Many parents have an expectation that school will appropriately address their child’s sex education needs. Unfortunately, this expectation is a faulty one. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, only 24 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education while 33 States and the District of Columbia require HIV/AIDS education. Consequently, depending on the state you reside, public school education on sex may or may not be an option. In addition, in those states which do offer sex education, the material covered also varies. The bottom line is that parents have an obligation to make sure their children learn what’s needed.

WHAT IS “THE TALK”

There’s a common misconception that there should be this one conversation that is commonly triggered by a question from your child, preparation for menses or when heterosexual young men start showing interest in girls. For both the parents and the kids, the conversation, can for some, be very awkward. It tends to focus on the body’s preparation for reproduction, hygiene, or whatever message parents want to include about having sex and sexually transmitted infections (commonly referred to as STI’s). The reality is that if you are waiting for those signs to appear before having the talk, you’re probably too late to introduce the subject to your kids. Someone else has probably already beaten you to the punch.

WHEN TO HAVE “THE TALK”

Most parents dread the talk because in our minds it is linked with sex and sexual activity. As parents, we need to stop thinking this way as it causes us to do our children a tremendous disservice. As we watch our children develop, we continually measure and talk to them about their height and weight development all throughout their childhood. We don’t measure them once and then never talk about it again. We need to view our child’s sexual development in the same way. Sexual development does not equal sexual activity.

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Consequently, our first conversations should take place when they’re around two or three, and they become interested in their genitals. That’s the time to introduce them to the proper names for their body parts such as vulva and penis. You should speak about them in the same tone and emphasis you would use to discuss an arm or leg. This establishes a lifelong ability for them to discuss their body without shame or embarrassment. The age appropriate topic of development at this point is boundaries: Where and when to be naked. Which areas of their bodies are private and should not be touched by others.

The next parent-initiated conversation should take place around nine or 10 years of age to prepare them for the changes that will happen during puberty. Talking to a child before they start to experience their physiological changes is important and goes a long way in helping them maintain good self-esteem, self-awareness and coping skills to help them deal with the many challenges of adolescence. A simple example is, preparing a child to be alert for changes in their sweat and body odor can help prevent embarrassing events that can lead to bullying. Don’t assume that because your child is not yet showing any outward signs of puberty that you should postpone the talk. All children do not develop on the same timeline, so it’s pretty much guaranteed that your kid knows someone who’s developing faster and they’re talking about it. The better prepared your children are, the better they will navigate the challenges and peer influences ahead. You don’t take a trip without planning. Your child shouldn’t be on the road to puberty without a guide.

The next major conversation is the one most frequently considered the talk. This is the conversation you have when your child is showing an interest or attraction to either the opposite sex, or the same sex, and dating even in the group context seems to be starting. This is the time for in depth conversation.

HOW TO HAVE “THE TALK”

From the very first discussion as a toddler it is important when having these discussions to be flexible and age appropriate. Especially with younger kids if they ask a question, there’s something that has triggered the interest, so ask them about it. This will help give you a context for your response. The important piece is to be honest, use accurate words and as best as you can, treat it like any other conversation. If your six-year-old wants to know where babies come from, tell them, “Sure we can talk about it. Is there any reason you want to know?” More than likely, someone in their group has a new sibling on the way and you can simply explain based on that specific context that a sperm and an egg grow together and become a baby. Your child will ask more questions if they want more information. It is also appropriate to tell them that you’re happy to go into more details when they get older. This keeps the door open and encourages future communication.

As much as possible, it is better and less awkward to have age appropriate little talks when the opportunities present themselves. Pay attention to what your kids are saying about their friends, the books they’re given for reading assignments, or stories they see in social media. These are great opportunities to open conversations about specific topics.

WHAT TO INCLUDE IN “THE TALK”

Knowledge is power, so invest in a book. A good book on puberty and development can serve as a wonderful resource both for you and your child. The reality is the talk we received when we were young, if we even got one, was probably woefully inadequate. Become comfortable with the material so you can use proper biological terms like vulva and penis with your children. Answer your children’s questions as they come up, and if you don’t know an answer, it’s okay to admit it. As your kids get older, it’s necessary to become more proactive in telling them what you believe is important for them to know. Provide them appropriate context for behavior. It’s important to be frank with them, that all behaviors have consequences. Include a discussion of safety issues such as consent, STI’s, and contraception.

Sexual development is a process that begins in early childhood and accelerates into adolescence and beyond. Our conversations with our children need to follow a similar process. We need to change our parental perspective from focusing on the talk, to having many little talks that begin with our children as toddlers and continues through elementary school. Maintaining an ongoing dialogue with our children minimizes awkward experiences and enhances the likelihood of a smoother transition of our children into adulthood.