“Even if they don’t realize it, parents have most likely talked to their kids about sex. The first time they said, ‘I’m going to change in the other room, or ‘Please close the door when you’re going to the bathroom’ or ‘Don’t pull on your brother’s penis’ that’s on the spectrum. That’s about sex,” says Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and child development expert.
For many parents, however, it may feel like a leap the size of the Grand Canyon to talk about the act of sex. It’s science, or mechanics, at its basest explanation: this part must be inserted into this part, and a biological reaction is a result.
Even Roffman, now a certified sex educator, needed practice.
“I didn’t grow up this way,” she says. “I was a sexual illiterate; I didn’t know much about it or how to think about it. What I learned when I fell into this job by accident is that practicing saying these words in the mirror and separating them from my discomfort, I found they were just words. Practice saying these words in front of an infant out loud so they become natural before they understand what you’re saying.”
If we’re afraid that our children will bust out the word “penis” in public, whose needs are we really focused on? Ours, or theirs?
Now that my son is 10, we have had conversations about love, and sex, body parts, and erections. Sometimes I still trip over the words, but I coax them out for the sake of his education, and he, so far, does not flinch. He knows he can ask me questions, like the time we were watching a movie and the female character, was unmarried and pregnant. Or one night before bed he stuck his tongue out and started wiggling it and asked me that’s what a French kiss looked like.
I can’t police all of the information that reaches his ears at school, during basketball practice, or with friends. But what I can do is model is that I’m his go-to source for anything he wants or needs to know. And if I’m doing my job right, not only will he be well-informed, he’ll have enough situational knowledge to make good decisions as he grows up.
I found some basic tips on the AMAZE site to help parents who may be nervous or unsure of how to begin:
1. It is never too early to start having conversations, and it’s on you to start them. Remember, brief, more frequent talks are more effective than one big talk.
2. Kids just want the basics. Find out what they know and go from there. You can’t share too much. What they don’t understand goes over their heads.
3. You don’t need to know all the answers. Be honest and tell them you don’t know but you can research it and get back to them. Then follow-up.
4. There are no gender-based rules when it comes to conversations.
Talk to your young kids about consent early on. It’s about body autonomy, not sex.
“Of my four kids, each wanted to know things at different ages,” says Dr. Gilboa. “As parents, I’d say the same things as I’d say about drugs, alcohol, and so on: you want to be your child’s first best expert. You want to be their go-to person – if you defer being your kids’ go-to person, they’ll ask someone else. They’ll think, ‘Oh, I guess I can’t ask my parents about that.’”
Don’t leave your kids’ sex education to chance, says Roffman.
“It’s just like math – you can’t teach your kids all the math in the world at one time. Instead, think of it as building blocks,” she says. “Tell them, ‘Let’s start here and then I want you to think about it and we can talk more about it.’”
The same math lesson isn’t taught to a kindergartener at five as it is to a 14-year-old teenager; you’ll teach it differently.
The most important thing, Roffman told me, is to be truthful. Lying or making up fairy tales will hurt your credibility, in the long run. That’s not to say that you have to be 100% transparent from day one, she says. You know your kids. You’ll be able to tell what they’re ready to hear. Keep the door open for discussion, and when it comes time for your child to ask you the questions that matter, they’ll know that you’re willing to tackle it with them.