Many parents mistakenly believe that parenting sexuality is a singular conversation that occurs during puberty. “The birds and the bees,” or “the sex talk,” is a conversation parents dread and teens must uncomfortably squirm through as an almost rite of passage after an entire childhood vacant of honestly answered questions.
I was raised by a religious mother with a wall of, “You’re not old enough to have that question answered,” off which to bounce all my questions. For the record, this is a terrible answer. If your child is old enough to ask a question, they are old enough to hear an answer. My public school sex education consisted exclusively of, “Sperm are made in testicles and expelled out the penis. Eggs are made in ovaries and babies grow in the uterus. The end.” I spent the next several years wondering how the sperm get to the eggs, until I overheard a teenager making a joke about a spiked dildo, and I was able to put two and two—er, one and one—together.
Children are learning about sexuality from the moment they discover their genitals in the womb (yes, this does happen). The question isn’t whether or not your children will exist within this universe in which sexuality is one layer. The question is whether or not you are privileged to guide them through this layer of their existence as you do every other natural aspect of life.
Continual conversations about sex that occur naturally and frequently throughout childhood are not awkward for children and will only be awkward for you if you make them that way. If you establish the precedent that “these are things we don’t talk about,” then don’t be upset when those lines of communication are closed when they are teenagers and they seek information elsewhere.
Body shame is pervasive in our culture, particularly toward girls and women. As we move through specific opportunities for learning and connection in parenting our children’s sexuality, the underlying mood should be free of stigma and shame, with a philosophy and message of openness, honesty, respect, acceptance, and autonomy.
“Why does daddy have hair on his penis?”
Boy: “Hair will grow on your face, armpits, and the base of your penis when you go through puberty as a teenager. That is when your body changes from a boy to a man.”
Girl: “Hair will grow on your vulva and armpits when you go through puberty as a teenager. That is when your body changes from a girl to a woman.”
This is an elbow. This is a chin. This is a vulva. In teaching your young children the vocabulary needed to communicate about themselves and the world around them, please do so accurately. Language is powerful. Using avoidance words sends a powerful message of shame. In particular, I have seen a disturbing trend of children being taught, “Boys have penises and girls don’t.” WTF?! Girls are not lacking something that boys have; they each have something different. If a vulva is so horrible we cannot even speak the word aloud, we are already laying a strong foundation of self-hate while simultaneously closing the door of communication. The message becomes, “That part of you is dirty, shameful, evil, and we do not talk about it.” Your daughter’s vulva is not Lord Voldemort4: “She who must not be named.” Guess what? Not talking about something does not make it cease to exist. Your daughter does have a vulva, and a vagina, and a clitoris. Just because you don’t answer her queries doesn’t mean that she won’t still have them. You will only drive her to seek answers elsewhere.
A teacher once shared a case with me where a young male student confided in her that his uncle was “eating his twinkie,” which she repeatedly dismissed. I’m sure you can see where this is going. As someone trained as a family therapist, I can tell you that you are severely handicapping your child if you do not equip him with the words he needs to protect himself. As I’m sure you have guessed, that little boy was being molested, but his pleas for help went unanswered. It is not a twinkie, or a pee pee, or a winky, or a wienie. It is a penis. Your son has a penis and testicles in his scrotum.
As I mentioned, even fetuses in utero will fondle their sexual organs in the womb. Why? Because it feels good. Your child will touch their sexual organs. They will touch all of their body because it is theirs to touch. Body autonomy: your child owns their body. That said, it is okay to teach your child appropriate boundaries for that touch. For example, “If you want to touch your penis, you need to do so in the privacy of your room, please, because your penis is just for you.”
Speaking of your child owning their body, it is imperative that we as parents understand that we teach consent by asking for it. If you use your superior size and strength to force things on your child’s body (food, sweatshirts, diapers, etc.), then your child will grow to either allow others to exert force over their body or exert force over others’ bodies.
