Talking to Kids About Sex

When I was a kid my parents didn’t talk to me about sex.

At eight, when I asked my mom what a condom was, she told me it was a “water balloon you throw off the roof at people.”

Her answer had some correlation with the two of us watching, The Summer of ’42, where Jennifer O’Neal’s husband dies in the war and she sleeps with the grocery boy.

When I was nine, I read one of my mom’s Cosmopolitan magazines, which caused me to query, “What’s the female orgasm?”

To which she replied, “It’s a type of pleasurable seizure.” Hm.

I’d rather King Henry III had drawn and quartered me before discussing sex with my dad, and I don’t recall my stepmom broaching the subject either.

But I knew from attending church that sex was only allowed “within the bonds of marriage,” otherwise I’d go straight into the “fiery inferno” when I died.

(Unless I could figure out how to stay alive forever.)

So, when I lost my virginity to my college sweetheart, I did not have a “pleasurable seizure,” he did not use a “water balloon you throw at people off the roof” or any other version of birth control, because I didn’t intend to have sex until it was “within the bonds of marriage” in order to avoid the “fiery inferno.”

Unfortunately, my body, when left alone with this boy long enough, had other ideas.

I was very lucky not to get pregnant. I did, however, contract a glamorous case of what I think was called Gardenorella (which is not part of a vegan diet). Post-diagnosis I plummeted into a massive shame spiral from which I didn’t emerge until I was thirty-two.

I think my parents absolutely did the best they could but I, like all grown children, think I can do better.

I won’t really know though, will I, until my kids are grown? Oh, how I pray they don’t become bloggers.

I’ve talked to my kids off and on about sex since they were quite little, hoping to take the taboo off the topic so they won’t rebel and end up on Teen Moms.

But also because I want to be the first source of information for them about sex.

I don’t want to leave it to Lindsay Lohan on the front page of The Enquirer in the grocery line. Or to that 5th grader with the tattoos who dominates the tetherball court at recess.

So, I’ve started reading Joanna Cole’s Asking About Sex & Growing Up to my oldest, Clare. (This is not a sponsored post. I was given the book by fellow mamacita, The German.)

Every night I say, “We’re reading the sex book,” as if I were really saying, “We’re cleaning the kitty litter box.”

Clare groans in annoyance and I waiver.

But then I remind myself that very soon I’ll miss my window of opportunity and Clare won’t want to talk to me about this stuff at all.

So we hunker down in her bed and I read in the tone of a Masters & Johnson research analyst. Very dry and scientific.

But inside, I still feel squeamish using words like “clitoris,” “testicles,” “ejaculation” and “orgasm” with my daughter as if, by saying the words aloud, she’ll instantaneously turn into an underaged sex fiend.

I’m afflicted by the magical thinking that if I don’t say the word “sex” she won’t want it until she’s thirty (at which point I would like a grandchild).

That we can leapfrog over all the hormonal pitfalls of high school to a place where she’s safe and secure in the arms of a man who really loves her.

But, once I start reading and some of our mutual embarrassment dies down, Clare starts peppering me with questions.

And the questions aren’t just about the biology of sex, they’re also about the psychology and morality of sex.

The questions aren’t always easy to answer. Like the one where she asked if I’ve had sex with anyone other than her father.

There was, shall we say, a pregnant pause.

I realized I could be honest without telling her everything. I told her there were a few other men besides her father because we married later in life. And that some of the men loved me and some didn’t.

I told her sex is best when people are in love, otherwise feelings can get hurt.

Which led very naturally into a discussion about the awkward topics of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy and made me realize I’m the mom who will take my teenagers to Planned Parenthood for contraception.

Not to encourage early sex, but to prevent life altering mistakes should it happen.

As we discuss the book I’m surprised at how mature Clare’s thinking is, (“I wouldn’t be responsible enough to have a baby when I’m sixteen. But can I babysit when I’m 14? Yes!”) and I’m relieved that as soon as I close the book she wants to show me the new Lego Death Star she built.

Clare and I will finish Cole’s book tonight, and I suspect we’ll both be relieved.

But I’m so glad we’ve read it together, because I feel like I’m learning how to communicate about this delicate topic without overstepping my bounds and that we’re developing some bonds of trust so that she might be able to turn to me when she’s older and things get more complicated.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about talking to kids about sex. 

