Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha: What’s the “right” age to start talking to kids about sex? I want them to hear it from me and not classmates, but I don’t know when it’s appropriate.
Wes: About the time they learn to talk. Obviously what you have to say is going to be simple and concrete early on, but you should begin the discussion of sex just as you would any natural phenomenon, so the topic is normal and fun. You’re absolutely correct. If you wait longer than that, the rest of the world takes over for you. If you’re lucky, that influence will only be from classmates sharing their vast array of misinformation on the subject. It’s more likely you’ll get the input of older kids, media and, above all, the Internet. And in case you’ve not been keeping track, the online world has absolutely no limits on what it has to share with your children. So if you don’t get ahead of the story, the story will get ahead of you. Waiting until fifth or sixth grade is like waiting to change the oil in your car until the red light comes on. Put a few quarts in ASAP, but don’t count that as preventative maintenance. You’ve waited too long.
From about 6 on, you have to share more than the mechanics of reproduction. In fact, if that’s all you discuss you’re not much better off than if you ignore the subject entirely. You have to teach a philosophy of sexuality — its ethics and responsibilities as well as its joys and possibilities. You have to make your best attempt to elevate sexuality above the current norm, which is far too recreational. Try to teach kids to have respect for themselves and for others in how they express themselves sexually.
The current error I see is to teach an abstinence philosophy integrated with a small dose of sex education. This leaves us with misinformed, cynical kids who hear the message, “Don’t have sex until you’re married, and while you’re not having it, wear a condom.” The statistics are very clear: Seventy percent of teens will have sex by the time they are 19, and the median age for first intercourse is right around 17. Abstinence may be a nice philosophy, depending on your faith and belief system, but the complexities of human sexuality are rarely contained in simple slogans. So now is the time to start helping your children build the philosophy of sexuality you want them to have. You’re not likely to see your future teenagers adopt everything you believe, but eventually they’ll come back to your ideals.
Which brings us to a final thought: As important as it is to have these talks, it is a great deal more important to live your life as you wish your children to live theirs. If you tell your kids to practice an ethical sexual lifestyle, I recommend you practice one yourself. We all make mistakes. The goal is to recognize them and admit you were wrong. If kids see a parent carelessly moving through serial relationships year after year, the chances are good they will, too. If they see a parent committing infidelity, they will become deceptive. If they see a horrible divorce, they will not trust the “us” of the world. Remember, “do as I say, not as I do” isn’t a parenting style, it’s a sarcastic joke.
Samantha: There’s no magical “right” age to talk to your kids about sex. My mom first talked to me about sex when I was about 8, but we’ve had many talks since then. The talks come pretty naturally; my mom made it clear that she is always open to answer my questions. The first time I remember hearing about sex from other kids in school was fifth grade, so Wes is right, don’t wait any longer than that.
There are many issues to cover, and timing your talks with child development is essential. You don’t want to tell your kids things they are not ready for, but you don’t want them asking other kids questions you could have answered better. The first time you have a sex talk with your kids, cover the basics: anatomy, intercourse and pregnancy ... and sexual orientation. Don’t forget to explain the emotional aspect of sex. Also teach them how to refuse unwanted sexual advances, and tell them no one has to right to touch them without their permission. Also tell them what your values are regarding the right time to have sex. They may not follow your advice exactly, but at least they’ll have guidelines.
When your kid starts trying to act and dress older, take this as a sign to talk about sexual peer influence and explain that how you dress and act gives others an idea of how you act sexually. Readdress sex, talk about foreplay and be sure to discuss birth control.
When they’re younger, they won’t mind hearing a short lecture and explanation. At that age you are their only source of information, and they probably won’t have questions until after you’re done talking about a subject. As they grow older, they will hopefully come into these talks with tons of questions running through their heads. At this point, sex “talks” should be a dialogue.
It’s important that you tell your kids right after the first talk that you are happy to answer any of their questions at any time. Explain that classmates will probably be talking about sex, and not everything they say will be true. Tell your kids you’d be happy to clarify anything they’ve heard.
Next week: We bid a sad farewell to Samantha Schwartz.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a recent graduate of Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.