How to talk to children about sex: An age-by-age guide

Let's talk about sex ... Or not. While many parents fear the talk, Dr. Deborah Gilboa says it's a chance to teach your kids what you want them to know.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

For some parents, talking about sex with their children produces as much anxiety and awkward moments as losing their virginity. When do you bring it up? What do you say? If you mention sex will they start thinking of it?

Parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa says many of the earliest conversations that parents have with their children are about sex even though parents might not realize it.

“Whether parents thought about it in these terms or not they have talked to their kids about sex a lot. They have said ‘You can’t go outside without putting on pants.’ It is talking to them about modesty, privacy and respect,” she told TODAY Parents.

“You have a lot of conversations with your little ones in that same area. You can just build on that.”

Gilboa says that both parents should talk to their children about sex so that they receive a variety of perspectives on the topic. Getty Images/iStockphoto

While talking to children about sex can seem daunting, it’s an opportunity for parents to share their beliefs with their children.

“When you pass on information about sex, you also get to pass on a value. If you just had them read a book or let them learn from school of the internet, you rob yourself and your child from getting the values with the facts,” Gilboa said.

She shares tips on how to talk to kids about sex at every age.

Preschool to kindergarten: 4 to 6

Often little children ask questions that are related to sex and parents panic. What do you say when your toddler asks how the baby got in his aunt’s belly? How do you explain why daddy definitely does not want you hitting his crotch with a bat?

“Be factual,” she said. “Answer the question you were asked and not the questions that weren’t asked.”

Parents can say that babies grow in an organ made for babies to develop in and leave it at that. Or that it is not OK to touch anyone’s private parts without permission because they are sensitive and private.

“You can be vague," she said. “There is a lot of misinformation out there. It is OK for parents to not know everything. It is really useful to use accurate words to avoid kids being scared or having misconceptions."

Or you can redirect if the question requires an answer that isn’t age appropriate.

“You could say, ‘That’s a really good question … That is a conversation for when you are a little older,'” Gilboa explained.

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When children ask questions about sex at an inconvenient time, acknowledge it and tell them you’ll talk about it at a better time.

“You can say, ‘Great question, sweetie, I’m glad you asked it. Let’s talk about this later,’” she said.

Then, parents need to talk about it later.

Grade school: 7 to 10

This is when parents should introduce the idea of sex to their children so that they know to ask their parents about sex.

“If they have to ask questions then (they know) you are the expert they go to,” Gilboa explained.

But she cautions parents to set the right tone.

“Don’t make it a big scary deal. Don’t pull the drapes and sit at the dining room table,” she said.

With this age group, Gilboa recommends a pre-test where parents quiz their children to see what they know.

Introductions could be easy, such as, “Hey, do you know anything about how babies are made?”

If they say yes, ask them what they know. This gives you a chance to correct them using age-appropriate language. For example you could say babies are made during an activity that only mommies and daddies do together.

Middle school: 10 to 14

If parents feel like in the past they biffed on some of the sex questions or shared misinformation, this is the time they can undo the damage. But it's time to address sex more directly now.

“I would start by owning up to mistakes,” Gilboa said. “By middle school if you don’t give your kids the facts they will almost certainly get the information from somewhere else and will be entirely unlikely to have your values.”

Again, parents should try the pretest and ask their children what they know about pornography, consent, what “bases” are, or STDs — whatever they want their children to understand.

“Find out where they are at and what you need to teach,” she said.

After they answer what they know, parents can correct the misinformation and ask them how they might handle some situations. Parents might want to ask, for example, what their middle school student would do if someone showed them pornography.

High school: 14 to 18

Parents specifically need to be talking about sex with their teens, but Gilboa recommends they do it before their child has a partner. That way their children don’t believe the discussion is targeted toward the partner because they could think their parents dislike their partner.

“It is so much safer for your child for to get these conversations before you and they are picturing a partner in particular,” Gilboa said.

Avoid lecturing too much, though.

“The older your child is, the more you should ask and not tell,” she said.

Gilboa says it's always OK for parents not to have all the answers. There are numerous organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Sexuality and Information and Education Council of the United States that have guides about sex. Gilboa even said parents can talk to their pediatricians for advice.

“There are places parents can go,” she said.