I wouldn’t mind freeze framing this age forever. Sigh.

45 thoughts on “Talking to Kids About Sex”

  1. I got squeamish just reading this post! I have two boys and it’s going to be TOUGH to talk this out. I call their “parts” by their real names and we have talked about sex as something that married people do, but thankfully that’s as far as it’s gone (he’s only 5!). However, the talking will start soon and I’ll have to swallow my squeamishness and spill the beans. God help me.

    1. Hi Pattie — my girls are 8 and 10 and I was surprised to see this book was recommended for children 8+. What really helped me was Joanna Cole’s very matter-of-fact delivery on topics ranging contraceptives to sexual abuse. I realized that if I kept my tone neutral (and un-scandalized) my daughter felt more comfortable asking questions. This was actually a good experience.

  2. I raised my daughter and my son with an open discussion about sex from their first questions. Not MY sex life, but sex in general. I asked my daughter this riddle from the time she was around 8 years old:
    “What do you call a 14 year old who’s pregnant?”
    Answer: STUPID.
    Birth control was theirs for the asking, and I was comfortable answering any questions they had. Sticking your head in the sand and pretending your kids aren’t curious about sex is a really, really bad idea.

  3. I totally agree with you! My only daughter who is now 17 and I have always had open, sometimes uncomfortable , talks about sex. I put her on the pill at 15 when she got her first serious boyfriend. Sage had girlfriends from nice families who were having one night drunken stands on spring brak in Florida at the age of 15. One got pregnant. The other one took the morning after pill. Both parents were shocked. You can either stick your head in the sand or get over it and open the dialogue . I was brought up exactly like you too!

    1. Hi Mary Anne — thanks for your input. Sometimes I love the smell of sand up my nostrils, but I don’t want to fumble this topic.

  4. Shannon this was a really great post to read. My daughter is only three and we’re a ways away from this, but I often wonder when the right age is to give them the right tools to protect themselves — not just physically but mentally, and it seems like you’re doing an incredible job of making sure they are prepared on all fronts to make good, well-informed choices, which I think is something that we all too often fail to give them a chance to do. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Hi Morgan — thank you for reading and commenting. I’m reporting as I go along this parenting route so I’ll try to let you know when the next curve comes along. Which should be any moment.

  5. Establishing open, honest communication with your children early is crucial to managing the teenage years in a functional way. Our daughter is going to be 33 on Friday, our son is 30. We started the sex conversations early and escalated the details and answers as they were ready to handle more info. I love what you said, “….I want to be the first source of information for them about sex.” I totally agree with this. Having the correct information delivered with love and care helps our kids make healthier life decisions. I applaud you!

    1. Thanks so much Ellen. I think our parents came from a generation where these kinds of conversations were swept under the rug and I feel fortunate that the zeitgeist leans in the direction of open communication today. I’m certainly a work in progress when it comes to parenting, but as the saying goes, “they aren’t born with an instruction manual.”

  6. I have the great fortune to belong to a Unitarian Universalist church. The Unitarian Universalist Association has a wonderful curriculum called “Our Whole Lives”. It is a sexuality education curriculum that is age appropriate. My kids have been through the 7-9th grade classes. They learned about sexuality and respect and boundaries and how sexual intercourse doesn’t have to be the “goal” of a sexual experience. They practice putting condoms on bananas, and were able to ask whatever questions they wanted in a completely confidential manner. It was a wonderful experience for my three boys and they feel very comfortable talking to us about sex because they were exposed to this fabulous class. I think it is VERY important to be open with our kids about sexuality. It is a natural part of being human, and should be discussed in my opinion. Great post and I am so glad you were able to open this dialogue with your daughter!!

    1. Hi Carol — We need to get to your church. I absolutely want my girls to know how to use contraception and I don’t want to shame them regarding sex. I also believe we are biologically programmed to desire sex. We can exercise restraint in a way most mammals cannot, but we certainly shouldn’t feel guilty about our natural impulses.

