Does it make you nervous that your children will ask many different questions about sex, and those questions will only get more specific as they get older?
Many parents think giving vague answers, or perhaps changing the subject and offering the questioning child a cookie, is a valid solution.
But really, we moms and dads have to up our game.
We must be prepared with thoughtful and honest answers so our kids continue coming to us… rather than looking for answers online, on bathroom walls or whispered conversations with equally clueless peers.
I’ve been through these different phases of questioning and can tell you there’s a way to get your kids from elementary school through high school without diseases or pregnancies.
If Your Child Is In Elementary School…
No matter how prepared a parent is, the inevitable sex talk still comes as a surprise. Different questions combined with many different ways to answer, and repercussions if those answers aren’t adequate – the pressure is enough to send any parent into therapy.
At this age, we want to be honest with our kids about sex, but not offer more information than necessary. For example, they don’t need to hear how their parents had to practice getting it right.
Just the facts.
Parents have several choices depending on the kid’s age when he finally asks, “Mom, what does s-e-x mean?”
Eight-year-olds get the “less is more,” conservative version. For everyone’s sake. Condoms and foreplay are another talk for another time.
When my twin sons were eight and started asking questions, I took a deep breath and plowed ahead. “A man has sperm in his penis and a woman has an egg deep inside her belly. The sperm and the egg meet in a special hug and then nine months later a baby is born.”
Back when Jacob and Zachary were six, this explanation was enough to send them satisfied and on their merry way.
At eight, they wanted to know more.
“How do the egg and sperm meet?” Jacob asked.
“Yeah,” Zachary said. “Do you find someone you like and them boom – the sperm comes out of the man all over the woman’s belly?”
Sometimes. If alcohol is involved.
“How does the penis go into the va-gi-na?” Jacob asked.
I turned on the overhead fan.
“When a man and a woman finish graduate school and get married, they decide to have a baby. They hug and they kiss, and the penis finds its way. Sperm comes out and fertilizes the egg and a baby is born nine months later. Or seven if the mommy is carrying impatient identical twins.”
“It’s a wonderful and beautiful thing,” I added. “A miracle.”
Please say we’re done.
They looked confused, resembling my high school students when I’d tried to explain The Patriot Act and how in the name of God it passed Congress.
Zach suddenly smiled. “I get it. The mommy and daddy are naked. That’s how the penis finds its way!”
I nodded. Less is more, Katie. Less is more.
“Where do you make the babies?” Jake wanted to know.
The bed, hallway, kitchen table…
“Usually in bed,” I said.
“What if someone walks in while you’re making a baby?” Jake stuck out his tongue. “That’d be gross.”
Well, not always, but you don’t need to hear about that one time at Mardi Gras.
Jacob and Zachary got ready to play outside. I stopped sweating and hoped I’d answered everything correctly.
If Your Child Is In Middle School…
Children should feel safe and comfortable asking their parents anything; we certainly don’t want our kids to learn more from the knuckleheads at school than from the knuckleheads at home.
Middle school brings menstruation, body hair, first kisses and school dances.
Parents who eat regular dinners with their kids hear about issues sooner rather than later, and it’s a good idea to practice NOT looking horrified. Preteens are more likely to share if no one has a stroke.
My sons had questions about nocturnal emissions. I stressed the importance of putting hard, cakey towels or sheets on top of the dryer rather than in the hamper for mommy to find “accidentally.”
Zachary came home one day with another concern.
“Mommy, Tyrone took off his clothes in PE today. I didn’t stare. But I was just wondering – we’re vegetarian and Tyrone eats meat. Do meat-eaters have bigger…you know…?”
“Babe,” I said with a smile, “if that were true, there’d be no male vegetarians on the planet. It has nothing to do with what you eat. You’re Irish and Jewish, so best not to compare yourself with Italian friends – or anyone named Tyrone.”
Those three years also brought discussions around how no means no, more detailed sex talk that included respect for women, birth control, safety, and disease-prevention. We covered intimacy, emotional maturity, and privacy when it comes to matters of the heart and body.
We also discussed porn.
“It’s normal to be curious about how it all works. Back in the good old days you could sneak a peek at your uncle’s Penthouse or Playboy magazines, and no one got hurt,” I said.
“Can we look online?” Jacob asked.
“See, that’s the problem,” I said. “Those websites, at best, could have a virus attached to their pictures and when you download something, it’ll ruin our computers. At worst, you could think you’re downloading a grown woman, but ten minutes later federal authorities are at our door because she’s underage.”
I thought for a moment and came up with a solution.
“Ask Daddy for advice on this one,” I said. “You’re lucky to have parents you can talk to about these things and he’s pretty smart about technology. I believe he has all the safe websites bookmarked.”
Stories in the news about kids swapping naked pictures on their phones, and getting charged with adult crimes, were shared in the hopes my boys would learn from others’ mistakes.
When our boys finally got cell phones, we wrote up contracts for them to read, understand, and sign. This entry was especially important:
Do not text, email, or say anything to someone that you would not say out loud with your Nana in the room. While she’s saying the rosary.
