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Are you ready to talk about the birds and the bees? A parent's guide to the sex talk

Young child touches mom's pregnant belly while sitting next to her and dad on the couch.

There is no easy way to say this - it's probably time to have the talk. The sooner you start preparing for it, the better. “The talk” is a rite of passage for most parents, but it can be uncomfortable. I get it. So, just how do you talk about sex in a clear, meaningful way with kids? Let’s break it down.

The talk is an ongoing one

It’s helpful to know this shouldn’t be a one-and-done conversation. Rather, it’s an education over time. It might get more detailed and involved as your child develops. Every kid is different, so every talk can be different. You can look for cues of where they are in their own development to give age-appropriate responses. Here are some phases of development that may happen.

  • Toddler: A toddler is beginning to know and name body parts. They may start to notice other people’s body parts. This age group may ask where babies come from but won’t need detailed answers to their questions.
  • Child: This age may be interested in learning about how genitals work in the body. This age group may need to begin understanding physical boundaries. Our gentiles aren’t to be shown outside of environments we feel comfortable as a family, like at the doctor’s office with a parent in the room. They’ll typically want to understand what’s happening to them a bit more than when they were younger.
  • Preteen: Puberty happens around the 9 to 12 age range. It’s important to have the puberty talks with children before then, so they are prepared. Around 3rd grade or 4th grade may be where the sex talk in traditional terms may be more memorable for the child. Their school will, most likely, have a health lesson about the body during this time. You may want to understand what the school is teaching, so you know what to be prepared for and what else to talk about. This age group may also need information about boundaries with physical touch and physical intimacy.
  • Teen: Possibly hearing more about sex from friends or media. This age group may want to hear detailed answers and have more in-depth conversations about their bodies, reproduction and intimate situations. You may also have to correct the misinformation they have heard from others.

It can sometimes be uncomfortable to talk with your child about some of these topics. What’s important, is you are creating a welcoming and safe space for them to turn to when they have questions.

How to bring it up

Since these talks should be happening regularly, they can often take place at any time. It doesn’t have to be at the kitchen table surrounded by all the literature. The setting for these talks can be anywhere. There can be perks to chats in the car, where you don’t have to be face-to-face at the dinner table.

  • Find teachable moments – Teachable moments are a great way to keep the conversation natural. It can take some pressure off the importance of the topic, too. This can be done through conversations about their favorite TV show or movie, a book they are reading, or even music lyrics. These seemingly unrelated sources of information can trigger wonderful discussions between you and your child.
  • If they bring it up and you aren't ready. It’s okay to not have all the answers. Often, your child may bring it up unexpectedly. It’s OK to not have the answers at that moment. Know that it’s OK to pause and revisit the conversation later. Let your child know you are glad they asked, it’s important and you want to talk about it, but would like to talk about it at a different time. Then, you can do some more research and bring it up when you are more mentally ready to talk about it again.

Who should have the talk?

Should Dads only talk with the boys about sex and Moms talk to the girls? Should both parents be there during the conversation? Well, there’s no official guidance on which caregiver should be the appropriate person to talk with each child. It really can come down to who feels the most comfortable having these conversations. Families are made up in so many ways, it’s really a great idea for whoever is having these talks with the child to know what puberty would look like for that child, and who the child’s caregiver thinks is appropriate to talk with about it.

Be accurate in your words

In the same way we describe an elbow, a nose, a leg – try to also use accurate words to describe sexual organs. It’s also important to be accurate in describing the process – so, avoid any stork talk.

Using accurate words and answers is only going to help them better understand information. If they know the actual terminology, it will help everyone down the road not have to circle back and clarify things.

What to cover

Keeping in mind the different answers needed for each age group, what you actually talk about will vary greatly depending on the child’s age. What you say, specifically, will also vary greatly depending on your own values, cultural beliefs, religious beliefs and personal experiences. Here are some topics you may want to be prepared for:

You don’t have to do this alone

You may not have all the answers or information. Some of us didn’t have the best “talks” with our own parents. There can be a big educational gap, and that’s OK. Many parents are in the same situation. Remember:

  • It’s OK to pause. It’s OK to pause the conversation. You are allowed to take a pause and come back to it when you are ready or have more information.
  • Get prepared. It can be helpful to be prepared in advance. You can find resources at the library, online or at the doctor’s office to learn more about what you’ll need to teach your child.
  • Get help, if you need it. You are not alone. Maybe look to family members with older children for guidance on how to have these talks. You can also find other parent groups or support from your pediatrician to find more information.

Keep the conversation going

There is never going to be a “perfect time” to have the sex talk. You may not have all the right answers and it may get a tiny bit uncomfortable. But just remember, you are creating a safe and understanding place for your child to turn to when they have questions or a situation where they’ll need your help.


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Child Psychology

Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine