Talking to your kids about sex

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Bronwyn McNulty

It's often an awkward conversation ... but it's a necessary one.

It's often an awkward conversation ... but it's a necessary one. Photo: Getty

I clearly remember the day I got "the talk". I was about eight or nine, and my mother suggested I might like to read a flimsy little black-and-white paperback about rabbits.

The pages were filled with a few bunny pictures and a smattering of text. The details are sketchy, but the gist of it sticks: to make baby bunnies, the male rabbit inserts his penis into the female rabbit's vagina. The book came to a jaw-dropping finish with the closing line: "This is what humans do, too."

In the kitchen afterwards, Mum and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Me (gobsmacked): "Is that true?"

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Mum (standing at the sink, with her back to me): "Yes. Now run out and play."

Now that I have children of my own, I am determined not to deal with the subject in a similarly cursory, detached fashion.

Yet at the same time, the thought of talking about this stuff with my beautiful, innocent kids fills me with dread.

"I think that we have been awkward for a very long time about sex," says Jenny Walsh from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at Melbourne's La Trobe University. "But keeping our children innocent is certainly not protecting their innocence, because they are more vulnerable to believing any other kind of story they are told," adds Walsh, who's also the author of Talk Soon, Talk Often, a guide to help parents talk to their kids about sex.

Dr Melissa Kang, a senior lecturer in adolescent sexual health at Sydney University, says it's normal for parents to feel anxious.

"But I actually think that children will only absorb and look for the information that is relevant to them at the time. If a young child asks what sex is, or how babies are made, it's important to answer the question appropriate to their age."

Dr Mark Schuster, a professor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School and co-author of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know about Sex (but Were Afraid They'd Ask) advises parents to have an ongoing dialogue about the topic as children grow up, starting by creating an environment that welcomes questions about bodies, gender, relationships, love and sex.

"It's important to start when your children are little so they are learning about issues before they are confronting them with their peers," he says. "If you put them off with statements like, 'Mummy will tell you when she gets home from work,' or 'You're too young to ask,' you are teaching your kids that you're not the person to come to when they have sensitive questions."

If you don't start early, the topic looms larger as kids grow older, and both parents and children are more likely to feel uncomfortable talking about sex and related topics, Dr Schuster says. "If you begin early, your child will be used to discussing sex and relationships with you, so that it's natural to continue talking when she's confronting the issues in her life."

Having these kinds of conversations, in fact, has been shown to delay the onset of sexual activity, according to the national Australian Study of Health and Relationships, 2001-2002.

Research has also shown that, while there may be many people contributing to the sex conversations your child has - you, your child's peers, sex educators, television, books, the internet - a parent's viewpoint has the most influence.

"Your voice is not going to be the only one, but make sure it's in there, because your voice has the most weight and, even when kids are older and don't think that every word you say is gospel, you can be assured that your opinion is taken into account," says Jenny Walsh.

She suggests starting when children are toddlers and teaching them the correct names for body parts. "There is nothing wrong with using funny family names, but make sure they also know that a penis is a penis and a vagina is a vagina," says Walsh.

"Then we are making sure that our kids have a commonly understood language for the sexual parts of the body, which makes a big difference in their capacity to ask questions in a reasonably comfortable way."

Walsh also suggests that parents develop a different mindset when talking to their children about the subject of sex.

"Instead of thinking, 'I am going to stop my kids from becoming sexual,' think, 'I want to help my kid to make this a reasonably happy part of their lives.' "

Explaining intercourse is only a small part of the conversation, she says. "What they really need to learn is how to look after themselves; and that they deserve respect and regard from other people, including friends and romantic partners."

•AGE 0-2

Start using the right names for body parts now: vulva, vagina, penis, scrotum, etc.

AGE 2-5

• If children touch their genitals in public, tell them that it is something to do at home, in private.

• If a three-year-old asks, "Where do I come from?", usually telling them a baby starts as a tiny egg inside the mother's body is enough.

• Four- and five-year-olds can understand that a baby grows in the mother's uterus, and that you need a sperm (like a seed) from a man and an ovum (like a tiny egg) from a woman to make a baby.

AGE 5-8

• Start chatting now about how babies are made.

• Ensure children know that they can say "No" to unwanted touching.

AGE 9-12

• By age nine, start a conversation about "growing up" and changing bodies.

• Revisit topics. Don't assume that previous talks have stuck.

• Normalise same-sex couples and same-sex attractions.

AGE 13-14

• Don't stop offering physical affection to sons and daughters.

• Start conversations about the pros and cons of having a boyfriend/girlfriend.

• Revisit the how-to-make-a-baby talk.

• Discuss who they'd talk to if they didn't want to talk to you.

AGE 14-17

• Talk about using contraception and condoms. It doesn't mean you approve, or are encouraging, of them having sex.

• Sexuality is only one part of the whole person. Help keep it in balance by taking an interest in their sports, schooling, relationships, TV shows and so on.

Source: ARCSHS, La Trobe University Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University as well as their growing interest in looking good and going out.

SOURCE: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University