You are the role model for your child’s relationship with their body. What is the attitude you have toward your body? What is the relationship you have with your sexuality? I believe the human form to be completely natural, normal, and beautiful. My children see me naked in the normal course of living life. They are naked in the normal course of living life. And we all share a safe, comfortable space for being our true selves together in our home. We speak of every aspect of our bodies positively, with an appreciation for all our bodies do for us, and openly discuss issues of sexuality in the same honest tone in which we discuss all other facets of life.
Research even shows us that “’Boys exposed to parental nudity were less likely to have engaged in theft in adolescence or to have used various psychedelic drugs and marijuana.’ ‘Girls were also less likely to have used drugs such as PCP, inhalants, or various psychedelics in adolescence.’1 Why is this? . . . It seems the children who are exposed to normal household nudity grow up to be more self-confident. This is predicted to be because they are more aware of their bodies as a multi-functioning entity than their peers who were parented without exposure to parental nudity as children. Additionally, the children exposed to normal household nudity are less likely to give in to peer pressure and more likely to take the potential health risks of drug use into consideration.” So if you don’t want your kids to do drugs, walk around naked!1
As a natural consequence of this openness, my sons know more about the female body than most of their female peers, which is funny and sad at the same time. In kindergarten my eldest had a conversation with a friend whose mother was pregnant:
“There’s a baby in my Mom’s tummy.”
“It’s growing in her uterus.”
“The baby is going to come out of my mom’s bottom, right?”
“No, the baby will come out of your mom’s vagina.”
“I don’t have a vagina. I just have a bottom.”
“No, you have a bottom and a vagina.”
One conversation that often arises between a child and their mommy is regarding menstruation. Children may notice the paraphernalia used during your monthly period, hear you discussing it in the normal course of life, or witness some aspect of self-care. This understanding unfolds best when you don’t hide the fact that you menstruate. If your child knows nothing of menstruation and one day notices that their mommy is “bleeding,” it very well might be met with traumatizing shock and concern.
In response to my 2-year-old’s inquiry of, “What that?” I told him, “Vitamins for a baby. But there is no baby in Mommy’s belly anymore, so I’m all done with the vitamins.” With a young one, it is about hitting keywords with which they are familiar. In this case those would be “vitamins,” “no baby,” “all done.”
For an older child, you can go into greater detail. The answers are always honest but are tailored to the level of understanding of the particular child at their present age and stage of development. “Each month my body makes a nest for a baby in my uterus with healthy things for a baby, kind of like baby vitamins. And each month when we don’t have a baby, it’s not needed, so my body simply sheds it and starts over making a fresh nest the next month.” Or, “You know how a baby can grow in Mommy’s uterus? Well, each month my body lines my uterus with super healthy stuff for a baby. Each month that I don’t have a baby, I don’t need it, so my body sheds it out of my vagina. That is called menstruation, or a period. So when you were growing in my uterus, I didn’t have a period, because all that super healthy stuff went to you.”
The only word of caution I have is that sometimes when children hear that you are “bleeding,” they can become concerned because they know that bleeding is painful and means something is wrong (based on their life experience). Blood is part of the uterine lining, but it’s actually only a small part, so I don’t use the word “bleeding” when referring to menstruation. But if, out of concern, your child specifically asks if you are bleeding, you could reassure them that, “There is a little bit of blood in the uterus to keep a baby healthy. But since there is no baby, that blood sheds out too. Mommy’s body is not hurt; it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.”
The question of how babies are made is overwhelming if this question is being answered in isolation. But if you are honestly answering your children’s questions all along their journey, they will already be equipped with all the pieces of the puzzle needed to put the picture together when they are ready.
“What’s in my testicles?”
“Sperm, which are like seeds for making a baby when you are a grown-up.”
“Do you have testicles?”
“No, I have ovaries, but they are inside my body, so you can’t see them.”
“Do your ovaries make sperm too?”
“My ovaries make eggs.”
Children typically prefer to digest information as they do food: in small quantities. I always answer their questions, but I also don’t overwhelm them with information.
“How do you make a baby?”
“Mommy is growing your baby brother in my uterus. Inside my body he stays safe and warm, and my body gives him everything a baby needs to grow into a person like blood, food, and even oxygen to breathe. That’s why mommy is so tired sometimes.”
One month later:
“When will he be born?”
“Only my body knows when he is perfectly ready. When he is, my uterus will make tummy squeezes and he will come out of my vagina.”
When you are adding a new member to your family, I suggest empowering your child with being fully informed (and their own birth video is a great way to facilitate that), but that process happens slowly, casually, over a long period of time. As I’ve mentioned, my children were actually present for my prenatal appointments and the births of their brothers. It was an amazingly wonderful experience for them (and you can read more about siblings in the Baby Makes One More chapter).
I have found that a helpful segue into the concept of mating can come from the animal kingdom. We spend a lot of time at the zoo, which can provide great opportunities to inadvertently see how babies are made.
“What are they doing, Mommy?”
“They’re making a baby gorilla.”
I think the question that finally led to the answer surrounding the mechanics of sexual intercourse was, “How does the baby get into the mommy’s uterus?”
“To make a baby you need a sperm and an egg. Where are the sperm?”
“In the testicles.”
“Right. And where is the egg?”
“In the ovaries.”
“Right. The egg travels from the ovary, down the fallopian tubes, and into the uterus, where it waits for a sperm. If a sperm comes, it grows into a baby. If a sperm doesn’t come, I have a period.”
“How does the sperm get there?”
“When a mommy and daddy want to make a baby, they mate just like most animals do. The penis goes into the vagina and the sperm swim from the testicles, out the penis, and into the uterus. This is called sexual intercourse, though most people just refer to it as sex.”
“Did you and Daddy do that?”
“Can I see?”
“No, because that is something private, in the same way that it is private when you want to touch your penis.”
A month later:
“Is that whole penis–vagina thing uncomfortable? Does it hurt?”
“Well, mating is how all animals reproduce and make babies. So if it hurt, animals wouldn’t do it, and their species would die off, right? So mating actually feels good for a person who is ready and wanting to make a baby.
Also, animals are compelled to mate when they are ready to have a baby. It’s kind of like being thirsty and drinking water. When your testicles are full of sperm that are ready to fertilize an egg, you are thirsty to mate, and mating satisfies that thirst.”
Do your kids know their conception story? Just as with birth, putting conception in the context of your child’s story is a perfect way to lower defenses and invest interest.
“Tell me about when you made me, Mommy!”
Some of you may be squirming as you even read this dialogue, but again, if you have these kinds of conversations on a regular basis, they are really not awkward or a big deal for your child. They are just stepping further down their path of knowledge, and it feels like one small step of many in a constant journey of growing up.
One reality of today’s technologically modern world is that your children will encounter online pornography. They will. Even with every filter and constant supervision, they will see pornographic imagery. So while I do encourage you to use filters and employ supervision online, accept that at some point they will see images that you would prefer they didn’t. My son had his first exposure to pornography at school! Ironically, we are even homeschoolers, but my children attend a learning center two days a week. My son was looking up “sailboat sails” on the iPad for a sailboat project with his teacher when a picture of a naked woman popped up on the screen in the second row of image results. When I arrived for pick-up, I was pulled aside and told what happened.
Thankfully, it felt like a huge parenting win because we have no body shame issues, and my children are 100% comfortable and familiar with the human body. They do see me naked in the normal course of daily life, were very involved in their little brothers’ births, know all about menstruation, mating, etc.
I asked my then 8-year-old if he had any questions or anything he wanted to talk about, and he said, “No. The teacher seemed traumatized and changed the subject quickly. Like, has she never seen a vulva or breasts before?” <eye roll>
But it did lead to a conversation about breast implants (“Her boobs were huge like basketballs.”) and why there are naked pictures online.
