Talking to Kids About Sex

“How can I help my parents become comfortable enough to talk with me about sex?”

This was a question I was recently asked by a high school student. Inspired and humbled by the student’s sincere desire to have better communication with their parents, I also felt slightly heavy hearted that this youth felt responsible for growing their parents’ comfort level. It is not uncommon that many parent and adult allies lacked their own opportunities as young people to have these conversations with the adults in their lives. Often if a talk did occur, it centred around what not to do or all of the things that could go wrong. This means many adults are starting these conversations with little or no practice. Talk about the ultimate cold call! Whether you’re beginning with a two–month-old or supporting a worldly 12-year-old through their first crush, here are some ideas for growing your own comfort.

Use Your Words

Begin with your children when they are young by using ALL of the words to describe their bodies and their functions. Diaper changes, bathing, and bedtime routines are ideal opportunities to use the language in low pressure and simple settings on a daily basis. Do the words vulva, scrotum, penis, and labia roll off your tongue easily or do you suddenly feel like you have a mouth full of marbles as you try to use them? If you were only given permission to describe some parts of your body (elbow, knee, eyebrow) but not the most personal parts such as your genitals; it can feel awkward and unfamiliar when you begin to use the words. No wonder, it seems easier to default to play language (front bum, pee pee, etc) or skip it all together. Practice the words when you’re walking the dog or sitting in traffic. You’ll be surprised by how quickly it feels normal to say vulva, scrotum, and penis.

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Use Books

Often a lack of comfort with sexuality conversations stems from a fear of not knowing what to say, how to say it or how much to say. The great news is there are fantastic books which expertly frame the information in accurate and enjoyable ways. There are few books more exciting to a child (as well as many adults!) than body and relationship books. Depending on the learning level, needs and curiosities of your child, you might approach sexuality through a body science lens with a “know your systems” focus; for example, through a more inclusive “what makes a baby?” book, or for older youth with a puberty focused question and answer book. You can read the books together, which builds intimacy and safety and the biggest bonus is that it gives you a natural script to follow.

Use a Sex Positive Lens

Ground your conversations in positivity and possibility. In my parent education sessions, I encourage parents to identify the two positive and integral messages about sexuality that they would like their children to receive at the ages/stages their children are at right now. This practice is helpful for two reasons: first, it frames our conversations in a positive and personal context—it’s not about what could go wrong; it’s about what can go right—and second, it reminds us of where we are at this moment and what we can and are doing to create change while preventing us from becoming overwhelmed and anxious about the many BIG conversations ahead of us. All we need to do is be where our kids are right now, and if we feel overwhelmed; bring it back to these two messages.

Use Your Parenting Village

Check in with your fellow parents. Ask about what their kids are asking, what techniques they’ve found work—maybe it’s a chat while you’re driving in the car, a funny question, or a particular book their kids covet. We often miss out on the wisdom, comfort and humour with our fellow parents when we don’t take the extra few minutes to connect.

As with anything valuable in life, it takes practice to become confident, comfortable and competent with sexuality conversations. As someone whose job offers endless opportunities to have sexuality conversations with gender, orientation, ethnic, cultural and age diverse youth, I can assure you growing your own comfort is absolutely possible—it really is a matter of practice! So grab the dog, go out for a walk and repeat after me: vulva, scrotum and penis!

Jennifer Gibson
Jennifer Gibson
Jennifer Gibson, MA, is also known as “The Sex Lady”— officially now for 15 years in Greater Victoria!—to the thousands of amazing youth and adults she is lucky to educate and learn with through her job as the Coordinator of Community Education at Island Sexual Health. She’s passionate about making sexuality education as positive, fun and non-cringe-able as possible.