Most people believe we first become sexual when we are teenagers, but this is not the case. Sexual feelings start in infancy, from the first time we feel physical sensation in our genitals. As children get a few years older, it is not uncommon for them to absent-mindedly rub their penises or vulvas or play sex games like “doctor” with same or opposite sex friends. Therefore, it’s important that parents address sexuality throughout their child’s lifetime and not wait for the one-time talk about “the birds and the bees.” 

You convey your sexual attitudes to children in thousands of ways: through your sense of modesty, the way you answer questions about sex, words you use for sexual organs, and nonverbal cues. Also, not talking about sex sends a message in itself. As a parent, discussing sexual feelings teaches children to have self-respect, to feel good about their bodies and the pleasure they provide, and how to make good decisions about their sexual behaviors.

Talking about Masturbation

Masturbation is quite common for kids between the ages of 2 and 11. Some parents assume that toddlers who fondle their genitals have the same intent and experiences that an adult has. In reality, children are not thinking about the neighbor down the street. They are putting their hands between their legs simply because it feels good. It is a perfectly normal behavior. The typical response is to ignore the behavior or ask the child to stop. All a parent needs to do is to say the occasional “It feels good when you touch yourself there.” This assures the child that the parent has authority on the topic and it is safe to talk to the parent about sexual matters. In addition, teach your kids the difference between public and private and how such play is reserved for private places.

Children are filled with curiosity about how the body works and should learn about contraception and birth in real words. Parents should view a child’s curiosity as healthy. They should encourage questions, supply accurate but age-appropriate answers, and use correct terminology for body parts.

Talking about Sex and Reproduction

When children ask questions about sex, some parents overwhelm them with biological facts. Give a simple answer that explains what they are asking. For example, a sufficient answer to a toddler’s question about where babies come from is saying, “it grows in mommy’s uterus” while pointing to your abdomen. Also keep in mind the age of the child. A discussion on intercourse will obviously be quite different with a 5-year-old than a 15-year-old! 

Children often have an answer in their head when they ask questions about sex. So you might want to ask the child what they think the answer is. This can provide you with clues about what the child needs to know. As with almost everything else, if you don’t know the answer, be honest with your child. Tell him or her that you don’t know but will do your best to find the answer. Then go research the answer, and get back to your child. Children will feel as though you take their questions seriously and that they can ask your opinion in the future.

Talking with Teens

Although you might have been open about talking to your children about sex from an early age, as teenagers they will start to face these questions firsthand. Teenagers experimenting with sex are forced to deal with the related problems of contraception, sexually transmitted infections, privacy for interactions, as well as just dealing with the general ups and downs of a sexual relationship. Therefore, it is a crucial time to offer the information they need and be emotionally supportive. If you need support, your local Planned Parenthood office is a good resource for pamphlets on some of these topics.

Finally, there are strong gender roles that teenagers feel they must adhere to—and to not conform to these roles is not, in many cases, socially acceptable. Girls must appear amenable to sex but not too amenable. Boys must behave in ways that show they are heterosexual and sexually experienced. Girls need to learn that sexual desire is good, that fantasizing is a way of exploring desire, that desire does not necessarily translate into sexual satisfaction, and that love doesn’t always translate to sexual satisfaction. Boys, on the other hand, can benefit from help in connecting their feelings with their sexual activity. It can also help boys to understand that sex makes them vulnerable, which is one reason sex is so powerful.

Although these conversations may seem awkward at first, over time talking about sex with your kids will become more natural. It shows you care about and respect them and their bodies, which hopefully will bring you closer together.