education as it is for teaching about math or spirituality or nutrition.

But kids notice when parents are inconsistent, and if you are a parent who welcomes curiosity and questions from your child in all parts of life EXCEPT when questions come about where babies come from, you’re sending your child a message, which is that this is a topic that has something “wrong” with it. For kids (and adults) that can easily be read as something to be ashamed of.

So when parents ask me I say that the story of how your child came to your family (through birth, adoption, fostering, or however) is one that should be available to a child at any age. That doesn’t mean you’re going to explain IVF in detail to a 4 year old, or you’re going to share the possibly painful story of a birth parent agreeing to allow their child to be adopted with your five year old. The age of the child and how much they are interested in or how much they can comprehend should guide the level of detail. But there are ways of telling kids stories about their birth and your family that will satisfy them and lay the groundwork for more detailed conversations as they age.

The bottom line for me is that kids are better off knowing early, but that there isn’t just one story to tell them, and just as you aren’t going to explain war to a six-year-old the same way you would to a twelve-year-old, you aren’t going to talk about where babies come from the same way either.

In your experience, at what age do kids get curious about sex?

CS: As a sexuality educator my definition of sex is very broad and it includes how we feel and experience our bodies, our gender, physical pleasure and touch that may be sensual but not erotic, and of course relationships with others. So by my definition kids are curious about things that I consider to be part of sex almost from the moment they are born. Sex (when we aren’t talking about a biological assignment at birth) is a very grown up and socially constructed phenomenon. So if you asked me when kids are interested in dating, my answer is in the double digits. But if you want to know when kids are interested in feeling pleasure in their bodies, that’s a much much younger age.

How much should we reveal about our own sex lives – what’s appropriate to share and what’s not?

CS: If by “sex lives” you mean adult sexual behaviors, then my answer is: very little. I don’t think it’s necessary for kids to know much of anything about what their parents do in their personal sexual lives. Our job is to give all kids the information they need to both keep themselves as safe as possible and be able to explore their own sexual identities and eventually sexual expression in a healthy way. Knowing the details of any particular person’s sex life isn’t actually that helpful. And of course the truth is that almost all kids (especially once they’ve grown up) don’t want to even think about their parent or parents having sex.

Do you recommend telling kids specific details about sperm and donors and procedures when they ask, or do you keep it more vague?

CS: I think you want to have answers that kids will understand and you want to be able to give them in a way that doesn’t convey that there’s something wrong with the way you did it. One of the problems with the heterocentrism of current books about where babies come from is that even those that include stories about same sex couples making babies still leave them on the margins. There’s still an understanding that the way MOST people do it is the right way. From my perspective this is simply false.

As for the specifics that really depends on the parent(s) and the child. What Makes a Baby is written for children pre-school to around 7 or 8. So we don’t go into a lot of detail because for most kids that age they’d be bored. So partly it’s about giving your child a bit of information and then seeing their response. Some kids will want more. Some will say “okay” and move on to the next topic

What should kids tell their friends if they are challenged – (i.e. “Your Moms can’t have a baby…they need a dad for that”).

CS: They should show them my book! There are literally hundreds of ways people are making babies, in every conceivable configuration. But there are also a few things we all have to do the same way. What Makes a Baby is a book that teaches explicitly about the universal parts of baby making, the things we all do, but then it also gives parents the opportunity to tell their child the unique story about how they were made.

What is the best approach if you suspect one of your children is gay? How can I let him or her know I am there for them?

This is something I’ll be dealing with in my next book, which is for older children. But my short answer is to ask a question. What makes you think they are gay? I think those thoughts usually say a lot more about a parent then they do about a child (whether or not that child identifies as gay later in life or not).

What’s the best approach to talking about sex with kids (humor, serious talk, giving them a book and calling it a day)?

CS: I think the best approach is one that feels genuine for the parent and that takes into account what kind of learner the child is. So if humor is part of life in that family then there’s no reason this topic has to be serious. But if there isn’t usually a lot of joking around and then it’s only jokes when talking about reproduction or sex, then that sends a different sort of message.

But to go back to my first comment, I think parents need to find ways that work for them. I don’t think the goal is that everyone be some kind of groovy-best-friend-okay-with-everything parent. When you are talking to your child about sexuality you are also talking to them about life, about values, about beliefs. So if you are doing it in a way that runs counter to your own values and beliefs they will pick up on that, and anyway you’ll be less effective.

Of course I would like parents to be open to challenging beliefs they hold that are homophobic, transphobic, racist, classist, ableist, etc… But there’s a difference between the world we live in and the world I wish we lived in. And my job is to help parents where they are, not to try to make them be what they are not.

Let’s say I’m a straight parent, but I know gay, lesbian, and transgender parents. My kids play with their kids. How do I explain alternative relationships to my kids to make sure they don’t say something inappropriate to my friends or their kids?

CS: You can start by giving them language. Because we don’t talk about sexual orientation, or sexuality in general with our kids they are left to learn on their own. And they will. They learn in the playground, they learn by paying attention to what adults do and say, they learn from TV and magazine covers in the grocery store. As they get older they learn online.

So one of the reasons it’s important for all kids to learn about different ways babies are made and the different ways families come together is that even if you have a normative type of family structure and your child was made the old fashioned way, your child is out in the world with kids with very different experiences, and they need to be prepared for that in order to be able to make friends and build relationships across those differences.

In terms of saying “something inappropriate” there’s also a piece of learning to do with kids about difference. Making sure that kids know how to apologize, how to ask for clarification, and how not to make assumptions, will all go a long way in helping them navigate the world in a more respectful and compassionate way. This is obviously as true when we are talking about race or ethnicity and cultural or class differences, as it is for gender, sexual orientation, and sexual identity.

Cory Silverberg is a certified sexuality educator, author, consultant, and a founding member of the Come As You Are Co-operative. He received his Masters of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He is currently chair of sexuality educator certification for the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), and teaches on topics including sex and technology, sexual pleasure, and sex and disability across North America. Cory can be found online at sexuality.about.com, where he writes and blogs about sexual politics, education, culture, and health. You can pre-order and support his upcoming Children’s Book, What Makes a Baby? on Kickstarter.

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