When Starting To Talk To Your Kids About Sex, Research Says Younger Is Better

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy

There's a common misconception that talking to kids about sex at a younger age will encourage them to start having sex earlier in life. But new research finds there's little truth behind this worry and suggests that when it comes to teaching your kids about sex, the younger, the better.

In a new study published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal, researchers sought to understand how parental involvement in kids' sex ed affected actual sexual health outcomes. In other words, does having parents who talk to them about sex lead to kids making better decisions about their sex lives?

To answer this question, the researchers examined 31 past studies on sex education programs that substantially involve parents in teaching kids about sex—not a perfect barometer for measuring how much parents teach their kids about sex at home in general but at least a good way to gauge its effects. In total, the meta-analysis involved data on over 12,000 kids between ages 9 and 18 whose parents participated in their sex education.

Learning about sex doesn't make kids start having sex earlier. 

First of all, the results showed parents should be actively engaged in teaching their kids about sex: Kids with more parental involvement were more likely to use condoms during sex, were more open with their parents about their sexual experiences, and had higher sexual self-efficacy, which is essentially the ability to advocate for your needs in bed. And the more hours their parents spent participating in their kids' sex education, the stronger these effects were.

But the most interesting findings dealt with age: The study found parents helping to educate their kids about sex had no effect on how old their kids were when they started having sex.

"[These initiatives] were not associated with earlier initiation of sexual activity," the researchers explain. "This should be reassuring for parents who are concerned that talking about sex with their children may somehow result in their children initiating sex. This meta-analysis shows that across the dozens of interventions for parents, youth were no more or less likely to initiate sex at the conclusion of the interventions."

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Talking to kids about sex earlier is good for their health—and their confidence. 

The results also showed the positive effects of these parental interventions were even stronger when they happened at a younger age. When parents talked to their kids about sex earlier on (specifically between ages 9 and 14), those kids were even more likely to practice safe sex later on, more willing to communicate with their parents about their experiences, and had an even higher increase in sexual self-efficacy than kids whose parents waited until they were older to start their sex education. 

Rather than encouraging kids to start having sex earlier, these conversations actually just create an environment where kids have more knowledge to make more informed decisions about sex later in life. Instead of stumbling into sexual situations in their teens still without having had any formal conversations about sexual health or communication, kids have that basic information with them for whenever their sexual lives begin.

"Thirty years of public health research has shown that young people are not more likely to have sex earlier because they learn about sex," says Lucinda Holt, M.S., a sex educator and director of communications and development at Answer, a national sex-ed organization based at Rutgers University, in an interview with mindbodygreen. "When you are talking with your child about these topics, you are providing the information they need and helping them prepare to make healthy decisions as they get older."

She adds that another key benefit of starting these sex talks early is taking away the shame around sexuality so that young people feel comfortable asking their parents and guardians questions instead of feeling like they'll get in trouble for bringing it up. 

"It's better that they have you as a resource than hearsay from their friends or from sexually explicit content online," she says.

The myth of "sexualizing our children." 

Some people worry that just knowing about the existence of sex will "corrupt" their child's innocence and make them become interested in sex at an earlier, inappropriate age—despite the fact that this and many other studies prove that this theory isn't true. 

"People hear the word 'sex' in the same sentence with 'kids,' and they think talking to their child about sex is about having a sexually explicit conversation. That is not what we're talking about," Holt explains. "We are talking about parents and guardians using the correct names of body parts, helping kids understand privacy, empowering them around bodily autonomy, teaching them to respect others' boundaries, and providing age-appropriate answers to their questions about their bodies and where babies come from."

Holt points to projects like AMAZE, an online resource that offers kid-friendly educational, animated videos about sexuality, gender, reproductive health, and other body stuff. Created by Answer and other reputable national sex education organizations, AMAZE offers content for kids as young as 4 years old.

Starting these conversations from this young age helps kids grow up in an environment where they're not afraid or ashamed of their bodies—meaning they'll be better equipped to ask their parents questions when they need help and know how and when to protect themselves from possible harm. 

"When you use appropriate names like 'penis' and 'vulva,' you're sending the message that these body parts are like 'knee' or 'arm,' and we don't have to be ashamed of our bodies. This sets younger kids up to feel comfortable speaking with a parent about their bodies and to ask questions if they have them," Holt explains. "Giving kids some basic language and concepts means they will be better prepared to have conversations with a parent as they get older about healthy relationships, consent, and safer sex."

The younger they are when they start learning about sex, the more prepared and safe they'll be in the long run whenever they do decide to start their sexual lives—which, according to the research, will be no earlier than if no one had ever started teaching them about sex.

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