How to talk to your kids about: Sex

Are you ready to talk to your kid about sex? You will need a bowl of chips, a Happy Meal toy, a packet of seeds, seven old magazines, a pair of scissors and a laminated copy of your family tree.

If you’ve worked out how to use those items to talk about sex, stop reading right now. Go do it – and please document it so the world can learn from your expertise. If you’re still wondering how any of that stuff will help with the conversation, keep reading.

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To be honest, none of it will help. In fact you probably have everything you need for this conversation already. You’ve made a person, which means you have done ‘the sex’ at least once. What you may be looking for is some reassurance and ideas on how to have this conversation well, and we can help with that.

When should you talk to your kid about sex?

If your child is 30, it’s too late. If your child is a newborn, they’re too young. Traditionally parents wait for their child to initiate with questions like, “Where do babies come from?” or, “When will I grow boobies?” “Why is that couple on TV doing that?” or, “Can I create an online dating account?” (A note: Your child’s questions may be the invitation to pause whatever you’re doing and open up a conversation).

You may not have learned about sex until your early teens yourself and that is because information was far less accessible when you were growing up. All you had was the dictionary’s definition of sex and that one puberty lesson with the oldest teacher at your school. This generation has so much access to information that if you want to be involved in shaping your child’s ideas and attitudes about sex, you need to start these conversations early.

Have lots of little talks, instead of just one big talk when they are teens

This will take the pressure off you and the potential awkwardness out of a one-off conversation. While they are young, create an environment where they can safely ask questions about anything – their body parts, where they came from, what they might be worried about. Start small – think about their maturity, how much they need to know and if they want to know any more. (Another note: Lots of little conversations that are warm, engaging and safe set a platform for great milestone conversations).

Sex is a fascinating topic and your child will become more and more curious about it as they grow up. If they don’t feel comfortable asking you their questions, they will ask someone else or someone else will volunteer their version of the information.

That thought may bring you a sigh of relief because now you don’t have to have that conversation. But in an attempt to avoid embarrassment, you could miss out on shaping one of the fundamental parts of your child’s development. Pluck up the courage to be the first voice. The first voice a child hears about any topic becomes their point of reference for all future conversations they have on a topic. If you feel like you have missed the opportunity to have these small talks young, don’t worry. It’s not too late. Just keep reading.

Where are kids learning about sex?

Kids who grow up on farms tend to learn about sex pretty early on in life because animals don’t usually book a hotel room when making more animals. Most schools also have some sort of sex education programme that teaches the basics of how babies get made, how to avoid making babies and what sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are. And while animals and teachers can help our kids to learn about the physical aspect of sex, teaching kids what sort of values and attitudes they should have about sex is a parent’s job.

Increasingly, young people are also learning about sex from pornography. In fact many young people have said that they are doing this because adults are too embarrassed to answer the questions they have. Not every young person is looking at porn, but it is having a significant influence on the ideas and attitudes they have about sex and relationships.

So, your young person is learning from animals, teachers, their friends and maybe even porn, but the person they most need to learn from is you. You have the greatest influence on whom they will become in every aspect of their lives.

What are your thoughts about sex?

Research tells us that people think about sex a lot. It can impact how they act, how they value people and how willing they are to do the dishes. Before you even begin to talk to your kid about sex, figure out what your values and attitudes are. Why? Because different values lead to different advice.

Your kids’ friends will have heard all sorts of advice. Some kids have heard they can have sex as long as they use a condom. Some kids have been told to wait until they are married. Some kids have just been told not to do it in the bushes. What attitude are you trying to pass on?

It’s easy to focus solely on the risks of sex and the things you want them to avoid (and that is important). But you also need to help your kids develop a dream for their life and for how wonderful sex and relationships can be.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to tell them what your idea of wonderful sex is. If you say you want them to be in respectful relationships, they are more likely to be in them. If your dream for them is to save sex until they are married, it is more likely to become their dream as well. So work out exactly what your values are and make sure your kids know them.

What are the risks?

Your kids need good information about pregnancy, STIs and consent. This is where you can use the items listed in the first paragraph (again, they probably won’t help).

It is important that your children understand some of the risks involved with being sexually active. There are physical risks such as unwanted pregnancies and unwanted STIs (actually all STIs are unwanted). New Zealand has some alarming statistics when it comes to STIs. It is very difficult to get one if you are not sexually active at all. In fact it is pretty much impossible.

However if your child does choose to be sexually active, you will want them to do everything they can to protect themselves physically. This means they need to understand how to use contraception correctly. You could watch a YouTube tutorial video together. It won’t be as entertaining as your usual family movie night but it is important information for every young person to know.

Your young person will also need to think about what they need do to protect themselves mentally, socially and emotionally. A condom can’t protect them from heartbreak, regret or a reputation. Only good choices can do that.

What should you tell your kid about sex?

Tell them that sex is like tomato sauce

Keep reading – it’s not as weird as it sounds. Tomato sauce is great. But if you’re hungry, you wouldn’t eat tomato sauce by itself. Tomato sauce is at its best when you add it to something that’s already good, like hot chips, a hot dog or a pie.

Sex is like tomato sauce because it is also at its best when you add it to something good. That something is a healthy, committed, long-term relationship. So ask your kid how they would describe a healthy relationship. A committed relationship? A long-term relationship? Also ask them what sort of relationship they would add ‘tomato sauce’ to.

It’s also a good idea to talk about how much sauce to add. (This analogy is getting a bit confusing now). There are heaps of ways that young people express their feelings for each other. Sometimes it’s physical things like kissing and touching. Sometimes it’s emotional things like love letters and compliments. But sometimes it’s through technology.

A note on sexting

There are heaps of positive ways to use technology to express your feelings for someone. However many young people are using technology to send or receive naked photos of each other as a way to add some ‘sauce’ to their relationship. Just because young people are not actually having sex does not mean that there are no risks. These photos often get shared, and they often negatively affect people’s reputations. The safest option is to never take a photo like this in the first place.

Ask your kid what their opinion of sexting is, if there are any down sides to it, and just like everything else, let them know what you think.

Stay involved

A coach doesn’t make a team successful by doing one big inspiring talk at the beginning of the season and then sitting in the stands watching all the games. A good coach stays involved throughout the season. So be a good coach throughout this season. Stay involved, ask questions, listen well and help them develop strategies to positively navigate the changing world of the adolescent years, whether those years are already here or a while away.

Most importantly – don’t forget love

Talking to your kids about sex may not be easy but it is worth it. But don’t forget to talk to your kids about love. It would be tragic if they were sent out into their adult lives with a head full of knowledge and a pocket full of condoms but found themselves experiencing sex without real intimacy or love. Sex doesn’t create love. In fact, sex and love aren’t exactly the same things. So don’t forget while you are talking to your kids about sex that your ultimate hope for them is a lifetime of real, meaningful love.

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

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