“For some people who don’t see another naked person, they find it exciting to look at a picture of a naked person online. So some people put pictures online, and some other people pay money to look at them.”
My then 5-year-old said, “Why would it be exciting to see a naked person? It’s just a person. That’s what people look like.”
The right of body ownership extends to (and begins in) the parent–child relationship. You do not own your child’s body. This respect is a philosophical approach to parenting that begins on your first day as a parent and is continually reinforced throughout your child’s life as you respect their body autonomy. In Sage Baby2 class, we begin by teaching parents to ask permission, read their babies’ cues, and respect their needs. Often parents and other family members even make games based on the violation of body ownership with things like tickling and rough housing. I have distinct memories of feeling violated and powerless when being tickled. It felt like torture and left me feeling like I had no bodily rights. This is not to say that if your child enjoys a playful round of tickling or a rousing wrestling match that these activities are off limits. The key is that you respect your child’s boundaries for their body. No means no. It’s really that simple. If you are tickling your child and they say, “No,” then you stop. Period. It does not matter if they are smiling. It does not matter what you perceive their body language to be communicating. Sometimes your child will catch their breath and then lift their shirt for more tickles. Ask permission. “Do you want more tickles?” Tickle until they say, “Stop.” Repeat.
Someone within the family’s circle of trust is most likely to violate a child. This makes forced affection, which is so often expected and enforced, the perfect primer for victimization. A child should never be forced to comply with affection with which they are not comfortable. Great Aunt Jill or “Uncle” John are welcome to ask for a hug so long as your child is also welcome to decline. This is not rude and can be done respectfully. If someone asks my little ones for a hug upon leaving and they look at me nervously (covertly requesting support), I simply say, “No hugs today? That’s okay,” and open my arms for them to retreat. I’ll usually then suggest something less intimate that still acknowledges the departing family member. “Do you want to say bye-bye to Grandma? Bye-bye, Grandma!” A simple “No thank you” is acceptable for an older child. Forcing your child into affection through their discomfort is a sure-fire way to disempower and lays the groundwork for that forced affection to be taken further with continued compliance. It’s about consent. Extending this dynamic into the teen years, it is easy to see how a precedent of affection without consent can lead to disempowerment in being able to confidently assert their choices for their body. You wouldn’t want your child to go along with something they are not comfortable with because they think it would be rude to say no.
Adolescent Sex Talk
Once your children transition into adolescence (and understand firsthand why it would be exciting to look at a picture of a provocatively posed naked people), they will be exploring their sexuality more and more independently. The balance of privacy and openness is maintained with trust. You don’t want to play the role of a watchdog but that of a safe, loving, and nonjudgmental resource.
The developmental step of dating is the one most resisted by parents if they have been parenting from a place of ownership. If you have believed that your child is your property, you will likely view a boyfriend or girlfriend as a threat—someone who is coming into your home and taking your property to do with as they please. Let’s be real: it’s almost always girls/women who are considered property and who are considered to be passive and powerless recipients of other males.
All the jokes about (the tragically serious) “rules for dating my daughter” perpetuate this harmful paradigm: Men own their bodies, women do not. She is owned by her father, then by her husband. Here’s the thing: you do not own your teenager’s body! Don’t we strive to teach our children that they alone are the ones to sense and decide what affection is comfortable for them? Why would that be true for childhood and adulthood but untrue for adolescence?
When it comes to moral value systems around sexuality, you can teach your child all about the choices you have made for your body and why you have chosen to make them, but each person chooses for themselves. You can delude yourself into believing that if you lay down mandates hard enough, you are the one with the control over your teenager’s body. But it would be just that—a delusion. And worst of all, it would put the Wall of Jericho between you and your child.
If you want your adolescents to make safe choices that will help them to be their best selves, you must arm them with honest information and be there for supportive guidance.
“The biological function of sex is to reproduce. But in order for the species to survive, humans need to want to have sex, so it is pleasurable.”
