Your Child's Sexuality

Whatever our feelings about sex are, we cannot avoid communicating them to our children.
—Anne Bernstein, author of Flight of the Stork

As a parent, you know you need to talk to your child about her sexuality. But how? And when? There are many diverse opinions about sexuality, but what matters most is knowing what you think about it and how you show your love and care toward your child. Consider these ideas.

For more information on children and sexuality, see Early Sexual Activity.

Tips for . . .

  • all parents
    • Pay attention to how your child is developing. Young people are starting puberty at younger ages than before. Most girls start by age 11 (although they can start as young as age 8), and most boys start around ages 12 to 13 (and can start earlier or later than the average).
    • Be honest with yourself. Which aspects of sexuality are easy for you to talk about? Which are difficult? What embarrasses you? What do you know, and how do you feel about, different sexual orientations? The more you understand your own feelings about various aspects of sexuality, the easier it will be to talk to your kids about the topic.
    • Pay attention to what your kids are watching, listening to, and reading. The current media is saturated with sex, often giving kids mixed and incomplete messages. “Hooking up” (having casual sex with no emotional involvement) frequently appears on TV shows and in songs on the radio.
    • Learn more about the younger generational views about sexuality and sex. Consider reading chapter six, “Sex: Generation Prude Meets Generation Crude,” of Jean M. Twenge’s book Generation Me.
    • Be sensitive to the fact that your child’s sexual orientation may be different than your own. Expert consensus is that sexual orientation is largely genetically determined, with homosexuality no more a choice than heterosexuality. Avoid valuing one type of sexual orientation more than another.
    • Talk about sex with your child. Don’t wait until they’re older, and don’t bring up the topic only once. See tips for talking about sex from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
    • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Young children often explore their own body parts. They may ask questions about them. Be honest and label parts correctly. Avoid baby-talk words, such as saying “pee-pee” instead of “penis.” Let your children learn the correct words early on.
    • Since children at this age see a lot of pregnant women, they may wonder what it’s like to be pregnant. They may have questions about how a baby grows inside a woman’s body and how it comes out. Give simple and concrete—yet accurate—answers.
    • Preschoolers may show each other their private parts. Instead of overreacting and making incorrect assumptions, be firm that private parts are meant to stay private.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Children begin to notice more differences between girls and boys, and they may make comments about these differences. Some may start telling dirty jokes or making inappropriate remarks. Be clear that this is not acceptable. Teach them better ways to communicate.
    • Talk to your child about where babies come from. Explain that you need a woman and a man to make a baby. Use correct terms, such as “the sperm from the man’s body” and “the ovum in the woman’s body.” Don’t say more than you need, but answer children’s questions honestly.
    • Work together with your child’s doctor to find out when your child may be entering puberty. Some girls are beginning their menstrual cycles as early as age 8. If your child is getting close to starting puberty, talk about the changes they’ll be experiencing.
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Work at being an “askable parent.” This means being ready to talk on the spur of the moment and really listening to your child. Kids pick up when you’re approachable—and when you’re not. They also know if sex is a touchy subject for you.
    • Sex researchers say that more and more middle-school students are declaring their sexuality. Depending on how open others are, kids as young as 10 can say that they’re bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, or heterosexual. In some middle schools, kids say that most people know everyone’s sexual orientation. Parents, however, are sometimes the last to know.
    • Talk about what your child can expect as he or she goes through puberty. Girls get their menstrual periods at early ages, and they need to know how to use sanitary napkins (and how to dispose of them). Guys need to know that wet dreams are a normal part of growing up and are not something to feel ashamed about.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Keep talking about sex with your teenager, even though it may not be easy. According to a Parenting Teens Online poll, parents said that sex is that hardest subject to discuss with their teenagers. It may be easier to bring up the topic when you see sex portrayed in the media or in current events.
    • Monitor your teen’s dating. Some teenagers have intense dating relationships and become sexually active too quickly. Some kids think the only requirement for having sex is “falling in love” or “acting on their feelings.”
    • Be clear that “sexting” (sending a sexually explicit photo or message via cell phone or the internet) is not acceptable and can get your child in a great deal of trouble, including legal trouble. Have your teenager immediately delete any of these photos that he or she receives.
    • Emphasize the importance of caring relationships. Explain that the reason divorce rates are so high is because relationships are not easy. That doesn’t mean they’re impossible, but both people in a relationship need to work to create a healthy relationship.
  • Talk about your sexual values and why you hold the values that you do. Teenagers are more likely to embrace your values if they understand that those values have been developed out of your care for your teen’s well-being, rather than as a message about controlling or scaring your teen.

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