Life as parents has taken quite a turn. Not that long ago, we rushed to get out the door in the morning to avoid yet another school day tardy, chauffeured and carpooled to practices and games, and ran to the grocery store several times a week (or sometimes several times a day). That has all abruptly shifted. In its place, and oftentimes on top of doing paid work remotely from home, we are now the teacher, playmate, coach, and — most surprising to some — the sex educator.
In May we celebrate Sex Ed For All Month, an effort to ensure that all young people have access to the information and skills they need and deserve to make healthy decisions for themselves and live life on their own terms. As a parent of two and as a sex educator, I encourage parents and supportive adults who are socially isolating with young people to talk about sex, relationships, bodies, love, consent, puberty, STIs, contraception, abstinence, pleasure, pregnancy, and all the other (and yes, sometimes intimidating) topics.
The more these topics are discussed in your family, the less awkward it becomes and the more likely that your children will (1) get the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health; (2) come to you with questions; (3) have time to think through their values and what they want and don’t want out of sexual and/or romantic relationships; (4) report if they are sexually assaulted or abused; and (5) advocate for what they need in terms of sex education and sexual health services.
To help, here are five things to keep in mind as you navigate these conversations.
1. It’s never too early to start talking, and this is as good a time as any.
As a sex educator, my work has always been a part of my kids’ lives. Every doctor visit since birth has prompted a conversation of who can and cannot touch our bodies in certain ways; diaper changes, bath time, and potty training all opened the door to using anatomically correct names for body parts.
For every subject that sex education covers, there’s a developmentally appropriate way to address it. For example, talking about consent with a child can start with why it’s important to ask permission before borrowing a toy or hugging a friend. Whatever age your child is, if you haven’t talked about these things, go for it now!
2. It shouldn’t be one big, scary talk. Instead have a series of little talks throughout their lives.
Most of the conversations I have with my kids are short, lowkey, and don’t even feel like sex education. A lot of what families already do and talk about are related to sex and relationships, so this doesn’t have to feel like a brand-new task in your life.
So, what does that look like? Now, I’m sharing movies I loved as a teen with my kids, but realizing while re-watching that they are often sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and perpetuate rape culture. Instead of blindly enjoying the nostalgia, we instead talk about what we’re seeing. Or while on one of our many dog walks to get out of the house where we see rainbow flags in windows, we discuss sexual orientation and gender identity.
3. If they’re old enough to ask a question, they’re old enough to hear an answer.
First, if your kids are asking you questions about sex, bodies, or relationships, congratulations! That means they feel safe coming to you. With more time together and with many of us relaxing our rules about screen time and viewing content right now, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll be getting some new questions. Your responses don’t need to be complicated; be honest, don’t shame, provide factual information, and consider how well your kid can understand the answer given their age and what they already know. Additionally, I suggest simply asking them to elaborate on their question — it might not be what you think! You can ask them what prompted them to ask their question and what they already know to help you frame an appropriate response.
We know that our children really do want to hear from us about these subjects. My organization created “A Guide for Teens: Talking with Parents &/or Trusted Adults About Sex” to help them feel empowered to start a conversation. Consider printing and leaving it out on the counter.
I also encourage you to pledge to become an Askable Parent through AMAZE’s #AskableParent Challenge. The challenge is a 6-day newsletter program for parents with free resources and advice from experts.
4. It’s OK to not have all the answers, and it’s OK to say so.
Questions will come up that you won’t know how to answer. It happens to me, and I do this for a living! Don’t panic and don’t ignore the question. Thank your child for asking and then, if you don’t know the answer, be honest about that. Tell them that you’ll do some research and get back to them or suggest that you research the answer together. If you know the answer but can’t or don’t want to answer at that time, let them know when you can follow up to talk about it more. The most important piece here is to follow up – do not use this as an excuse to not have the conversation! Kids are smart and not following through as promised will send its own message about your ability to be an #AskableParent.
Here are great resources to get answers to common questions:
– SEICUS Sex Ed for Social Change’s list of homeschool-style sex ed resources
5. Be inclusive, affirming, and patient (with your kids and yourself!).
Be inclusive and, more importantly, affirming of all your child’s identities, including sexual orientation, gender identity, ability status, body size, etc. For example, please do not assume that your child knows that you will support them if they are LGBTQIA+. I will randomly tell my kids “I love you no matter your sexual orientation and gender identity.” I am often met with eye rolls, but I think I’m getting my point across.
Also know that no matter how much you do to make a safe, comfortable, and open environment, your child may also choose to reach out to another family member or trusted adult with their questions. That’s OK. I have come to realize how important it is for our kids to know that we, as parents, won’t be upset by them accessing information or support in a way that feels best for them.
In short, sex education is essential. It provides critical life-saving skills. So this May, take advantage of this time together and create opportunities for natural conversations and ensure their sex education doesn’t fall by the wayside. Thank you for all you’re doing to take care of your kids and support their learning and growth. Good luck — you’ll be great!