Photo: Kristin Van de Water

Last week my totally innocent, six-year-old son greeted my four-year-old daughter with a cheerful, matter-of-fact greeting: “F*** Emily.” Except he didn’t abbreviate.

“What did you just say?” I asked, convinced I must have misheard amidst the noise of school pickup.

“F*** Emily.” Yep, there it was, plain and clear.

“That’s a really bad word. Were did you hear that?”

Apparently, he had used his new decoding abilities to read the obscenity written on the bathroom wall at school. While I’m normally thrilled to see my kids reading the world around them, this is obviously not what I had in mind.

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“That’s not an appropriate word for you to say,” I said.

“Why, what does it mean?” he asked.

“You don’t need to know exactly what it means, but it’s a word some adults use when they are very angry. Let’s go home.”

The next morning, I overheard my son giggling as he announced that every day when he sees his sister he will say the same thing: F*** Emily.

“I thought I explained this to you yesterday,” I said, frustrated that this had become a thing. “That is not funny. It is mean, offensive and disgusting.”

“What is? What did he say?” chimed in his twin sister. Yeah, that was inevitable too.

“I’m not even going to repeat it. Let’s use kind words.”

Needless to say, I stopped by the school later that day to see what could be done about removing the graffiti. Thankfully, the staff took my concern seriously. My son came home that afternoon eager to share that the custodian had already erased the bad word.

So here I am, confronted with the graphic, derogatory way language around sex has creeped into our everyday lives and vernacular. From a language perspective alone, my kids can no longer live in a protective bubble—if that is even possible growing up in New York City. If they can read and they can overhear conversations, then they are going to find out about sex. I’d rather not have their first introduction to the subject be in the form of bathroom curse words or misinformed joking with schoolmates.

Aside from all this, my four-year-old daughter, who is apparently the romantic of our family, lights up when she sees my husband and I kiss or hug, asking, “Is that what married is? Do you love each other?”

Today she explained to me that two of her toy horses got married. “See they, have matching purple tails,” she said, holding up the magic marker that made that possible. I guess that’s compatibility? She continued, “When they get home, they go to their bedroom and go like this.” The horses touched noses and hooked necks. “Then they go like this.” She laid the horses down and matched up four hooves with four hooves. Not sure if that was her version of horse sex or just a high five. Maybe both. But she definitely gets the concept that spouses are made to fit together in a special way.

“Aww, how sweet. The horses love each other,” I said. “They are having a nice snuggle.”

Finally, add to the equation my two-year-old’s fascination with babies and my older kids’ bath-time questions about body parts and baby-making. At this point, they know that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. The mommy has lots of tiny eggs inside her that can grow into babies when the daddy adds his half of the ingredients.

Now it’s on me to add layer upon layer of depth and detail to the beautiful picture of what sex is and what it’s designed for: oneness, pleasure and procreation within the safety and intimacy of a loving marriage.

I’m pretty sure when I was growing up this conversation didn’t happen until puberty forced it upon us. But with sexualized slang and curse words abounding, the countless weddings that get reenacted during pretend play in our apartment (PAW Patrol fans, Marshal just married Skye at our place), and the naturally inquisitive minds wondering how exactly the “daddy half” meets the “mommy half,” this conversation is about to get real.

Ready to talk to your young kids about sex? I’ve picked up several talking points from friends as well as a great resource called Birds & Bees. Keep these tips in mind.

Start by becoming students of seeds and eggs. Look inside apples, pumpkins and pods that fall from trees to see that inside every living thing is part of what it takes to make another living thing just like it.

Present yourself as an expert on the birth process. Use the actual, medical words for body parts in a matter-of-fact tone. Break out the photos of you together in the hospital. A pregnancy (yours or a friend’s) or a child’s birthday is a great lead-in for a conversation about the day he was born.

Rehearse your message. Come up with a go-to response such as, “That’s a great question!” to give yourself a moment to collect your thoughts when your child asks a tough question. Take the time now to think through what message you’d like to communicate to your child about sex and reproduction, so you won’t be fumbling for words when she pops the question. Make sure it aligns with your values and use it as an anchor point for future discussions. It could be something big-picture, if you’re religious: “Sex is a gift from God, intended for marriage” or more literal: “Sex is a way that adults use their bodies to show their love for each other”—or simply: “Sex is a special way babies are made.”

If your child asks how the baby got inside Mommy, here’s your chance to explain conception. If not, stage a preemptive strike and bring it up yourself: “Have you ever wondered how that baby got inside the mommy?” Start with the basics: “Sex is when a mommy and daddy fit together in a special way to make a baby.”

Add on more detail as your kids ask follow-up questions either during that conversation or later, keeping everything age-appropriate. Work up to something like this: “Remember how I said that mommies and daddies fit together in a special way to make a baby? This is called sex. During sex, the daddy places his penis inside the mommy’s vagina so that the sperm that is deep inside the daddy can meet the egg that is deep inside the mommy. When the sperm and egg join together, those cells grow and grow into a baby.”

Keep it scientific and save the pleasures and dangers of sex for when your child hits puberty.

Set yourself up as the safe, approachable authority on the subject, not your child’s best friend whose older brother sneaks around with his girlfriend. If you start young, they will grow to see that their questions about sex are not dark secrets but part of a natural conversation with mom or dad.

Stop putting off “the talk” and dodging the questions. This is our chance to have foundational conversations about the value and purpose of sex and to lay the groundwork for healthy sexual relationships into adulthood.