Whenever I teach my Psychology of Adolescence class, I have at least one student ask me when parents should have “the talk” with their children. Many of these students lament that their parents never talked with them about sexuality; others anticipate having their own children and want to know what research suggests they do. I always preface my research-based advice by noting that my own children are young (currently 4 and 6) and (hopefully) many years from being sexually active. As any parent knows, it is far easier to give advice to others about how to parent children then it is to actually parent their own. And yet, the data on this topic is clear and my research-based opinions are strong, so I proceed with advice.
Talk with your children about sex early and often. Discussions about sex should not wait until children are teenagers and already considering (if not engaging in) sexual activities. (Note: approximately 80% of teens are sexually active by their first year in college.1) Ideally, children’s first sex discussion should occur BEFORE the gratuitous high school health class in (especially considering that many of these school-based programs present biased or incomplete information; e.g., “abstinence only” programs). Discussions can and should begin as early as pre-Kindergarten with parents using developmentally appropriate language. This is not to say that parents should provide detailed descriptions of the act of sexual intercourse to their young children (I shudder to think what sort of an impact that would have on my son and daughter’s ability to take baths together!). But, as children are growing, getting taller, and getting longer hair, discussion of these physical changes can form the basis of eventual discussions regarding pubertal development. My son was delighted to learn recently that not only would he get a lot taller when he was a teenager, but that he would shave like his dad, and his penis would even get bigger (admittedly, a sorta strange thing to tell your young child, but his expression of awe and incredulousness alleviated my feelings of awkwardness).
Young children enjoy “getting bigger.” This means going to elementary school, having sleep-overs with their friends, and no longer needing a car or booster seat. Young children welcome these sorts of grown up experiences, giving parents the opportunity to discuss the privileges that come with age and maturity. It is not difficult to segue from discussion of these privileges to discussions about other privileges that accompany age. It is fun (and a bit terrifying) to tell your young children that some day they will drive their own cars and may want to have a sleep over with a special boy or girlfriend. Of course, this information can be provided consistent with parents’ own values; it does not necessarily need to be an ongoing discussion that condones sexual activity (i.e., “Someday you may want to have a sleepover with a girlfriend. It is normal to want to do that, but mommy and daddy think that boyfriends and girlfriends should only have sleepovers when they are adults.”). The point is that when parents talk with their children about physical development and sex as if it is “a normal thing to talk about,” they set the stage for later discussions about things like contraception and sexually transmitted infections – discussions that could prove life-saving. We know that when parents talk about these issues and allow children to feel comfortable with their physical development and sexuality, they are more likely to have children who abstain from sexual activity and/or practice safe sex.2 Of course, parents first need to become comfortable themselves with sex as a normal part of life if they are going to present it as such to their children.
A final way to think about this issue is to remember that “forbidden fruit” is always appealing. If parents’ ultimate goal is to protect their children from premature sexual experiences, heartache, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections, demystifying sex may go a long way. Talking early and often about sex is unlikely to take the fun out of it for our kids, but it may reduce their inevitable curiosity…at least for a while!
1Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (2006). Love and sex: Cross-cultural perspectives. New York: University Press of America.
2Tinsley, B. J. (2003). How children learn to be healthy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Charlotte Markey – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.