When my daughter was seven years old, she popped the question. “Mommy,” she queried, innocent blue eyes blinking up at me, nose wrinkled in confusion. “How does the baby get inside the mommy?”
It is the question that strikes dread in most parents’ hearts. We picture ourselves flailing around, word diarrhea pouring out of our mouths, making the moment awkward for everyone, including our kids—who at this age don’t find it awkward to eat their own boogers. Or maybe we worry about stammering, clamming up, and dodging (“Ask your mother!” even if we are their mother) like many of our own parents did.
But this little query is just the gateway, the first of many, many questions that our children will have about sex, love, relationships, puberty, body image, birth control and a host of other complicated topics. It’s worth investing in a couple tricks and tools to ease the awkwardness. Unless, of course, you plan to abandon your child’s sex education to that kid down the street whose knowledge sources are Game of Thrones and his older brother’s porn, which I do not recommend.
Here are seven tips from the trenches to make these conversations as painless and effective as possible.
- Call it what it is
Woowoo. Boobies. Vajayjay. Dingdong. Using infantile code words perpetuates the idea that certain body parts are somehow shameful or different than elbows, noses, or other parts we name correctly. Research shows that this sense of shame and embarrassment about their bodies can prevent kids from raising important health concerns or even bringing up situations of unwanted touching. So call it what it is.
I have an advantage going into these conversations, because I work at Planned Parenthood. It’s one of the few places in the world where you’re expected to talk about penises and vaginas all day without being brought up on sexual harassment charges. For some, though, saying the accurate terms out loud may require practice. So practice: Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Breasts. It’s not so bad after the tenth (or maybe the hundredth) time, I promise. At some point you’ll stop blushing.
(Need more motivation? Picture a conversation with your son at age 17 that involves one of you using the word weewee. It just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?)
- Think beyond biology
Sure, your child needs to understand the insert-tab-A-into-slot-B component of sex. But biology is the easy part. In most (rational) states, they will learn about sperm and fallopian tubes in school. But the difference between a crush and love, the line between healthy togetherness and unhealthy control, how to recognize and respond to peer pressure, appropriate use of social media, awareness of gender stereotypes in media, how to say no when you mean no, communicating boundaries, taking care of your body: These are the big kahunas, the topics that will actually determine whether your children have safe, healthy sex (someday in the far, distant future of course) or not. On these topics — the ones with moral, emotional, and social implications — they need your guidance.
- Be truthful
Most of us want our children —like when they’re 35 — to have a healthy sex life, whether that means within a monogamous marriage or not. But we might have some intermediate goals for them as well, like not qualifying for MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. Sometimes those intermediate goals make us say scary and non-factual things to frighten them away from sex and relationships like, “You will get pregnant. You will get herpes.” Or a perennial favorite: “Boys only want one thing.”
These, however, are not facts. Many of us people-who-have-sex are neither pregnant nor have herpes. Boys actually want a diverse list of things. Research shows that focusing only on the risks and dangers does not change behavior, particularly when our kids are steeped in a culture that constantly reinforces how fantastic sex is — it feels good! it gives you power! it makes you popular! everybody’s doing it! — and their hormones and underdeveloped pre-frontal cortexes are cheering them on.
Instead of fear and shame (which has never in the history of the universe led to healthy decisions) consider this message: Sex feels really good when you are mature and responsible enough to do it right.Then you can explain to them what “mature and responsible enough” means to you. You have to set that line for your own family. As an example, in our family, you are mature and responsible enough to have sex when you can discuss the decision and the steps you are taking to protect yourself and your partner beforehand, with a parent or a short-list of trusted adults. If you’re too embarrassed to talk about it, you’re not mature enough to do it. My kids know these are our expectations. Your line may be different, but figure out where it is—and communicate it to your children without resorting to fear-mongering or lies.
One caveat on truth-telling: This does not extend to sharing information about your own sex life. You have a right to say, “My sex life is private. I’m happy to talk about facts, or what was normal when I was growing up, but I’m not going to talk about my personal experiences.”
- Shut up and listen
You know the adults in the Peanuts cartoons, the ones that sound like, “Wah wah wah wah”? That’s what we sound like to our kids when we lecture them, brow furrowed, with our this-is-serious face on.
If you want them to hear you, ask them questions. Ask their opinion. Ask them what they already know. Ask what they want to know. Ask what’s important to them. Ask what they are worried about. Ask what they are excited about. Just ask.
As a side benefit, it’s hard to over-share or say something you regret when you are asking questions, and it gives you a chance to shape your own opinions on these topics by listening to their answers.
- Start somewhere. Anywhere.
If your kids are nine or ten and they haven’t asked you any questions about sex or puberty, it is not because they haven’t thought about it; it is likely that they are too uncomfortable to ask. So it’s time for youto be the brave one and start the conversation yourself.
