When and How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex
When I wrote about teenagers, affection and autonomy, I wasn’t thinking specifically about my son’s sex lives. But one reader asked when I would talk to them about sex, and proposed to explain birth control to their children when they were 16, “hoping” they wouldn’t have sex before then.
I think 16 is too late. Very very too late.
I’ve been talking with my kids for a long time about bodily autonomy and sex. Starting as soon as they were two, we talked about how their private parts were for them and the only grown ups who could touch them were mom and dad when we were giving a bath and the doctor when she was doing a check-up. We’d ask them, “Who is allowed to touch you?” As they gotten older, I ask them if I can hug them or fix their collar. It breaks my heart a tiny bit when they say no, but it’s worth it to realize they can say no if they choose.
As for sex, I bought a book called Isn’t It Amazing for my younger son and read it to him in bed. My older son listened in, pretending he was asleep. I knew he was paying attention when the younger son asked a question, and the older one hissed, from his bunk bed, “Shhhh, let her keep reading!”
Even before the book, we mentioned where babies come from and how they can be made in different ways for different families (for example, families with two mommies), but that the biology is the same. An embryo in a uterus. And yes, I tried to use the proper terminology. You need to hear the word “vagina” two thousand times before you stop being embarrassed about it. I made up that statistic up, but it’s true that these topics need to be commonplace so they will ask questions and not feel squeamish.
After we got past the biology phase, I started talking about it in response to pop culture references to sex. I remember driving to school one day and “I’m Too Sexy” came on the radio. My then eight year old sang along, so I asked him if he knew what sexy meant. That led to a conversation about whether you have to have sex if someone finds you attractive, or vice versa (no) and what resources you need to raise a baby. And then that led to a discussion about the existence of birth control (I didn’t dive into the details; it’s only a nine minute drive to school).
I also bought a book called, It’s Perfectly Normal, which is about puberty and the basics of sex beyond biology, like masturbation, homosexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases. When my older son, then in fifth grade, told me that a classmate had found a puberty book in the school library and checked it — my son was mortified — I said, “He’s pretty brave, most people just read it in the aisle and hide it back on the shelf so no one finds out.”
“Well, that’s what I did when I was your age. But it’s a good idea to read those books. I’ve got one at home for you and you can read it in my room if you want some privacy from your brother.” He kept the book under his bed for years. Recently, I saw that it had migrated to my younger son’s bedstand.
My older son is in high school, where they give out condoms at the health fair. I know he’s brought a few home, and I hope he practices using them a few times before he gets a chance to put it to good use. Like the word “vagina,” he needs some familiarity so he’s not embarrassed to use them when the time comes. And it might come soon. I know at least one of his friends is sexually active. My son, his friend, and his friend’s girlfriend are all fifteen. If we wait until they’re sixteen it’s very too late.