Talking with teenagers about sex is difficult for lots of reasons. They’re uncomfortable with it, you’re uncomfortable with it, and the confused messages receive from culture about sex don’t help, either. Plus, sexuality is an incredibly personal and intimate topic. On top of all that your own parents may have struggled to talk to you about sex, so you didn’t have a helpful model for how to approach this topic.
I am not a parent myself so I’ve never had “the talk” with my own kids. However, I spend lots of time around teenagers, I understand teenage development, I’ve talked with teenagers about sex. Over the years I’ve heard plenty of stories from parents and students about how parents handle “the talk.” Some methods of talking about sex are more effective than others.
As you talk with your kids about sex, make sure to avoid these common mistakes:
1. Limiting “the talk” to one conversation
It’s unfortunate that our cultural myth for parents talking about sex with their kids gets boiled down to the idea of having “the talk” on one discrete occasion. According to this myth, parents sit down with their kids at some point and share everything their child will ever need know about sex. After parents verbal-vomit this information everyone is relieved that this painfully awkward experience is over, and that’s the end of it.
I firmly believe that “the talk” should actually be “the talks.” Talking about sex with your kids is far more than one conversation. We don’t get off the hook that easily.
Teaching kids about sex should happen gradually over the course of many years. Your child’s ability to understand different elements of sexuality changes as he gets older. It’s healthier and more helpful to think about “the talk” as an ongoing conversation that happens at multiple points throughout a child’s life.
This approach actually makes it easier to talk about sex because you don’t have the pressure of sharing everything in one conversation. Plus talking about sex should get easier and more natural the more you talk about it.
2. Starting too late
Middle school is not the best time to start talking with kids about sex. Ideally you’d start when they’re younger, around age 9. You’ll only tell them certain things at age 9. Then, once they hit middle school and enter puberty you’ll share more information with them, and then you’ll share additional information in high school.
I won’t lay out what you share when. I’ll leave that up to the experts. If your son is in middle school and you haven’t yet talked with him about sex, don’t waste anymore time! You’re not a failure as a parent and you still have a wonderful opportunity to help him understand this pivotal area of his life. But start the conversation soon!
3. Avoiding topics because you don’t want to tell him too much
I’ve heard parents say something like, “Well I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to introduce him to sexual information he doesn’t know and I don’t want to implant ideas in his head.” I understand there needs to be discernment with what you share—you don’t want to be too descriptive and say too much, but you also don’t want to force him to go elsewhere to find answers because you didn’t say enough.
Boys commonly first view pornography between ages 9 and 11, even if it’s accidental. So that’s probably the time to start talking about pornography, what it is, and what to do if he stumbles upon it.
I know from my own experience growing up in a large suburban public school district that my friends were talking about masturbation in middle school. And by 9th grade they were talking about oral sex. It might be helpful to talk about those specific things with your kids around those ages.
Just because you talk about something sexual doesn’t mean you have to describe it in detail. You can say just enough so he has a basic understanding of a given topic—just enough to satisfy his curiosity.
4. Refusing to answer his questions
Sometimes he may ask you sexual questions that catch you off-guard. Your first response may be to ignore the question, to get out of the room, or try to change the topic. You don’t have to answer every question he asks, but you do have to acknowledge and address every question he asks.
For example, let’s say your 7th grade son asks you what a “blow job” is because he heard his friends joking about it on the bus. You think he’s too young to learn about that. You don’t have to answer his question by explaining in detail what oral sex is.
But you can acknowledge the question by saying, “Hmm, it must be frustrating when people talk about things you don’t understand. I can see why you want to know what that is.”
Then address the question by saying, “Your friends on the bus were talking about something sexual that two people do together. It’s not acceptable for anyone your age to do that sexual act with someone else. We can talk more specifically about it when you’re a little older.”
5. Not calling stuff what it is
Call a penis a “penis” and a vagina a “vagina.” Don’t use euphemisms or say “private parts.” It’s called “sexual intercourse” not “it” or “making love.” Your kids need to know that it’s okay to use these words when you’re having a mature conversation. Plus, it helps ensure clear communication when talking about sex. There’s enough misinformation and lack of clarity about sex in general culture. Don’t perpetuate that problem.
No parent is going to do all this perfectly. Where do you start? What do you talk about? If you’re at a loss for where to start, I’d recommend one of these books. The thing you need the most is courage.
Your kids need to learn this stuff at home. From their parents. It’s a big responsibility, but no one is more suited to talk to your kids about sex than you are. It’s a great honor to help your kids develop a healthy understanding of this important area of their lives!