      1. Shannon, to get your daughter involved with the UU Sexuality education program you need to know it is called “Our Whole Lives”. It is administered by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. The UCC is more “God” based, and the UUA one is not as much. I hope you find a church in your area that offers “OWL”. Please email me if you would like more information. 🙂

  7. This is a great piece, Shannon — and an important one. I’ve always been really open with both my daughter and my son about sex, and they know they can ask me anything. Because of that, I definitely am laughing about — and agreeing with — your hope that they don’t become bloggers!!

  8. I, like you, was brought up with little knowledge about sex (and what I learned did not come in a good way…sorry, no pun intended). I have openly talked to my children about sex, and I truly believe it has a huge impact, in a positive way. My oldest waited until adulthood to start messing around, my second oldest is almost 19 and still a virgin, as are my youngest two. I don’t want them afraid to say ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’. The more comfortable they are talking about it, the less complicated it will be (I hope) for them to come to me if there is a serious problem (like, sexual abuse). Good job mom!!

  9. I was so lucky to have a mother I could talk to about the functions of my body. I remember that he gave me a little book on my body + menstruation long before my period ever started for which I was completely grateful – there were girls around me who literally had no idea what was happening to them when they started to bleed… Anyhow, the most important thing turned out to be nothing to do with the mechanics of sex but the emotional fallout of relationships. Since I could be honest about everything, and there was no shame attached to it, I could get the heartfelt advice I so badly needed when confused by the mysteries of men. Priceless. You are a queen, Shannon, for giving this gift to your girls. You are my hero.

    1. Catherine thank you so much. My girls have my heart in the palm of their hands. What they feel, I feel (probably too much) and of course I don’t want them to suffer the same heartaches I did, which sounds like most moms.

  10. My oldest son is rapidly approaching the age when I’ll need to give him “the talk” and, quite frankly, it scares me. Like yours, my parents didn’t do “the talk.” My mom ignored it and my dad’s idea of “the talk” was trying to watch The Playboy Channel with me. (eww… that’s about as accurate a description of sex as a movie car chase is an accurate description of driving.)

    So I’m going to have to do this with no parental role model. My plan is to be open and honest with him, let him know that he can come to me with questions or even if he needs to get condoms. After all, I want him to stay safe and I’d rather not be a grandpa too early! 😉

    1. Hi Techydad — The thought has crossed my mind that I’d prefer to wait on the Grandma moniker. I’m afraid I’ll have the same reactions Shirley MacClaine had in Terms of Endearment (an affair with Jack Nicholson).

  11. What a great post…my sons are now adults, as children I was very open about sex and gave them good reading materials as well as encouraged conversation. They don’t like to discuss anything sexual with me now as it’s embarrassing.
    I have a post going up tomorrow about my granddaughter and her use of the word, Vagina. I think it’s important that we educate our children in order to empower, protect and enlighten. I’m all for it.

  12. Yerp. I want to hide on this one, but I know I can’t. However, I am not jumping at the bit to get the conversation rolling. I think I still have one or two more years with my eldest. (fingers crossed)

  13. This is so, so, so, very important to me. I was a teen mom, even with the birth control, but there were a lot of things no one really told me about, other then in health class. I know kids should hear about sex from their parents first, and that they should be able to talk to them about it.

    Great post!

  14. I also recommend anyone who has a teenage daughter [pbbly 14 and up] and/or preteen son to watch the movie Girl Positive. Its a lifetime movie that I watched by myself, and have decided my newly 16 yr old daughter and I will sit down and watch it together one day in the near future.. it brings up the awareness for other things, not just pregnancy, that could happen if you have sex with the wrong person..

  15. Thanks for this post. It really got my thinking, especially what you said about talking to your daughter while she still wants to talk to you. May I ask how old your daughter is? Mine is turning 10 in April. I’ve given her opportunities to ask and would tell her the truth if she did but she didn’t ask. I’m surprised, really. She knows the sperm is from the men and woman have the eggs and I keep expecting her to ask how the sperm get to the egg. Nothing. Not even a curious look in her eye. Perhaps I will need to brooch the subject myself.

    1. My daughter is 10 and believe me, she would’ve preferred I didn’t read it to her. It is embarrassing, but it had to happen and it brought us closer.

  16. As soon as my son was able to read, I handed him a copy of “Where Did I Come From?”. I had him read it himself, then we would read it to him as a bedtime story, much like my mother did with me (it was my favorite) with “How Babies Are Made.”

