Monday, July 14, 2014

Why I Teach My Young Children About Sex

I'm a little late to the "Friday Night Lights" bandwagon, but since the show has gone off the air, and is now on Netflix, I've been binge-watching with my husband. In one of the recent episodes, Coach Taylor found his 17-year-old daughter in bed with her boyfriend. He told his wife, of course, and his wife immediately went to tell their daughter that they would need to have a big conversation about it. The daughter avoided it for a day or so, but when she finally sat down to talk with her mom, I couldn't help but think about the similar conversation I had with my own parents.

Photo credit: Catholic Lane.
I was 15 when I had sex for the first time. My boyfriend was 18, and it happened without ever being talked about beforehand. I was not prepared for it, but I thought he loved me. I was in shock that I'd had sex, but also a little flabbergasted that that was the thing I'd been told was so special - and a sin to do before marriage. It certainly wasn't as grand I'd imagined it to be. We continued having sex, and I told a friend about it. Well, she told her mom, and unbeknownst to me, her mom took my mother out to lunch to break the news to her. The next thing I knew, I was being checked out of school (I thought my youngest sister had had a serious seizure again or something) and my parents drove me to a church parking lot where they proceeded to lecture me about what a terrible thing I'd done.

It was some of the worst months of my life. My boyfriend quickly forgot about me. My parents had my youth minister come over to talk to me. I was banned from going out with friends or leaving the house - except for school. And I was made to feel like a huge disappointment, not only by my parents, but by all my church friends who were shocked at how I had "fallen." I don't blame my parents - they were doing the best they could - and I don't blame my friends. It was just the culture I grew up in. Sex was very, very, very bad. Unless, of course, you were married.

Now, back to the episode. Tami (mom) sits down to talk with her daughter (Julie), and starts asking her about whether or not they are using some form of protection. She asks if she knows how to use condoms correctly, asks if she knows they aren't 100% effective, and if she feels like she could tell her boyfriend "no" if she didn't want to have sex with him anymore. And after all of that, Julie says she just didn't want her mom to be disappointed in her, and her mom assures her that she's not.

I immediately turned to my husband and said that the sex conversation was going to be different with our girls. If we find out our daughters are having sex, that won't be the first time we'll talk to them about birth control options. We're not going to be mad at them. And it won't be the first time we've told them that they should know they can always say "no" and that they don't have to have sex with someone they're dating.

All of these conversations should happen years before sex is a possibility, and should be ongoing. 

Regardless of your views about sex outside of marriage, the fact is, many, many, many teenagers have sex. Sex can be wonderful, and I want it to be wonderful for my kids. I don't want them to feel like a disappointment, or like they are now flawed, should they have sex. I did. And it haunted me for years.

I want my children to know their bodies, to feel comfortable in their skin, to be confident in their ability to set limits and boundaries, to know it is their right to say "no," to know their limits, to know about birth control, pregnancy, STD's, and different ways to have sex. And most importantly, I want them to know that they can come to me when they're thinking about having sex, or when they've already had it, because I am in their corner. I will always see them as the whole, beautiful, valuable girls that they are.

Sex education should start when your kids are as young as 5- and 6-years old. We have a couple of books laying around the house that teach kids about bodies, reproduction, and healthy relationships.

It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends (The Family Library) 
by Robie H. Harris et al. 

This is the first in this series, and was the first book that we bought for our girls. It has great pictures of bodies of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and is a great introduction to some of the subjects that parents dread bringing up with their children. It is appropriate for ages 4 and up.
It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families (The Family Library) 
by Robie H. Harris et al. 

This is the second book in this series, and it has always been my 6yo's favorite. It goes into a bit more detail, and introduces things like menstruation, in the same age-appropriate and clear way as the first book. It is appropriate for ages 7 and up, though my daughter showed a preference for this one when she was 4 and 5.
It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (The Family Library) 
by Robie H. Harris et al. 

This is the last book in the series, and we're going to be purchasing it in a couple of years. This book dives into the topics of internet safety, conception, AIDS, and making decisions about relationships and physical intimacy. It is appropriate for ages 10 and up.

I found out about these books when I went to training to become a facilitator for Our Whole Lives (OWL) - a sex education curriculum used by the United Churches of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association. If you think your kids are too young for these books, they're not. We had 10-year-olds asking us what anal sex was because they'd heard it talked about at school. YOU need to be the one giving this information out first. If your kids hear it at school before they hear it from you, chances are they're going to be getting incorrect information. And, they won't tell you about it. 

If your kids are asking about it, they're ready to hear the answers. My 6yo asked about eggs that aren't used to make babies, so I sat down with her and her book, and started talking about menstruation and ovulation. After we had talked about it for a few minutes, and she had asked some questions. I told her that I wanted her to know about these things because I didn't want her to be scared when she was older and started having a period - that some girls don't know much about it and it can be scary for them. She laughed at me and looked at me like I was being ridiculous. "Why would I be scared? It's just my body doing what it's supposed to do," she said. 