No porn. Search the web for information you would openly share with me. Pretend I have a rosary. If you have a question about anything, ask me or your father. We know a lot more than your friends.
Do not send or receive pictures of your private parts or anyone else’s private parts. Don’t laugh. Someday you will be tempted to do this despite your high intelligence. It is risky and could ruin your teenage/college/adult life. It is always a bad idea. Wait until you are in your mid-forties and if you can still see your feet, then maybe you can photo brag to selected individuals you’ve already prescreened to avoid venereal diseases. Cyberspace is vast and more powerful than you. And it is hard to make anything of this magnitude disappear – including a bad reputation.
So far, so good.
If Your Child Is In High School…
A parent’s response to sex questions should never imply that the inquiries are dirty or bad. On the other hand, we can’t act flippant, like the whole episode, while a bit awkward at times, is just one big joke.
Who wants to be reminded in therapy years later that smirks and explicit answers led to sexual dysfunction?
Or the priesthood?
High school brought a whole new set of topics. We forbid shaming but asked them to avoid girls who use promiscuity as a method for getting attention.
Their spring play was Cabaret, where the lead character gets an abortion, so we talked about effective ways to prevent pregnancies.
Zachary came home and asked the following question, “What if a girl says she’s on birth control, we have sex, and then she’s pregnant? What if she wants to keep it? Does that mean I have to pay?”
“For the rest of your life,” I said. “That’s exactly what that means.”
“Seriously?” Jacob chimed in, as always. “A boy has no options?”
“Oh, you have lots of options,” I said. “Before sex. Afterwards, that is her body and her decision. So, think about those options, boys. And choose wisely.”
Any grown woman knows that is easier said than done. I’ve explained to my sons that when I was a women’s health counselor in college, most women facing unwanted pregnancies listed condoms as their method of birth control. The safest thing to do, besides not having sex in the first place, is to use a condom to prevent STDs and still pull out before ejaculating.
Condoms are available in our home. We didn’t want our boys to be at the point of no return when they have to exercise self-control or a successful dismount for the first time.
Like we told them in Little League: practice makes perfect.
If your kids are entering their teenage years, keep in mind that while they remember the updated sex-talk from elementary school when you explained fallopian tubes and why mommy and daddy sometimes need privacy in the laundry room, they’re about to kick it up a notch.
Especially if you have one of those ridiculous “ask me anything” households.
Here are some gems my kids hit me with freshman year.
“If a girl is wearing an I Eat Dick bracelet on the first day of school, can I still ask her out?”
I got to use my favorite saying: Tell me who you go with, and I’ll tell you who you are. Either they practice good decision-making, and get to continue making their own decisions, or I sign them up for extra AP classes so they don’t have time to date. It’s their call.
“What’s auto-erotic asphyxiation?”
I try to always be honest and make eye contact. After answering the question, I explained that orgasms feel good enough without a near-death experience thrown in for good measure. “Please jerk off in the shower like normal teenagers.” Those were my exact words.
“Why do girls lie about rape?”
That’s been all over the news lately. I explained that, statistically speaking, this is very rare. But as the mother of teenage boys, I won’t pretend I’m not scared.
I told them to trust their instincts. If they see a red flag, they should exercise caution. Most girls are good people, just like most boys. But getting naked with someone is a big deal. It involves a host of complex emotions that even adults have trouble navigating, never mind someone with a partially formed frontal lobe. Our growing children must pick their friends and romantic partners very carefully.
Store consent videos on the cloud.
And still pull out.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick contemplation action today, answer these honestly –
- How do you feel about discussing sex with your kids?
- What are two things you can do to make yourself more accessible to them when they need help and answers about sex?
- How did you respond to the last question they asked about sex? Could you have responded differently with more comfort and ease?
It’s not a fail to botch this discussion once or twice before getting it right. One of the benefits of being an effective parent, is going back to your kids, checking in, and discussing the subject again. Mention that you’ve thought about it and have some more to talk about. This lets you try again, and also tells them how important they and this subject are to you.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Commit to being an open family, where anything can be discussed at any time. This helps our children feel safe and accepted. They will find answers one way or the other. Would you prefer they find that outside or inside the home?
Practice in front of a mirror and tame the urge to look horrified or judgmental. Do lots of research, there are plenty of books to read that help moms and dads get comfortable with sex talks. As your kids get older, take long walks, eat dinner together, run errands together. Sometimes it’s easier to talk while doing something else and these are the times that more complicated subjects can come up and a great opportunity to be the most important people in your children’s lives.
Write up cue cards for different age groups and what you’d like them to know. If they don’t bring it up, you always can and should. These are important topics, and you know your kids better than anyone. What do you want them to know when they’re ready to start kindergarten, middle school, high school, college…their wedding night? Be proactive and start the conversations yourself.
Rent movies and read books together that mirror your values. This will open up plenty of ways to talk about sex and relationships as they grow and learn more about the world.