    We answer any questions straightforwardly – my son is so comfortable that when we began talking to him about puberty he asked every man he knew when he was going to have his first wet dream.

    He’s 14 now. It’s probably time for the condom demonstration – I’ve already stressed that he will be wearing one each and every time…

    1. Hi Megan — I really thought this post was going to get a lot of criticism, I must say it makes me feel that I’m on track reading these comments. xo

  17. I’m a teen mom myself and EVERYONE thinks i’m nuts for talking to me daughter about sexual reproductive organs, periods, how and where babies really come out of at the age of 5. I don’t want my daughter to fall into the same ill informed cycle I did and become pregnant young either so like you I am doing things differently than my parents did. I applaud you! I think it’s great what you are doing. As parents it’s our job to teach our children even sex. Mind you when she was in the 1st grade her classmates were saying they have “sex dreams” thankfully I already opened up that dialogue to her so talking about the class mates “sex dream” wasn’t too bad.

    1. This is so good to hear. I’ve just started reading the book with my younger child and it’s been an entirely different vibe than with my older child. The younger one finds the topic funny and gets very silly. She’s the one I’m going to have to lock in a closet at 14, then open it when she’s 25.

  18. I like your post. I am still waiting for “the talk” from my mom and I am going on my 43rd birthday! All we got in my tiny Catholic school was a video about menstruation that was VERY confusing while the boys played kick ball. It sucked. As far as I know, my mom still does not know that “I started.” ;^)

    I am going to get this book and read it out loud to myself and see if that improves my ability to talk about things. Never too old to learn a new trick, right? My ex was WAY to free with the sharing and really drove a spike in our relationship. My current BF and I have a much better conversation together. I think it would be funny to read this book and learn something then spring it on him at dinner one night! =)

  19. This is a tough one. My mother did the best she could to educate me and my sister, but she was a product of an alcoholic and sexually abusive father. Needless to say, despite doing her best there were a lot of mixed messages. Not to mention having been sexually abused myself….. My daughter is going to be 5 in April and I dread talking to her about sex. I want her to be educated about sex so she can enjoy her experiences, but also want her to be able to tell me if something bad is happening, or to be able to defend herself. But I also dont want to focus on this aspect so much that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy!! Thank you to everyone for all the great suggestions everyone is offering up!!

    1. Hi Renee — sexual abuse is so devastating. I’m so sorry that both you and your mom were victims. I loathe sexual predators more than any other kind of criminal. The damage they do is so profound and insidious. I hope you’ve gotten some help for this, because you absolutely deserve it. xo And I completely understand your concern about discussing sex with your children. I also sometimes feel that if I talk to them about it, I’m going to be putting it in their heads as an option at a too-young age. I am fervently hoping they can remain virgins through high school and that after that that they’ll choose a partner who truly loves them and is committed to their happiness. Unfortunately beyond a certain point it will certainly be beyond my control. At the same time I don’t want to villify sex. In the right time, with the write partner it truly can be one of the greatest expressions of love and pleasure. It’s a tricky balance I am trying to strike and I won’t know if it was successful until many years hence. Sigh.

  20. Your mom sounds awesome! (and Shannon)

    I’m soaking up all these tidbits for my daughter (just turned 2) someday when I will be advising her on so many un-spoken messages and realities from most of our childhoods…

  21. Shannon,
    Once again I agree with you spot on. The sexual predators of this world, are so inhumanely cruel…and predators of the MOST innocent.

    I was not a victim, somehow, of abuse in my life. And truthfully, I see the difference in abstaining from self-harm, drugs, sexual promiscuity, etc. from myself and friends whom I know were abused as children.

    I do everything each day to make sure my daughter is safe and protected; and I know one of the greatest tools I can give her is self-survival and protection. Each parent’s depiction of that varies, but overall we must agree to educate our children on how to stand up for themselves. No longer can we blindly trust authority figures and sometimes even family members over those of our own children.

    Sexual abuse is in so many ways more damaging for one’s entire life, like you said, worse than any other criminal..
    : /

    What those predators get in return for robbing that innocence from a child is completely baffling and sickening. It’s difficult to talk about; but we mustn’t ignore every victim on Intervention, Dr Phil’s show, etc. who have ever spoken about about his/her abuse which helps us as parents BE more aware and open with our kids.

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