“Let’s talk about sex,” is a terrible opening line, but — lucky for you — American culture is chock-a-block with teachable moments. Almost every song, movie, book, or teens on the street corner provide fodder for starting a conversation. Watch Grease with your kids and you can tackle peer pressure to have sex, what missing your period means, masturbation, condoms, and consent. My daughter and I watched the first season of Glee together when she was eleven, and I hit the pause button so many times to discuss the plot line that it is now a family joke. Teen pregnancy, cheating, lying, homophobia, drinking, peer pressure: It was a treasure trove of conversation starters. Or just turn on a pop station in the car and the first song you hear will give you a place to start. (By the way, the car is a great place to have these conversations because there’s no eye contact. Everyone — including you — can blush, eye-roll, and squirm uncomfortably in relative privacy.)
Here are some good conversation-starting questions, whether you’re watching Beauty and the Beast or listening to Nicki Minaj:
- What do you think just happened in that scene/song? This helps diagnose what they understand, and what went over their head.
- Why do you think he/she did that? The why is usually a more important discussion than the what.
- What would you do in that situation? or, Do you think they made the right choice? What do you think they could have done instead? This helps them generate the tools to face similar situations. It also gives you a chance to assess their thought processes.
- Have other kids you know faced that situation? What did they do? Super-sneaky way of finding out what’s actually happening in their peer group. I guarantee it will surprise you, one way or the other.
What will likely happen is that you’ll get some variation on this: “Mom/Dad…[eyeroll] Ugh. I don’t want to talk about this with you.” This is your moment to be an adult and tell them, “It’s okay to be uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable too, but this is important. So we’re going to go ahead and do this.” And then go ahead and do this.
Another trick we use in our family: a conversation jar. We keep a series of questions in a mason jar on our dining room table, like: When you think about your future, what are you looking forward to? What can you do to be a good friend? If you were in trouble, scared, or upset, who could you talk to? What do you like best about yourself right now? If I get nothing beyond, “Fine,” in response to, “How was your day?” we draw a question from the conversation jar and take turns answering it. It is both fascinating and hilarious, and builds our meaningful-conversation muscles.
- Buy yourself time
Let’s say they ask a question you’re not ready for, out of the blue — in the checkout line at the grocery store, as an example I happen to have some experience with. Instead of bumbling around and saying something you’ll kick yourself for later, try this: “That’s a great question. Let me think about the best way to answer it and get back to you.”
A friend of mine taught me this brilliant tactic. Bam! You’ve honored their question and you bought yourself time to frantically Google “how to talk about…” and call all of your friends for advice and think through which rabbit-holes various answers will lead you down. I like this tactic so much I use it with the adults in my life too.
The essential part of this tactic, though, is to make sure you come back with an answer. No wimping out. This is not an excuse to duck out of answering, crossing your fingers and hoping they don’t bring it up again. It is now your job to find a time to say, “Yesterday you asked me about [whatever they asked]. Can we talk about it now?”
- Just do it
It’s never too late to start these conversations; a sexually-active eighteen-year-old may still need to talk about healthy relationships, since a frightening 1-in-3 adolescents in the US has been a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner. It’s also never too early; your five-year-old is ready to notice that Disney princesses are strangely obsessed with finding boyfriends, and that human bodies come in all shapes and sizes. And remember that your sons need these conversations just as much as your daughters.
These tips are not going to make your conversations all rainbows and unicorns. It’s still going to be awkward. But awkwardness won’t kill you, or your child. Your child might blush or roll their eyes or whine, or even (as my son does on occasion) walk out on you mid-sentence. But they’re listening. And you know what’s more awkward and uncomfortable than these conversations? Being unprepared for your first wet dream. A sexting photo gone public. Telling your partner they may have chlamydia.
So start talking.
Here are some resources if you need other inspiration:
- There are dozens of books available on this topic. The “It’s So Amazing” series by Robie Harris worked well for our family because it avoided the unnecessary gender stereotyping many books seem to have (“Now you love kitties and unicorns, and someday you’ll feel that way about a BOY!” I mean, seriously…)and avoided fear and shame-based messages. We skipped the first one (It’s Not the Stork) but used both of the others. Remember that the point isn’t to embarrassedly hand them a book and walk away; use books as a way to start conversations.
- The classic book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, How to Listen so Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish gives you guidance on being an “askable” parent and encouraging conversation.
- You can find tips for dozens of specific topics at National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
- There’s a great summary of the research, if you need convincing about what works, and lots of tips at Advocates for Youth.
- Check out the multimedia section for parents with tips, facts, and pep talks at Planned Parenthood.
- Here’s a simple list of topics kids should understand at various ages.
- Great cartoon illustrating what consent means, if it’s something you don’t know much about.