How to talk about sex talk with your tween

Our 11-year-old son is finishing fifth grade this year and, as such, has just begun taking health classes in his public elementary school to learn about the birds and the bees. Therefore, I thought it would be wise to attempt to inquire about how the sex-ed was going, from his perspective.

how to talk to your tween about sex

Photo: Kevin R. Colvin

I’m happy to report that I lived to tell the tale, and am also happy to share a few thoughts on how to have the dreaded sex talk with your tween.

These three ideas are central to my strategy to talk to our tween about sex:

1. Use teachable moments in life

In spite of the fact that my tween boy said he made a pact with his friends to NEVER talk about reproductive health outside of class, I decided to open dialogue on the subject with him on a nice long car ride—but for only a few minutes. I don’t want teaching to feel like torture. Plus, we talk about a wide range of topics on our car rides, especially after listening to the news, so ranging into the topic of sex wasn’t totally out of left field.

This week, as I schlepped both our kids to taekwondo practice, we heard were listening to NPR on the radio when the story about the Michigan doctor arrested for female genital mutilation came on. When our kids were younger I might have quickly flipped the radio off. Instead, I let it play and ask them if they’d ever heard the word circumcision. They had not. My ensuing comments were simple and to the point, but covered what male circumcision is and why female circumcision is illegal. Our genitals, I explained, are more than just servants of the urinary tract and provide pleasure during sex, and removing the clitoris permanently robs a female of any pleasure from sex. It all took less than a minute.

Radio. Circumcision. Clitoris. Taekwondo.

You don’t have to listen to NPR to find teachable moments about sex. Television ads, Jason Derulo songs, or inappropriate jokes by Uncle Rob are all teachable moments too.

2. Set a positive, inviting tone about sex

Photo: Lesley Show

Puberty brings with it a rush of new feelings about changes that are happening in a tween’s body and mind. Whether or not your child learns to associate these new feelings with curiosity, openness and mastery—or shame, hiding, and confusion—depends in large part in the tone you set in your home and how you respond to your child. If you regularly joke and tease about budding friendships with the opposite sex or push too much information about sex ahead of their interest and comprehension, you aren’t building the trust your child needs to respect your guidance or expectations. Same is true if your tone about sex is fear-focused—like only emphasizing the risks and dangers, like pregnancy and STDs.

3. Aim for integration rather than memorization

In education, we used to think that good teaching could be measured in how well students knew the correct answer. That was when teachers relentlessly corrected spelling mistakes of first-graders, and memorization—rather than integration—of subject matter was prized. The down-side to this rigid style of teaching is that students may know the right answer but fail to comprehend when and how to use it in real life. When they are mature enough to be in a sexual relationship, I want my kids to have a joyful and fulfilling sex life that grows with their own emotional development. Even at this stage of their development, when we are merely talking about sexual anatomy and function, the conversation should be one that allows them the luxury of knowing it’s not a topic that is off limits except when mom and dad decide to give a rambling lecture. So try to bring up the subject in a straightforward, conversational way, as often as you can.

4. Being “sex positive” doesn’t have to equate to hippy permissiveness

As children, so many of us (myself included) received loads of sex-negative messages. For example:

  • Don’t have sex before you’re married
  • Sexual fantasies are “sinful”
  • Good kids aren’t interested in pornography
  • Masturbation is shameful or dangerous
How to talk to your tween about sex

Photo: sophie & cie

For some of us, our childhood learning about sex boiled down to a big list of dont’s. Rather than focusing on rules and complications of sexual behavior as the first and primary message you send to your kids about sex, you simply save the discussion for limits and behavioral expectations for after your child feels comfortable with and more interested in the subject of sex, in general.

5. Turn to the library for help

When I was a tween, my parents had Dr. Spock and maybe Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Fortunately there’s a lot more media to choose from now to educate yourself about how to talk to your tween about sex.

Here are a few of my favorites:

The Talk: Helping Your Kids Navigate Sex in the Real World

100 Questions You'd Never Ask Your Parents: Straight Answers to Teens' Questions About Sex, Sexuality, and Health

Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today's Young Kids