How To Talk To Your Kids About Sex

Written by Emma Dixon, PhD

In my work, I help people recover from childhood sexual abuse or adult trauma. I also help couples expand their sexual repertoire and boundaries in relationships by, for example, exploring BDSM and Tantra.

Outside of work, I'm a mother to two boys and a girl. I am often asked how to have a healthy relationship with sex and their sexuality. Here is my answer:

Most importantly, nurture their innocence. I don't mean "innocence" in a cliché way, but rather as a concept to highlight the importance of individuality when it comes to each person's unique journey with sex. Sexuality is a sacred aspect of selfhood which unfolds within an individual's larger process of growth and self-discovery. It should never be rushed, interfered with, or judged.

Adults who enjoy sex the most approach sex with innocence, and by that I mean a childlike delight, free from shame, imbued with curiosity and an attitude of wonder. Whether you're into sweet lovemaking or flogging, it is the Buddhist-style "Beginner's Mind" approach that makes sexuality fun, connecting, and endlessly engaging.

Here are some crucial reminders to help you approach the difficult question of how to approach "sex ed" with your kids. Keep these tips in mind to ensure your kids will have the best foundation to remain safe, self-empowered and innocent when it comes to sex.

1. Nurture their self esteem, especially their body image.

Emphasize character and positive capabilities rather than looks. Both boys and girls are pressured to conform to certain standards of appearance, which creates self-consciousness that will have a consequence for later sexual confidence. As parents we can do so much to influence what they should value in themselves. This is so especially for females; one of the ways in which girls are sexualized young is that people tend to comment on how girls look rather than what they are reading or doing in life.

2. Name their genitals correctly.

Please just call it what it is, penis, vagina, whatever. Being matter-of-fact about sexuality is important, because it takes the judgment and subsequent shame out of it. Not to mention, knowing what genitals are actually called is helpful later on.

3. Talk openly about matters of sexuality and don't judge!

It's crucial when talking about sexuality to meet kids where they are at. Some kids are curious at six; yet some twelve year-olds are utterly disinterested, so don't push it! At age six, the mechanics of sex can be explained to the doggedly curiously child who insists on knowing "how."

But that young child cannot understand desire and partner connection, so keep it to the basics of biology. This is the case even when the child understands arousal (children can climax from a young age without knowing what is happening, and boys can do so without ejaculating).

For prepubescent children, pleasure from one's genitals is not yet associated with romance and other people, nor should it be! It is simply about their evolving relationships with their own bodies, which should be accepted, validated, and put in an appropriate social context (self-exploration is to be done in private and alone).

It's easy to shame a child around sexuality just by being uncomfortable and avoidant, particularly if your child is of a different gender or sexual orientation. Even if you are not comfortable about knowing what's going on in your child's sexual development, or peer group, ask questions with an open mind, and listen.

If you don't judge, your child will keep sharing. When your child feels accepted, he or she will make the wisest choices.

4. Be realistic about pornography and put it in context for your children.

By age twelve most children will likely have had some kind of exposure to pornography, so start talking about it beforehand. Explain that whether they want to see it or not, and despite all parental attempts to block it, something will pop up, perhaps on a friend's device. They need to understand that it's entertainment, not documentary, and solely meant to arouse, not inform. Certainly it's more likely that boys will see it than girls.

The number of men I see who are anxious about their penis size and performance because of porn far exceeds the number of women I've seen who have felt objectified by men who watch porn. For those of us who are parents of sons, we have a particular responsibility to correct our boys' perceptions both of women, and of what they should expect of themselves as young men.

5. Emphasize the importance of consent.

Consent is about only being sexual with someone when you feel 100% sure that you want to be sexual, and when you have your partner's absolute consent too.

As parents, one of the biggest gifts we can give our children is the confidence and self-esteem to know what feels right, and what feels wrong, and to be sensitive about how others feel as well. We do this by respecting our children's opinions and boundaries — by truly listening, and acting on what we hear.

No matter how confronting it may be to witness our children evolve as sexual beings, it's well worth doing mindfully and with an open mind. Sexuality is crucial to our identity, well-being and happiness as adults. As parents, we have both the responsibility and the joy of protecting our children's' innocence, and also guiding them toward a self-confident and enjoyable adult sexuality.

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