Back when my now-13-year-old son was still in diapers, my aunt told me the story of how she learned about how babies were born. Everyone in the family had told her for years that the stork delivered the babies to the back of the hospital. The doctor would then go retrieve the baby and bring them to their mother. (Don’t ask me how they explained the expanding belly.)
WATCH: How To Explain: Where Do Babies Come From
Sooo, when my aunt was about ten — this would have been 1970 or so — a relative brought her to the hospital to visit a family friend who was having a baby. Frantic to catch the stork “in the act,” my aunt snuck away from the family group and rushed around to the back of the hospital, causing a panic when it was discovered she was missing. When she was finally found and returned to her worried family, she announced that she had just been trying to catch the stork delivering the babies. Everyone laughed at her. She said she had never been so humiliated in her life. Someone eventually took pity on her and told her the truth, but from that moment, she vowed she would always be honest with her kids, no matter what they asked.
My mom was progressive for the time when it came to supplying me and my sister with information, definitely more forthcoming than most of my friends’ moms. But it was the ‘80s, after all, so there were some gaps. When I was about six, I was in the bathroom at the football fields with a group of cheerleaders from my team. I saw what looked like a tube of chapstick on the floor. It was plastic, pearly-looking, with a rounded tip. It looked so soft and smooth. I picked it up, and just before I could put it to my lips, my friend snatched it from my hands and screeched, “Ew! Don’t you know what that is? That’s a tampon!” I had no idea.
In fifth grade, the classroom bully sneered at me that I was “just a virgin.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it sure did sound like a terrible insult, so I marched up to the teacher’s desk and told her the awful name I had just been called. She laughed and said, “Well I hope you’re a virgin!” I have no idea when I finally learned what the word actually meant.
I always return to my aunt’s story, and to my lesser embarrassments, whenever I start to get squirmy over my kids asking me a direct question about sex. In fact, since my kids were little, I’ve gone out of my way to purposefully bring up topics in sex education. When my son was as young as toddler age and I was on my period, I would tell him I needed privacy in the bathroom so I could change my tampon or pad.
When he got a little older and asked what that meant, I told him about periods in simple terms. “If Mommy isn’t going to have another baby, my uterus”–patting my belly–”cleans itself out to get ready for next month just in case.” As he got older, I elaborated and talked out loud about cramps or moodiness or a heavy flow being the reason I couldn’t exercise. My son literally doesn’t remember a time he didn’t know what periods were. He doesn’t bat an eye over it.
I have been as frank as possible with my kids about all types of bodily functions, including sex and childbirth. When my son asked around age five how babies were made, I told him that the sperm fertilizes the egg. That was all he wanted to know at the time, so it was enough. This is a key trick, actually — when they’re little, answer only what they ask. When my daughter asked at age seven specifically how the sperm gets to the egg inside the uterus, I told her about sex. She caught me off-guard, so I forgot to include an explanation of IVF and IUI, but I brought it up again later because I wanted her to know there’s more than one way to make a baby. I already had a book on hand, the one I’d gotten my son, called It’s So Amazing. I’ve since discovered an even more inclusive book called What Makes a Baby. Both are excellent resources for generating conversation in a healthy, productive way.
Planned Parenthood is another great resource for both parents and teens on reproductive health. Their website recommends that parents and caregivers talk to their kids regularly about sex and relationships because research shows that informed teens and young adults are less likely to take risks with their sexual health. They also note that, even if your kid is in middle school or later and you’ve neglected to talk to them, it’s never too late to start talking. The point is to make sure our kids know they can come to us with their questions and we will give them honest answers without shaming or judging them.
Starting The Conversation About Sexual Health
If your child isn’t openly curious and digging for information, you can start a conversation in simple, low-pressure ways. There is no need to have a serious, sit-down talk. In fact, you’ll build more trust and comfort by building talk of sex and relationships into everyday conversation. When you’re watching TV or a movie and a relevant scene comes up, drop a tidbit of wisdom. When I watched Stranger Things with my kids, there was a scene where Steve was pressuring Nancy to make out with him even though she repeatedly told him no. I paused the show for my kids, 13 and 9 at the time, and asked them what was wrong with what we were watching. They shouted together at the same time that Steve wasn’t getting consent. If they hadn’t known for sure though, I could have easily had a quick conversation about consent before pressing play again.
Advertising can also be a jumping-off point for conversations surrounding sex, relationships, and gender. Ads for pads and tampons are great for squeezing in some normalizing talk about bodies with uteruses. Ads for clothing and makeup provide an opportunity to talk about sexualization in consumerism and how it affects young viewers. Ask your kids to note how the model is posed, how much makeup they’re wearing, the lighting, the music, whether or not the image of the model has likely been altered. Why would they alter a photo? Who decides what “beautiful” is? What message is the advertiser trying to send to the viewer? What messages can be taken away that maybe the advertiser didn’t intend?
Keeping The Sexual Health Conversation Going
Ask open-ended questions about what your kids think about different aspects of sexuality and relationships, and fill in the gaps in knowledge when you spot them. For younger kids or kids on the verge of puberty, offer them the books mentioned above and others to read on their own and then loop back to see what they thought or if they have any questions. Ensure your conversations include LGBTQIA+ topics. This does two things: First, it conveys to your child that if they fall anywhere under the LGBTQIA+ rainbow, you fully accept and support them, and two, it normalizes LGBTQIA+ folks. If we’re not included in the conversation, we must not be normal, right? So please include us.
Now, if your kid is coming to you with questions, first of all, great job! Your kid feels safe coming to you. But Planned Parenthood recommends to be careful not to jump to conclusions about why your kid may be asking a particular question. Ask your child what they already know about the topic they’ve brought up, or what’s going on in their life or at school that may have prompted their curiosity. Once you’ve answered their question, ask them if there’s anything else they’d like to know, or if they feel their question has been answered. Of course, if you don’t have an answer, it’s perfectly okay to admit you don’t know the answer and say, “Let’s look it up!”
I am open with my kids to the point of silliness. My son asked a few months ago, “What is ‘virgin’ olive oil, Mom?” He seemed particularly concerned about the word “virgin,” so I joked that virgin olive oil is olive oil that’s never had sex. It was one silly moment that didn’t even provide information either of my kids needed, other than to comedically reassure them that “sex” isn’t a bad word in our house.
The truth is, my aunt’s stork story, and my little gaffes as a kid were minor embarrassments. While I don’t want my kids to be embarrassed due to having incorrect or inadequate information, I’m far more interested in the safety and autonomy of their bodies and minds. I want them to trust that I will always hear their questions without judgment or shame. I want them to know I am a safe place. And the best way I can do that is by being honest from the very beginning.