“When should I start teaching my children about sex?”

Last weekend I met a lovely man at a live music performance here in Austin.  We are both friends of the performer, so we got to talking.  He asked what I do professionally, and I answered, “I teach sex ed.”  “Oh!” he replied, “That’s great!  My daughters are nine and seven.  When do you think I should start teaching them about sex?”  I answered as I generally do to this question.  Here is my answer:

When you “should” start teaching about sex doesn’t really matter – you DO start teaching about sex when you’re children are infants.

You teach them whether or not it’s okay to touch their genitals.  You teach them what a gentle touch feels like and what it is to be loved.

As they get older, you teach toddlers how to be gentle with other people’s bodies, and you teach them how to make sure that their own bodies are treated gently.  We teach them the names of their body parts, and the names of everyone else’s body parts too.  We also teach toddlers to understand their own desires, and to know that sometimes they can’t have what they want immediately.

We teach our young children how to be a good friend, how to share, and how to reconcile arguments and disagreements graciously and with love.  We teach them how to be patient, to know that there are choices to be made, and sometimes putting off a good thing is the best choice.

We teach our children how to read and understand the verbal and non-verbal communication from their friends and from adults.  We teach them how to judge situations and to follow their intuition about safety.

All of these are necessary skills and knowledge that lead to good choices about sex, sexual relationships, and love.  All of this IS sexuality education.

But perhaps you’re wanting to know something more specific – like when to teach them explicitly that a penis sometimes goes into a vagina, and why that is?

My new friend smiled as I gave him my answer and was nodding by the end.  “Yes,” he said, “That is what I was asking for.  But you’ve given me a much fuller answer than my narrowly-viewed question.”

Barack Obama had a much fuller understanding of sexuality education than “Penis-Vagina Education” when he worked to bring sexuality education into Kindergartens.  But John McCain distorted the issue, and spread his own oppressive and narrow understanding of what sexuality education can and should be over Obama’s work.  Hiding a more nuanced and broader understanding with a one-liner commercial is easy to do.  It might win McCain some votes.  But I hope that the voters see through it.  Policy makers and the Commander in Chief of the United States Military absolutely needs nuance and depth – not necessarily someone you might want to go to coffee with.

If you’ve missed this particular McCain ad, or the discussions following it, you can find more information here.

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. That is an amazing response. It’s a question I hear parents ask each other all the time, it’s great to have that solid and comprehensive of a reply. I hope it’s okay with you, but I am totally going to use your words.

  2. Of course, feel free to use my words! If you do, I always request a reference back to my blog. thanks!

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