How To Talk To Kids About Sex, According To A Mom — The Latch
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I am the mother of children who call their body parts by their correct names. The mother whose children know the rules and whose babies are made with a seed from a man and an egg from a woman.
I’ve always felt slightly smug to be that kind of mom. So mature! So evolved! Gold star for me!
However, as I was driving my 7-year-old daughter to school one morning, she casually asked…
“…but like… How? ‘Or’ What do the seed and the egg really meet… Mom? Mom? MOM!”
I’m not proud to admit it but I freaked out! I panicked and faked a sudden onset of hiccups.
Everyone knows that the only cure for such a disease is to hold your breath. That’s exactly what I did.
With my hands clutching the steering wheel and my cheeks looking like a generously filled water balloon, silence infused the car.
As I shared the story with my friends and family, I was both reassured and saddened to realize that I was not alone. The majority agreed that while they understood the desperate need for sex education, they would rather poke their eyeballs lightly with toothpicks than dispense it.
So why do we find it so incredibly embarrassing to talk to our children about sex?
Dr. Joy Townsend is CEO and Founder of “Learning Consent”, sexual consent education for young people, parents, educators and organizations. Dr. Townsend is also a key player in the “Teach Us Consent” movement.
The Latch asked Dr Townsend why this is such a common sentiment among parents. She said: ‘Australians are not good at having conversations that might require us to be vulnerable. She explained that the nature of these conversations can be confrontational for some people “and so we tend to avoid the topic.”
Associate Professor Alina Morawska is Deputy Director of Research at the Parenting and Family Support Center at the University of Queensland. She told The Latch that parents “feel they lack the knowledge and confidence to engage in these kinds of conversations on a regular basis”.
The result? Silence.
Ironically, the visceral discomfort we feel when talking to children and adolescents about bodies, sex and sexuality is created and maintained by our silence.
From 2023, age-appropriate relationship and sex education (RSE) will be compulsory in schools across Australia and simply “not talking” will no longer be an option.
Experts agree, CSR requires a holistic approach to be successful and parents will be strongly encouraged to educate themselves in order to play their part.
Kerrin Bradfield is a Certified Sex Educator and National President of the Society of Australian Sexologists, the supreme regulatory and accrediting body for psychosex therapists and sex educators.
Bradfield told The Latch that “the first step for confused caregivers is to understand the nuance of sexuality and how it differs from sex. She said “our sexuality encompasses who we are, our feelings about ourselves, body image, self-esteem, emotions and communication as well as desires and fantasies”. Bradfield added that babies and children are modeled “what affection and relationships look like.”
This understanding of sexuality can help caregivers see how CSR is a learning process that begins early in life. It’s an ongoing conversation that evolves as each layer of information is added in age-appropriate increments over time. And it all starts with love and respect for yourself and the loved ones around you. Starting the conversation from this kind and respectful place will also help caregivers move from a negative approach to sex education to a more positive one.
While it’s normal and natural to feel uncomfortable when talking to children and teens about sex, research shows that the price we pay to avoid feeling “uncomfortable” is far too expensive.
Dr Townsend said: ‘There is significant evidence that comprehensive sex education, including teaching children about consent, is the most effective way to reduce sexual violence.’
Bradfield reinforced that. She said when parents and educators remain silent, it “lets other voices such as social media and pornography do the talking”. She added, “sometimes it’s about shouting messages at young people that reinforce gender inequality, objectification, racism and ableism.”
As with any cultural change, the new and the unfamiliar can create anxiety and worry. Some parents fear that sex education encourages young people to experiment. When in reality, the opposite is true. Research shows that “young people who receive comprehensive sex education are more likely to delay their first sexual experience and engage in safer sex practices than those who are less informed.”
The reality is that if caregivers do not create a safe space for open communication, children and adolescents remain vulnerable. Dr Townsend said the provision of CSR is “consistent with the human rights of young people. It helps young people develop the knowledge, skills, ethical values and attitudes they need to make conscious, healthy and respectful choices about relationships, sex and reproduction.
So, we know why we feel this overwhelming unease about the task of talking about sex with young people, we also know the devastating result of avoiding it.
Obviously, we have to push ourselves. But how?
Dr Townsend said ‘acknowledging our own discomfort is a good first step’. She added: “This is something we need to intentionally address for the sake of our own children and society as a whole.”
Bradfield said: “It can actually be very helpful to say to your child, ‘I realized no one had ever told me about this stuff and it left me with a weird feeling about it, but I want to do better.'”
Approaching conversations with a spirit of curiosity and lack of judgment was strongly encouraged by Dr. Townsend and Bradfield.
Morowska said: “One of the most common reasons parents (and teachers) are not comfortable talking about sex is that they lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to do it effectively.” She added that caregivers need to “gain knowledge about what is developmentally appropriate.”
With that in mind, The Latch brings you “developmentally appropriate” sex education knowledge, advice and resources from childhood through adolescence.
Caregivers can expire. The experts are there to hold our hand (with our consent, of course).
May we play our part in this revolution in relationships and sex education, one (probably still a little awkward) sex chat at a time.
The early years…
For small children, CSR is like using the correct names for body parts, encouraging children to think of themselves as the boss of their own bodies and to understand that certain parts of our bodies are private. It also encompasses love and belonging.
Books such as From my head to my toes I say what’s up by Charlotte Barkla is a great way to introduce the concept of consent from an early age. Have you filled a bucket today? by Carol McCloud is a brilliant book that conceptualizes empathy, respect, and kindness through the bucket metaphor. Children respond beautifully to this.
The middle years…
The next level of sex and sex education focuses on the topics of conception, birth, diversity in families and puberty. Respect, empathy and boundaries (for ourselves and others) are permanent at every stage.
When explaining the mechanics of sex, Bradfield said “it’s one of the trickiest explanations parents find”. She suggests caregivers “try to separate sexual activity and biological processes.” Follow your children’s lead and if they ask questions, explain the different ways conception can happen. Use books like The incredible true story of how babies are made by Fiona Katauskas is highly recommended.
The tween/teen years…
This stage of sex and sexuality requires communicating about topics such as masturbation, sexual feelings and orientation, and pornography. These topics can be confronting and difficult to navigate, however, research proves that positivity, openness and humor are key.
Dr. Townsend and his At Learning Consent team reiterate that approaching CSR from a positive perspective helps them reach their end goal. She said the goal is to help students “feel empowered to make ethical sexual decisions” while being equipped to participate in healthy, pleasurable and meaningful sex when the time is right for them.
Dr. Townsend and his team run webinars for young people, carers and teachers. Their knowledge is invaluable and these (incredibly affordable at just $25 a ticket) come highly recommended (see link below).
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