The fact that this is even a question shows just how sex-negative our culture is, don’t you think? I mean, no one is out there writing articles on “how to talk to your kids about rhinoceroses.” And look, I’m not putting myself out there as an expert—if my kids hit twenty and can chime in and say, yeah mom, you did all right, then I’ll say I’m an expert. But after hearing some moms the other day talking about pussyfooting around, feeling awkward, leaving books on their tween daughter’s beds, etc—especially when I know these same women chat with each other about sex—I feel like I might have something to say about this.
Short answer: you never DON’T talk about sex with them. Just like you don’t not talk about rhinoceroses. When it comes up, it’s in the discussion for a bit, and then the conversation moves on. As all conversations do. This way sex is never a THING and you never have A TALK. It’s just…normal.
Longer answer. Little kids ask great questions. When we used to take our goats on “dates” with a local stud (his name was Cowboy, no seriously, it was) little Sophie would go along and one day she asked me, “What does licking and climbing on have to do with getting pregnant?” I gave her a short answer that included the guy getting his sperm/DNA in contact with the girl’s egg/DNA (because we’d just watched a Hulk episode about DNA and had talked about it, so I could piggy back a little) in order to get the whole recipe for making that particular baby into the mom, who cooked the baby until it was ready to be born. Plus it feels good. She said, “oh.” It was maybe two minutes. The conversation moved on. That was the start. Or, ha, I remember little Luc asking me at some point—and I can’t for the life of me remember the context! curses!—“wait, you mean sex feels good?” Great questions, right?
My point is, in the beginning, kids are not embarrassed. They ask the right questions. It’s up to the parents not to mess that up.
So, for those who want a how-to LIST:
1) No embarrassment. Straight-face. Laugh. Give good information. Never hedge. Never lie or cover up. That way you retain your reputation as a Source of Good Information when they really need it.
2) Start when they are little, with their very first questions. There is no “when you’re older” or “you’re too young to talk about that.” If you turn them away once, they may never ask you again, like when they are teenagers and need birth control. You want them to still be asking when they are teenagers and need birth control!
3) At the same time, answer their questions exactly to the degree that they want information and not one syllable beyond that. Don’t be Over Sharing Mom. Four year old Sophie did not want Anais Nin to fill her in on the details of goat babies. (Sixteen or eighteen or twenty-four year old Sophie might need the Anais Nin version–I hope we’re still talking as openly at that point! THAT is the goal here.) Pay attention to their cues. Stop talking before they are bored or uncomfortable.
4) When sexuality crosses you and your kid’s paths (songs, jokes, ads, tv, life, etc, because it’s everywhere), just naturally discuss whatever comes up. Movies and tv are great for this, but it can be whatever. Things that have to do with sex in some way come up all the time. Don’t avoid them.
Bonus round: The car is a great place for this sort of stuff, because no one is looking at anyone and there is comfortable room for long silences. But anywhere is fine, getting at it in the moment rather than waiting for A Talk is the best. Don’t let talking about sexuality get a weird mojo around it.
That’s the basics.
Luc is nine. Right now he hates anything to do with romance, or sex, or ugh, god, KISSING. He says, “Don’t say that word! Say ‘the S word’!” I respect that.
Sophie is a mature eleven. She watches anime which is sometimes full of fan service (usually panty shots and boobs, occasionally dream-boat bishounen) and often very strange ideas about gender roles. We talk about feminism, and portrayal of women, the jokes about wood, body image, “that’s what she said” type jokes, and the strong possibility that those two guy characters are secretly dating. I remember being eleven, I was trying stuff out on my own, I was interested. The hormones were there. They’re there for her, too. And I want to be a resource for her, to whatever degree she wants me to be–and not in some awkward, formal “if you have any questions” way, but in a “we just talk about this, it’s normal” way. Which means lots of little interactions when it isn’t high-stakes (low stakes: not about her, high stakes: about her). Much easier to talk about tv show characters and hypotheticals (low stakes!) and build up the ease and trust that way. It’s ridiculously hard if we’ve never talked about it and she’s sixteen and worried she’s got an std. Don’t wait till then because its too late.
There is a moment when I say something out-loud for the first time that feels a little heart-pounding to me—me who was raised in a home where We Do Not Talk About Sex—and that moment is so important. It takes whatever it is out of Taboo Land and puts it in Topics Up For Discussion territory. I have to push through the taboo in myself, just to get the words spoken. It’s like deflating balloons, though, because once I’ve said it, the weirdness in myself goes away really quickly.
For example. The three of us were getting ready for bed the other night, brushing our teeth, finding pjs, etc and Luc asked me what I did that day while they were visiting their aunt. I hesitated. Because what I did was fuck my husband stupid. So I was faced with a choice. I could lie, I could cover, because I felt nervous (throwback to my childhood)—but why do that? Why lie? If I do, I’ve installed a taboo, which means maybe in six, or four, or eight years, when Luc has a girlfriend or a boyfriend and he’s getting it on, or thinking about getting it on, he probably will think he can’t tell me about it. Because I will have set the precedent that We Don’t Talk About When We Have Sex.
So I said, “Your dad and I had some awesome, um, S-Word.”
He made a face. “Why?” As in, why would you willingly participate in something so GROSS?!
I said, “Because we like each other! And it’s fun.”
Sophie laughed. “They are a couple. It’s what they do.”
Which I was glad to hear, her easy laughing, the normality of her response.
“Whatever,” said Luc. “I don’t get it.” And the conversation moved on.
A tiny interaction. But now it’s in the mix. It could come up again, more easily now that it’s on the table. It’s not a big mysterious secret that Dad and Mom are doing…things. So maybe it doesn’t have to be a secret when they start, either.
Lots of little interactions where sex isn’t A SECRET build up to sex being just another topic. If you want it to be easy and normal to talk about sex when they are teenagers, you have to normalize it all along.
Boom. And that’s how you talk WITH (not TO) your kids about sex.
Sidebar: I do have a couple of books around, books that I’ve pointed out to them and said, “Hey, I got this book, I think it’s pretty informative and not stupid. Feel free to look at it if you want.” They’re usually, “whatever,” and I drop it. But the books are there, a curated collection, rather than Random Shit Off The Internet. Sometimes you want info but you want it in private, and you don’t want to have to ask your mom. That’s cool. Books are good for that.
So, in case you’re interested, S.E.X. by Heather Corinna is great, with lots of discussion about tricky topics like consent, feelings, choices, plus in depth on physiology, birth control, sti’s, based on solid science. From the creator of the excellent site Scarlateen.com, which I also recommend. Another one that is shorter is Sex: a book for teens by Nikol Hassler. Good, more basic than the other one, more of a how-to with information about birth control, safe sex, etc. and less of the psychological. Plus it’s funny and a bit less of a commitment because it looks small, with not too many pages, and has cows humping on the cover. No really, it does.