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So many of us probably had little to no instruction or conversation with our own parents about sex, and, if we did, it was likely a one-time, super-awkward lecture that dealt merely with the mechanics of baby making. In today’s culture, this simply won’t cut it. Our children are faced with a barrage of sexual images, videos and other content—even popular family TV programs and cartoons are filled with sexual innuendo and values that may not be very close to home. Popular teen celebrities are pictured in barely there outfits and the music marketed to our teens talks about hooking up, sexual experimentation and pursuing pleasure as a right of passage. Additionally, many kids have easy and early access to pornography (whether intentionally or unintentionally) through Internet-connected devices; every week, I hear another story of children as young as three and four coming across explicit content through seemingly benign sites.
We need not only to protect our children from this type of content and do our best to provide an age-appropriate environment for our kids, but also to engage in regular conversations about issues related to sexuality, body image and self worth. This works best if you are able to start the conversation early; the more you open up a dialogue about this issue, the easier it will be for you and your child to talk about issues as they arise. The parents that I have worked with who have had honest, regular and ongoing conversations with their kids about these issues since they were little find that as their children approach their tween years and go through difficult relational situations, they are far more likely to come to them and open up to them about their struggles.
We have a full guide on having the talk HERE, but in the meantime, here are some age-based guidelines to help get you started:
For Children Ages 1-7
For parents with younger children, it’s important to start early with your child and take the initiative. For toddlers, for example: when you are teaching body parts, include the real names of their sexual organs (this is recommended in sex abuse prevention training). For instance, teaching your little boy to identify his penis as a private part and teaching little girls to identify their vagina as a private part is an important step in education. Also, explain to your young children what is appropriate in regards to sexual touching by others. Let your child know that if an adult ever tries to touch their private parts they have the right to say “no” to them. Many children are fearful about ever saying “no” to an authority figure or an adult, but in this context, it’s important to help them learn that they have the right to protect their body. Finally, as your kids begin interacting with technology and the internet, it’s critical for parents to use parental controls and begin to talk to kids about what is and is not appropriate online behavior. When kids in this age range first encounter pornography, they tend to be simultaneously curious and upset. Remind your kids to come and talk to you if they ever see anything scary or confusing online.
For Children Ages 8-12
Somewhere around the 8- to 10-year mark, kids will begin to be more verbal and communicative and will have enough maturity to engage in a conversation about sex. Many parents find that kids at this age have a real interest in talking about sex, without yet being cynical, embarrassed, or closed off to “the talk.” Many of the parents we have worked with try to set a special tone for the first talk, flattering their children by letting them in on a mature, “grown-up” conversation topic. Some take the their kids out to a special meal or a walk in the park—something to designate the talk’s importance. For most little girls approaching puberty, addressing the ways her body will change (or is changing) can be a good starting point. Explain what happens when your daughter has a period, help her to understand why girls wear bras. Help her to appreciate her body and the changes that will occur in the next few years. Some parents use a book with anatomically correct drawings of the reproductive system to help illustrate what they are talking about. Ask her where she thinks babies come from and then share from a biological perspective what happens to create a baby. As boys approach puberty, it’s also a great opportunity to talk about what sex is, why and when people have it, and what is appropriate and “good” as compared to what is inappropriate and “bad”. This might also be time to talk to your son about what happens to his body when he is sexually excited and to discuss the physical process of an erection and ejaculation. We also recommend asking your son or daughter what he or she has actually heard and what he or she actually knows about sex before launching into your explanation and conversation. This will help set the stage for you to communicate the right amount of information to your child. Most parents are surprised to find out just how much their kids already know (or how much they think they know) about sex; more likely than not, your kids at this age will know some of the basics, but be careful not to introduce information that they don’t necessarily have the constructs to deal with (for example, most 8- to 9-year-old girls don’t need to know about an orgasm). Unfortunately, our kids are growing up in a time when they have easy access to mature or inappropriate information, terms, and images. You can ask your child whether any of their friends have talked about sex and what they have said about it, or whether he or she has encountered any confusing or scary images or videos online, on TV, or with friends. Again, watch out for teachable moments. If something flashes on the TV screen or you hear your daughter or son (or one of their friends) talking about sex, take the opportunity to ask questions and point him or her towards facts. If your son or daughter uses the term “sexy” or is listening to a song that references something sexual, take time to talk about it. Parents are often surprised to find out how many tween- and teen-oriented shows talk openly about sex and sexual concepts. ABC Family, Nickelodeon, and Teen Disney can have some rather mature concepts; if you allow your kids to watch shows on these channels, watch the shows with them and talk with them about what the show covered. Continue to reinforce the context God intends for marriage, and as your kids matures, explain why it’s so important to wait to experience sex as God designed.
For Children Ages 13+
Most kids at this age have a working understanding of the basics of sex, but parents are often surprised to find out how much bad information their kids receive about sex and sexual interactions. A lot of the kids we work with, for example, don’t consider oral sex or anal sex to be “real” sex. We’ve talked with girls who think that they can’t get pregnant the first time they have sex, or who think they can’t get STDs from anal sex. We’ve talked with boys who worry that they will die if they don’t masturbate. Some kids think if they are just sexually “servicing” their boyfriend or girlfriend, they are remaining pure. I hope you’re getting the drift that, at this age, it’s really important for parents to combat the sexual messages in our society with consistent and constant open dialogue. For girls in particular, reinforcing healthy body image and respect for their own body is important in combating the sexualized messages your daughter will face as she grows. Both your sons and daughters should know that sex is a wonderful, good gift from God in the right context. Ask your kids to come to you anytime they have a question or hear anything about sex so you can discuss it together, but let them know that this is part of an ongoing conversation. When you have conversations with your son or daughter, try not to separate sex from other aspects of life. In other words, don’t make too much of a big deal about having the ongoing conversation and use everyday opportunities to talk about sex and healthy body images. As your kids approaches their tween and teenage years, help them to identify goals, appreciate their bodies and recognize healthy messages vs. unhealthy and risky behaviors. Remember to try to keep everything positive and non-judgmental when you ask your son or daughter questions and discuss sex. If you notice one of their friends talking about sex in any context, follow up later with your teen. This can also be a good time to talk about accountability and to encourage your teen to make wise choices with their friends and social circles. In terms of other resources, there are several books that can help you and your daughter address sex. How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex, Preparing Your Son/Daughter for Every Man’s/Woman’s Battle, Passport 2 Purity, and Sex: It’s Worth Waiting For can be helpful as your child approaches their teens.