My mom and I first talked about menstrual cycles last year, at ages 83 and 46, respectively. While sometimes the phrase “better late than never” applies, in this case, it does not.
Parents need to have honest conversations about bodies and relationships well before puberty begins.
The dread over these conversations is understandable. Often our own sex education was nonexistent or shame based. But having these talks is essential.
First, safety is at stake. “When a child has poor-to-no sex education, or if they’re met with a shame-based approach, they are more vulnerable to harmful messaging, unsafe encounters and risky experimentation,” said Melissa Pintor Carnagey, founder of Sex Positive Families and author of “Sex Positive Talks to Have With Kids: A Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy, Informed, Empowered Young People.”
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Kids deserve the facts. “Sex ed needs to be honest and accurate and give young people the information and support they need to live the lives they deserve. These are life skills. We can’t expect them to become adults with an incomplete toolbox. We need to give them the information before they need it,” said Brittany McBride, associate director of sex education at Advocates For Youth.
Despite frequent references to having “the talk,” short, regular conversations over time are more impactful and foundation forming.
“People are quick to talk about big scary things like porn, which is important, but are constantly missing the underpinnings and foundation of what makes someone a human being and the diverse ways in which we can express our sexuality,” said Logan Levkoff, a sexuality and relationships expert and co-author of “Got Teens?: The Doctor Moms’ Guide to Sexuality, Social Media and Other Adolescent Realities.”
Levkoff recommends frequent conversations including extended context. “For example, every time porn literacy comes up in the news, it’s important to talk about it under a broader umbrella of media literacy. But it’s really hard to talk about porn if you haven’t talked about sex and sexual expression and intimacy.”
Tweens and teens have the capacity to understand nuance and dig deeper into topics. Here are five essential sex ed topics to cover in conversations with your adolescents.
Puberty conversations should happen early to normalize conversations and increase the likelihood that kids will seek parents and caregivers first for information, recommended Pintor Carnagey. An approach that is inclusive of different bodies and gender identities is important.
Pintor Carnagey noted that every child should learn about menstruation. “When all children learn to recognize menstruation as a natural process, we disrupt shame, fear, misinformation, trauma and misogyny. We raise a generation of young people equipped to respect their and others’ bodies.”
And by not gendering bodies or puberty experiences, the conversation is inclusive of the experiences of transgender, nonbinary and intersex young people. For example, instead of saying “a woman with a uterus,” say “a person with a uterus,” said Pintor Carnagey.
Consent conversations are not as simple as learning how to say “yes” or “no.” Kids need coaching to learn how to handle hearing a “no.”
McBride advises starting these conversations as young as possible; age 4 is a good time to start conversations about consent centered on things kids care about. For example, teach kids to make an ask such as, “Can I please have some of your Goldfish crackers?” and then allow space so the other person can make their decision without feeling pressured, she recommends.
“If you get a ‘yes,’ say ‘thank you’ and understand that if you want more, you need to ask. If you get a ‘no,’ say ‘thanks’ anyway, and move on. It’s never okay to continue to ask if the person says ‘no.’ The ‘no’ ends the conversation,” said McBride.
Practicing these conversations with everyday moments, such as asking a friend or sibling to share a toy, is crucial. “This helps kids commit it to muscle memory so when they get to conversations about sex if they are looking for an affirmative ‘yes’ and get the ‘no,’ they won’t coerce because they know how to handle the situation,” McBride said.
Relationships are a huge part of the adolescent experience. Levkoff recommends that parents teach kids to think about their relationship non-negotiables. “It’s important for all of us to think about what we need and what we want to feel fulfilled, happy and respected in a relationship.”
Adults and kids alike tend to focus on the status of a relationship, but we should instead talk to kids about why a relationship does or does not work for them, shared Levkoff. “For tweens and teens in particular, the skill of figuring out what you need and what someone else might need is not just applicable to romantic relationships but friendships too.”
Access to porn, whether accidental or intentional, is inevitable. The tween years typically bring about curiosities about bodies and sex that increase the likelihood that kids will seek answers online, noted Pintor Carnagey.
Pintor Carnagey has heard repeatedly from families she coaches about internet searches that accidentally led to porn. A 10-year-old who started developing breasts wanted to know what different breasts looked like. A search for “boobs pictures” resulted in porn sites that she clicked on due to curiosity. After having a friend in a school bathroom tell him his penis was small, an 8-year-old searched the term “big penes” (meaning “big penis”) and stumbled on porn.
While parental controls and filters can provide a layer of safety online, Pintor Carnagey urges parents to not think of those controls and filters as a replacement for conversations about porn. “Young people often find a way to get the information they seek. When parents and caregivers normalize their curiosities and provide pathways for young people to exercise their autonomy in safe ways, it often lessens their impulse for secrecy or thrill-seeking,” said Pintor Carnagey.
Keep conversations nonjudgmental and grounded in facts. Pintor Carnagey recommended affirming, open language such as, “It’s normal to be curious about bodies and sex. Porn is not a safe or reliable place to learn about these things. If you ever have questions, you can come to me, but if you don’t feel comfortable for any reason, let me show you some reliable, safe online resources that will answer questions you might have.”
For comprehensive sex education resources for adolescents, Pintor Carnagey recommends videos by AMAZE.org, content on Scarleteen, and the book “Wait, What?: A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up” by Heather Corinna.
Advocacy for yourself and issues you care about
While many people think that sex ed conversations are all about sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies, McBride encouraged people to think about sex ed as something much larger.
Talking to adolescents about how to advocate for themselves and issues they care about will help them develop life skills such as learning to communicate effectively, demonstrating respect for other people and creating change in the world, she said.
“It’s about so much more than the parts of our bodies covered by bathing suits. Learning to self-advocate will be relevant as young people go back to school and need to figure out how to meet their needs, whether remote or in school,” McBride said.
In the best-case scenario, McBride noted that sex ed should be a coordinated effort between the school system, community, parents and caregivers. Ultimately, though, parents and caregivers have the greatest agency in their homes, which offers an incredible opportunity to prepare kids to experience healthier, safer and more satisfying outcomes.
“We want young people to know how wonderful sexuality, and at some point sexual activity, can be. We need to give them the confidence so they know whatever decision they make will be the right one for them,” said Levkoff.
Ultimately, comprehensive sex education is a statement of love and respect. Pintor Carnagey notes that through it, parents can communicate, “I respect you. I honor your rights as a whole and separate human. I want to ensure you have the information that prepares you for safer, informed decision making. You can count on me for honest support along the way.”
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster, and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com.