Of all the burdens of parenthood, talking to your kids about sex can be one of the most terrifying. Even for humanists, just thinking about having The Talk with our kids can send tremors of paralysis through every nervous corner of our bodies. Whether we fear not having the right info, explaining it incorrectly, or simply appearing as awkward as our own parents were when they had The Talk with us, the fear is real. But it doesn’t have to be.
Talking with your kids about sex doesn’t have to be scary at all. And your willingness to do so will better equip them for safe, healthy, satisfying sex lives. It might feel weird to say it, but this is something we all want for our kids.
The Goal of Talking to Your Kids About Sex
Let’s get something straight. Parenthood doesn’t demand you have an answer for all the world’s great sex questions. Though it’d be nice if you had them all, you likely don’t. And that’s okay. No one expects you to be a walking encyclopedia on human sexuality and reproductive biology. So let’s take some of the pressure off.
As humanists, our goal is to provide an environment where our kids feel safe to raise questions, seek out answers, and use us as one of many resources along the way. Our goal is to provide a sex-positive environment where kids can learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it.
By following three simple tips, parents can talk with their kids about sex in a way that is both informative and (mostly) effortless. We don’t need to be scared, but we do need to be proactive. Let’s dig right in.
3 Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Sex without Fear
1. Talk Normally About Body Parts.
How we think about sex begins with how we think about our bodies. Sex education begins with body education.
Growing up in religiously fundamentalist homes, many of us were scolded for touching (or even just talking about) certain body parts. This teaches kids there is something wrong with those parts. When they are only spoken of in hushed tones and described as “dirty,” it instills a sense of shame. And then when we later discover that those same body parts are the key players in sexual activity, that sense of wrongfulness and shame are transferred to sex itself.
As humanists who have shed sex-negative concepts, we want our kids to see sex as just another component to being a healthy human. This begins with with helping our kids think of their body parts in healthy ways. No hushed tones. No “dirty” descriptors. Use their real names rather than silly public-friendly replacements. No, words like vagina and penis are not inappropriate words. They are body parts, and speaking of them isn’t any more shameful than talking about arms and elbows.
Raising our kids in a sex-positive environment begins by erasing taboo so that our kids feel no more weird talking about body parts in a healthy way than they do about having a nutritious diet of fruits and vegetables.
2. Start Talking Early.
For many parents, fear of saying too much too early produces the opposing problem of saying too little too late. Instead of waiting for the right age to sit our kids down for a single, epic session of The Talk, we will do well to approach it as more of a decade-long dialogue. This allows us to break the information our kids receive into bite-sized, stage-appropriate doses.
How do you know when your child’s ready?
Let them lead the way with their own questions. And when they ask a question, answer it. Don’t blow it off. Don’t laugh at them or shame them for asking.
This doesn’t mean you have to go into every anatomical detail the moment your daughter watches her first Netflix sitcom. Instead provide just enough info to satisfy her curiosity and tell her you’ll explain the rest later. When she’s ready, she’ll come back and ask for more information.
When your son asks what the couple on TV is doing, try not to ignore him. Instead find a stage-appropriate way to answer.
Question: “Daddy, what were those two people doing?”
Answer Option 1: “What— Umm, nothing! It was nothing!! You shoudn’t be watching that stuff! It was nothing you should be worrying about!!”
Received Message: Whatever it was, it’s bad stuff. And it’s secret stuff I shouldn’t be asking about. I should probably begin a major investigation that I never share with my parents.
Answer Option 2: “They were loving each other in a special way for grownups.”
Received Message: No biggie. Whatever it was, it sounds like normal grownup stuff like drinking coffee and going to work. I’m definitely curious but am in no rush to figure it all out now.
My own mother’s advice was, “If they’re old enough to ask a question, they’re old enough to get an answer.” In other words, if their minds are already going there, then go there with them to make sure the information they’re discovering is accurate and healthy.
Questions don’t only come from Netflix. My eldest daughter came home from kindergarten with this question several years ago, “Daddy, a girl on the bus said I like to sex myself. What does that mean, Daddy?”
My immediate response was to ask her what she thought it meant. Not only did it buy me time to form an answer in my mind but it also helped me gauge what she was already thinking. No need to jump into a detailed discussion on how to “sex one’s self” if she’s already putting together a more, umm, simplified answer!
My chief concern in those moments was to make sure my response communicated a safe place for her to both ask questions and hypothesize answers out loud with a parent.
Scaling your kids’ questions.
A helpful tool can be to scale your kids’ questions about sex. On a scale of 1 to 10, consider how “grownup” the question is, with a Stage-1 question representing something a toddler might ask about a body part and a Stage-10 question perhaps representing an incredibly detailed question a sexually-active teenager might need to know.
If your son’s asking a Stage-4 question, try to keep your answer in the Stage-4 or 5 range. Nothing has the potential of scaring a child for life like providing Stage-10 details to a Stage-4 question! Okay, I’m joking a little, but really, some of those sex details are hella terrifying if you’re not ready.
3. Keep the Dialogue Open.
Once you’ve implemented the first two tips, this is simply the natural byproduct of a sex-positive environment. Talking to your kids about sex is almost effortless when it’s done in bite-sized pieces that are real and honest and open. And it continues into the teen years and beyond.
You’re bound to be asked a question or two that you don’t know the answer to. Maybe there aren’t any definitive answers. Or maybe you’re not sure whether there are or not. That’s okay. What you can do is be honest about the limits of your own knowledge and experiences and then talk through the subject with them while pointing them in the right direction for further resources.
It’s Not Just About the Info.
Keeping an open dialogue is about more than providing biology notes. It’s about establishing an environment where they are safe to reveal their deepest thoughts and feelings. So that when they do need you, they know that you’re there for them and that it’s safe for them to be their truest selves. You and I know all too well that sometimes what sexually developing humans really need isn’t answers to questions but shoulders to cry on and ears to listen.
As the father of two daughters, I had always assumed that once in high school they’d more or less stop talking to me about sex. On top of the fact that their mother and I are divorced and they spend the vast majority of time with Mom, I’m also a guy (surprising, I know), so why would they still willingly talk to me about such sensitive issues? And yet, I’ve been proven wrong. They still talk to me about this stuff. They still seek me out.
Recently, one of them could tell I was holding back some of the detail to a particular question she’d brought me. She clarified, “Dad, it’s okay. I’m asking you because I feel comfortable talking to you about this stuff. Just tell me what I need to know. It’s not awkward. It’s life.”
Wow. I was blown away.
Maybe she should be the one writing this blog post.
Maybe one day, she will be.
Talking to Your Kids About Sex Isn’t Always Easy But It Doesn’t Have to be Scary
It goes without saying that not all parents have the same perspective on the content of the advice they’ll give their teens, but as humanists we all want to create a sex-positive environment where our teens and pre-teens feel comfortable coming to us with their questions.
As we’ve seen, this begins with how we treat and talk about our children’s body parts from the earliest ages. It continues into how we address their questions and curiosities throughout childhood. And it extends into the kind of ongoing dialogue we foster throughout their teenage years. An environment of honesty and openness where our kids feel free and safe to raise questions and seek out answers is our goal. And if we’re able to relax and be honest about the realities of our own shortcoming in knowledge and experiences, we’ll find it’s a lot less intimidating than we’ve feared.
Maybe not easy. But definitely less scary. :)
For more great help in secular parenting, check out Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion.
For other great tools on parenting and beyond, check out the HumanistCoach.com Bookstore.