Parents have to talk to their kids about sex (Part 1 in 3)

Hello! And welcome to Part 1 in a 3-part series on:

What I Think About Parents and Sex Education!

Yesterday I introduced the series, and today I’m talking about my first point:

Parents have to talk to their kids about sex. Before the kids start asking. Because otherwise it’s too late.

If you’re already ready to stop reading, DON’T! I’ve got a great post on how to talk with teenagers about sex. You can read it here.

In talking with parents, what I have seen is that by the time parents start thinking about talking to their kids about sex, the kids are already in the know. Way, way too far in the know for most parents’ comfort.

This happens, of course, because Little Suzy in their class at school (or church or playgroup or homeschooling group or whatever) walked in on her parents in, shall we say, a compromising condition. The parents weren’t able to think up a convincing lie fast enough, and now everyone on the playground knows that Little Suzy’s parents get up to something funny during nap time. Now, neither Little Suzy’s parents nor any of the other parents probably have any idea that the children are contemplating compromising positions because the children are wise enough to know that when an adult lies badly, they shouldn’t go talking to other adults about it.

The moral of the story is to talk to your kids about sex. It might be really embarrassing for everyone. Okay, it probably will be really embarrassing for everyone. But better that than your 10 year old boy thinking that girls have two butts.

The other big benefit (beyond a simple transfer of information) to starting these conversations yourself rather than ignoring them unless you child asks, is that you are letting your kid know that it’s okay to ask questions. That it’s okay to use these words (penis, vulva, butt, vagina, breasts, wet dream, etc.) in conversation with you and other adults. This will pay off big dividends as they get older. Trust me.

Here’s some conversation topics that should be started with little ones:

  1. The differences between women and girls. The differences between men and boys.
  2. A little introduction to what marriage means – friendship, trust, love. More on the physical will come later.

These two topics: (a) information about our bodies and (b) relationship primers are really the two key topics.

So to make sure you cover everything, take some time and make out a list of all of the conceivable things in each category that a sexually active adult would need to know. Then roughly order them according to age when a person should learn them (youngest to oldest). Keep this list tucked away some place private, and mark things off the list as you have those conversations. Then you’ll always know what the next topic you need to cover is – and you’ll be able to keep a general eye open for a conversational opening.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Dr Rayne,
    I think you are copping out here. First you say parents should talk to their kids about sex long before they think their kids are ready to hear about sex, then you say parents should decide when to talk about various subjects with their kids and do it at that time. Already too late, according to you. How about some loose guidelines? For those of us who don’t know how early too late is? Like, how much should a 5 year old girl know about wet dreams?

  2. This is excellent advice from Karen. Also, a great book to help parents talk about sex during each developmental stage is “Everything you NEVER Wanted Your Kids to Know About SEX (But Were Afraid They’d Ask): The Secrets to Surviving Your Child’s Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens by Justin Richardson, M.D. and Mark Schuster, M.D. I highly recommend it for great ideas about what kids are interested in at each stage and suggestions on what to say. It complements Karen’s advice about being proactive in bringing up the topic and making sure your kids know that questions about sex are always welcome.

  3. *standing ovation* This is what I want to scream at the abstinence-only-sex-ed folks. “So what if they wait until they’re 25 and married to have sex for the first time? Won’t they need to know this stuff THEN?”

  4. Wow. I’m a bit stunned about the intro to marriage being the number 2 topic in your list! I don’t think that an intro to marriage is necessarily needed in a relationship primer, do you?

    And, I expect that you will, in time, amend this “what I believe” to be a little less strident (as in, “otherwise, its too late”).

    Also, I’m not sure we need to presume that it “probably will be embarrassing for everyone.” Most of us never had the kinds of discussions with our parents that you are advocating, and plenty of us are happy with our sexuality, whether it came through the crucible or not.

    The personalities of the kids involved also matter a lot; my oldest daughter is very private, and has not ever engaged with me in the kind of discussion on these sorts of emotionally charged topics that I would like. My youngest daughter is much more open and able to discuss anything. With her, I’ve been able to introduce terrific reading material that has been the basis for terrific discussions (the Clan of the Cave Bear series, the What’s Happening to my Body Book for Girls), as well as numerous opportunities with media in all its forms — display advertising, movies (so many movies are rated more than PG for sexuality that doesn’t offend me at all and doesn’t seem inappropriate … eroticized sexual violence is what I am careful to watch for … it must be accompanied by discussion … Of course, sexual violence must also be part of the ongoing discussion as well … since images of it are so prevalent.

    Karen, your link to the asexuality site is terrific (one your next post … this comment is a few day’s late … I love your next two posts!) … what a boon the internet is, yes? For folks who feel so alone, thinking no one could be like them.

  5. Hi Ruth,

    Thank you for your comments! It’s always great to have good questions asked about my posts.

    Yes, I do believe that marriage must be part of a relationship primer. Marriage is so prevalent in our society – it just has to be talked about. However, I might change my wording somewhat to refer to “committed relationships” rather than “marriage” based on your comment.

    Also, I do intend to keep my language strong in this statement of belief. Sometimes parents have a hard time hearing and taking action on the need to talk with their kids about sex. I feel very strongly that parents and children/teenagers need to talk about sex. So intend to keep my wording strong!

    To your third comment: Conversations about sex between parents and their children are generally embarrassing. While it isn’t always that way, it generally is. And it is often particularly embarrassing as those conversations get started.

    And as to the personality of those involved: Yes! It’s critical! Every relationship is different because of the individuals involved. There is no one absolute right way to do anything. (And Dorian, how I wish I could give absolutes! But I will try to give closer guidelines about age at a later date.)

    Thanks for the comments everyone, keep sending them in!

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