Sometimes in our representation of the facts, we leave out the fact that sex is enjoyable. This creates a chasm between the messages your children receive from adults like their parents and those they receive from their peer group and the media. This can undermine trust. Don’t try to skew the facts toward a desired outcome. Just be honest.
Along with the realization that sex can be recreational beyond a biological imperative for procreation comes the realization that there must be a way to have sex without making a baby, or Mommy and Daddy would have 20 kids. “So, if you and Daddy mate sometimes because it feels good, but you don’t want to have another baby, how do you stop the sperm from meeting the egg?” Yes, even at 8 my child was beyond abstinence-only sex education.
“There are actually quite a few forms of what is called birth control. One way is to put what is called a condom over the penis, which prevents the sperm from going into the uterus and meeting the egg. There is also medicine that the woman can take that stops the ovaries from releasing eggs into the uterus. There are a lot of ways. If you ever want to know more ways, you are always welcome to ask.”
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) are one topic that usually comes up in the context of illness and not sex. Your child might be sick and asking how they contracted the illness.
“There are a lot of different ways to get a sickness, actually. Some sicknesses move through the air. Some germs move through bodily fluids, which is why we have to sneeze into our elbows and not into people’s faces. So that means saliva from your mouth, boogers from your nose, blood from inside your body, potty or poop, or even fluids that come out of a penis or a vagina when people are mating.”
Then, as your child gets older and the conversations continue, the vocabulary gets more advanced and the details get expanded. “We sneeze into our elbows to prevent the sickness germs from spreading through our saliva. Is there a way to prevent spreading the sickness germs that get shared when people mate?”
“Those sicknesses are called STDs, which stands for sexually transmitted diseases. There is no way to be 100% safe from getting any STDs except abstinence, which just means not mating. But wearing a condom on your penis when you do have sex is very protective because it prevents the sharing of fluids. There are some STDs that are deadly, so every time someone has sex they should always wear a condom. And when two people get married, they should both be tested by the doctor for any STDs. If both people are healthy, then they can mate without worrying about STDs, because marriage means you are only going to mate with that one person.”
Another sexual reality that is often intentionally withheld is that sex can occur outside of marriage. When talking with our young children, they most easily understand when we speak within the context they know: Mommy and Daddy. They become the example we use in explaining the result of mating between their parents, as their family is really their whole life. Once children become teenagers, that begins to change. Their world of connections expands and they begin to extend the archetype of our own “mommy–daddy” relationship to their budding relationships outside the family. This is normal and healthy. This is also where they will quickly see that sex is not something exclusive to mommies and daddies. Whatever your personal beliefs about the conditions under which you wanted to have sex, the reality is that sex can occur in a wide variety of contexts. Pretending they don’t exist will only drive your teen away from you and into the arms of others who may not have your child’s best interest at heart. Sex can occur outside of love. It can occur outside of marriage. It can occur between mixed or same sex couples.
“People find someone they want to share their bodies with. People can meet each other, date, fall in love, get married, and have children. Sex in a loving marriage is a very special way of connecting. But people can also have children without getting married. People can have sex just for pleasure without love. People can be married and never have children. People are the bosses of their own bodies and get to make the choices they feel will help them to be their best selves.”
Parenting sexuality is no different than parenting any other facet of existence in the universe. Recognize that you are your child’s role model, be open and honest in supporting your child’s authentic learning journey, and respect that your child is the ultimate master of their body temple.
[This post contains links to products I find useful. These are affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase on Amazon using the links, I receive a small fee and you help to keep this blog running. Thank you for the support!]
1. Parental Nudity: http://www.iamnotthebabysitter.com/parental-nudity-keeps-kids-off-drugs/
2. Sage Baby: https://sagefamily.com/sage-baby-class/
3. It’s So Amazing: http://www.amazon.com/Its-So-Amazing-Families-Library/dp/0763613215/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y
4. Harry Potter: http://www.amazon.com/Harry-Potter-Paperback-Box-Books/dp/0545162076/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1452387422&sr=8-3&keywords=harry+potter