Originally published online on 24 Sept 2019
Here’s the thing: your child will eventually find out about sex. So the question is, how and what exactly do you want your child to find out about sex? We welcome sex and relationship counsellor and TEDx speaker Dr. Oberdan Marianetti to give us tips on how to broach sexual education with our kids.
I define sex education as teaching about a range of topics, including intimate relationships, human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, sexual activity, sexual orientation, gender identity, abstinence, contraception, and reproductive rights and responsibilities. As adults we must provide our children the space to openly and unashamedly address sex-related topics and reassure them that sex is natural, and it is ok to talk about it.
The truth, however, is that most adults do not provide this space; in fact, most actively shy away from talking about sex to their children. The repercussions of this absence are grave.
Why aren’t we talking to kids about sex?
There are many deep and varied reasons why we do not address sex with our children. Sometimes we lack the required knowledge. Most adults have never received sexual education. The lucky ones may have heard something about the biology of sex, contraception and STI’s, but not much more. We lack the vocabulary and confidence to comfortably and naturally address this most sensitive of topics, and the practice to hone it. Some may worry that the information itself may be inherently damaging, or that it will encourage sexual activity. Others hold cultural, familial, social or religious beliefs and attitudes that make us feel shame when talking about sex. These are all valid reasons, but it is time we consider the impact they are having on our children.
Why we should talk to kids about sex
In my view there are three main reasons to start the sex-education talk now:
Most people will eventually have sex
Ignorance increases risks
Education creates healthier behaviours
Studies from China published in the last decade estimate that 5 to 11% of the population will engage in some type of sexual activities between the ages of 12 and 24, and 81% by the age of 39. Similar studies from the USA, also published recently, estimate that 41% of the population will engage in some type of sexual activities between the ages of 15 and 19 and 99% by the age of 44. From East to West, most people will engage in sex-related activities at some point in their lives. So why not teach them how to do so properly?
Sex education at school
At school we teach many wonderful subjects that most of us may never use after leaving school, yet virtually everyone could do with sex-related knowledge. In my practice as a sex and relationship counsellor every day I talk to people about their sex lives. The one thing they all have in common is unnecessary suffering. Furthermore, I identified a common pattern, where the suffering is derived from misplaced expectations, which are derived from lack of information. This lack of knowledge has devastating consequences.
The statistics are clear – and horrifying:
According to the UNAIDS World AIDS Day report (2011), 42% of youth between 15 and 24 accounted for all new HIV infections in 2010.
In a study published in 2016, McCool and colleagues estimated that up to 41% of premenopausal women suffer one form of sexual dysfunction at any given time. A study from the year 2000 by Rosen estimates the figure to be at 30% for men.
According to the World Health Organisation (2013), around 30% of 15-to-24-year-old women have experienced physical or sexual violence. The same organisation also estimated in 2018 that 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 years give birth each year, which is approximately 11% of all births worldwide.
In the ‘STI Key Facts’ (2016) the WHO also tells us that more than 1 million STIs are contracted daily around the world.
These are SHOCKING numbers. And while the causes are multi-factorial, lack of knowledge plays a huge role. Finally, we have enough evidence to know that comprehensive sexual education plays a role in promoting healthier behaviours.
Multiple studies published in the last decade point to these beneficial outcomes:
Delayed sexual initiation
Reduced number of partners
Increased contraception use
Reduced unprotected sex
Reduced teenage pregnancies
I am sure there are more reasons to talk to children about sex, and I believe there is already a case for it from the current evidence.
How to talk about sex with your children
Talking to children about sex need not to be as daunting as we imagine. Here are a few tips on how to go about it.
Work through your own barriers to lose the discomfort
Discuss and explore strategies with your partner
Learn the required knowledge from reputable sources
At home focus on your values first, and add the relevant knowledge
Stay child-centric and provide appropriate, simple answers
Have many conversations
Remember, everything you do /say or don’t do /say also communicates about sexuality
Use multiple sources: books, conversations, internet, talks, events
Don’t wait for questions to be asked
Age appropriate sex education
Parents and teachers often ask me, “How do we start?” “Should I start now, or wait until the child is older?” “Where do I get the relevant information?” I will begin with the assumption that appropriate sexual education is age-appropriate, and so I will present tips by age group. Let’s also clarify, that each child develops at their own pace; your priority should be to stay attuned to your child and be guided by their knowledge and curiosity. Sexual education begins before our children are born, but for the purposes of this article, I will begin from birth and only share a few tips.
An age-by-age guide of talking to your kids about sex
Age 0-2 years old From 0 to 2 years of age children do not have the gift of language, and yet they are equally influenced by your attitudes and behaviours about sex. Many parents would have observed their infants touching their genitals at some point while changing nappies. The reaction from parents, unfortunately, is often one of shame and gentle reprimand. No spoken language is required, but the child has just begun to learn that pleasure and touching one’s genitals are not appropriate. A useful response would be to acknowledge the act and name the body parts. The same way in which we say, “oh, that’s your nose” we can say “oh, that’s your penis/vulva.”
Age 3-6 years old In early childhood (3 to 6), curiosity is at the centre of the child’s world, language is developing fast and the ‘why’ questions flow freely. It’s important not to shy away from the sexual questions and to keep the answers short and simple. Remember, at this stage children understand literal language, so long-winded answers may end up confusing them. Self-touching may continue, and because they have yet to fully develop a sense of privacy, they may do so in front of others. Take this as an opportunity to reinforce the concept of privacy.
Age 7-12 years old In middle childhood (7 to 12) strong external influences appear. Keep a watchful eye and an open heart, and expect the unexpected comments /questions /behaviours. Puberty is around the corner. Teach the basics before its onset – including first periods and first ejaculations – to avoid unpleasant experiences. Sexual education may become available in your child’s school. Become involved and enquire about its content. If your child is given an Internet-enabled device, start opening the dialogue on the appropriate use of online content.
Age 13-19 years old Adolescence (13 to 19) is a period of great physical, intellectual and emotional changes. Reassure your child that everything that is happening is normal. External pressures are at their strongest; pressure to be sexual may be real. Reinforce your presence as a point of reference and support. Sense of identity is stronger and a desire to be independent may emerge. Offer your ‘hand’ no matter what, and accept your child’s separateness from you. Masturbation may be a regular part of life. Avoid shaming, judging or embarrassing. A significant portion of children will experience partnered sexual activities, including intercourse. Missteps can be expected. Talk about safer sex before the onset. Also encourage talk about readiness, consent and abstinence. You may be left wanting and with more questions than when you started reading. I hope these tips give you a strong footing to get started on the journey.
Regardless of the stage of life – your children’s and yours – you are in, my number one recommendation is that you start a dialogue. Tread carefully and know that you will make mistakes. It’s ok, we all do when starting something new.
Thank you for reading my article.
I base all my articles on real case studies and research findings that are relevant to my work and my clients.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if you would like to explore something together.