Make it another normal conversation with your child, and your child will come to you when they have questions. If you start these conversations early on, some of that awkwardness and fear (much of which is on our end) will dissipate before the more important conversations happen down the road. You will have set the stage for open and honest dialog, and your children - and, more importantly, your relationship with them - will benefit. 


  1. You have made some valid points, but I think it is also very important to present abstinence as the safest course of action. Whether for religious reasons or not, it is certainly the best to protect from disease, and physical, emotional, and mental abuse. It is often viewed as too difficult for teenagers - like it's not even an option, but I believe that's selling them short. We are all capable of making decisions and controlling ourselves - no matter what the opportunity. And while each family must decide for themselves when to speak with their children about these things - it does warrant mentioning that lots of research supports waiting at least until they've lost their baby teeth to discuss many matters such as this(which is usually 7-8 not 5-6). Many children simply aren't ready to think about their bodies in this way. And often in teaching one's own children, one may inadvertently teach someone else's, as kids talk to one another about this kind of stuff. Anyway - like I said, many good points, but it's also important to not forget about abstinence. It is possible.

    1. Jessica, thanks for helping me to think about a couple of points I need to clarify in this post.

      1) I am certainly not promoting teenagers having sex. What I am promoting is a full sexuality education. "Research supports a comprehensive approach to sexuality education with numerous studies finding that such programs can help young people delay intercourse, reduce the frequency of intercourse, reduce the number of sexual partners they have, and increase their use of condoms and other contraceptive methods when they do become sexual active" (Kirby, "Emerging Answers," 2007). My belief is that by giving children a thorough education, abstinence always becomes the most obvious responsible choice, and is backed up by more than a parent's insistence that is it so.

      2) I am also not advocating that parents start sitting their 5- and 6-year-olds down to tell them about sex. (There may be a blog post coming soon about what exactly you should be teaching this age....) It all boils down to each individual child, and what they are ready for. While parents must use their own discretion to decide what their child might be ready to hear, the most important thing for parents to pay attention to is what their children are asking them. We told our oldest about sex when she was just under 5 years old because her questions about babies, and where they came from, became more and more complex. She was obviously processing the information well enough that she wanted more clarification. So when the question came about how the sperm actually gets from a man's body to a woman's egg, our only choices were to answer honestly, avoid it, or lie. If you answer their question - without giving more information than they're asking for - they will let you know if they understand, or need to ask something more. Each child is different, and the age that certain topics are broached depends a lot on the the child, their curiosity, and understanding.

      Hope that was a bit more clear!

  2. Your girls, especially Thing 1, are very mature and inquisitive. I, also, wasn't satisfied with the talk I got (a video from a feminine hygiene product company in middle school, followed by a pre-prom conversation years later), so I'm glad to see the other options.

    Years ago, I was a counselor at an after school program in middle school, where they taught abstinence only AND had a pregnant 8th grader. I never wanted to ignore or avoid my students questions, so we had an interesting semester of me answering exactly what they asked, and them asking increasingly more, until we called in some backup for the discussion.

    I'm so glad to have you as a guide on my parenting journey. Ben (2) knows there is a baby in my belly and hasn't asked how it got in or how it will get out, so I haven't offered. For now, he is my guide on how much information he needs, and I'll be looking for your post on when is the right age. I do feel like one of the most important aspects is hearing from his parents and knowing he will always be loved and valued, no matter what!

  3. I think you are right on. I think what information we give them should be determined by their questions, and we need only answer their specific questions and not add more details. That is what I've done with my seven-year-old. He asked me about a year ago the same question Thing 1 asked you, so I just told him as plainly as I could. To be honest, I'm not sure he would even remember that now, but he may! And we watch so many nature programs, he had definitely learned about the reproductive system of all animals, not just us! It's just part of life to him. I think that's great. Like you, I did not have a good introduction to sex, and I regret my first encounter with it.

  4. Thank you for writing such a nice, sex-positive post! Not discussing complex topics with children and young adults is archaic and has dangerous repercussions. Compared to what your experience was and to what most of us received growing up, we can do so much better. The book recommendations are very helpful and I can't wait to check them out for my own daughter. As an Ob/Gyn, everyday I see young adults and adults who have no clue about some of the basics about their bodies; when these women are the primary source of information to their children about anatomy, puberty, sex and relationships, it's no wonder that misinformation, lack of information and moralistic perspectives are all their kids get.

    I think you are onto something regarding a post about the whats and hows of discussing different things at different ages. Like you said, every child will have a different level of readiness and using their cues is all we need when trying to figure out when to address what. You've probably already seen it, but Dr. Laura Berman's downloadable pdf seems helpful: