This week I’m going full throttle, doing the final edits for my upcoming book, 9 Thoughts That Will Change Your Marriage. So I’ve asked some awesome friends to guest post for me. And I thought I’d start with this week’s Reader Question about talking to your kids about sex. A mom wrote in and asked:
I have an 3 kids under 8. We have had conversations about aspects of the relationship between men and women, how babies come out of the women’s body (not yet talked about how they get in there in the first place though) and other things like that. But we have not yet talked about the actual act of sex. I’ve heard reports that you need to have this conversation with your kids between the ages of 7-9, after that age they will have most likely gotten the information from friends or stumbling across it online.
So my question is, how do you start this conversation? I am very comfortable talking about sex with adults, but my 8 year old son is a whole other area! So I thought i’d see if you had any thoughts or advice on how you may have done this with your kids. Thanks so much!
Great question! And so I’ve asked Luke Gilkerson, from Intoxicated on Life, who has just come out with a book on this very subject to chime in. Here’s Luke:
“Why is my penis so big?”
This was the way my five-year-old greeted me one morning. Though he probably had experienced an erection hundreds of times before this, for some unknown reason, on that morning it confounded him. I explained to him, “That’s called an erection. Your penis is supposed to do that from time to time. There are special blood vessels in your penis that fill up with blood and make your penis hard and straight.” In the flurry of morning activities, that was all that was said, and that seemed to satisfy his curiosity for the time being.
Children are sexual beings—not in the sense that they are mature enough for sex but in the sense that they have sexual anatomy and curiosities. Their gender defines something important about who they are. For that reason, teaching our kids about human gender and sexuality is an important piece of their education, even from a young age.
Anxieties About Sex
Ever since I released my parent-child Bible study about sexuality, The Talk, I’ve received questions from many parents—some of them filled with questions and anxiety—about how talk to young kids about sex. I understand this anxiety. For many of us, sex has either burned us in the past or we were raised in a world where sex was never discussed. We remember the angst of puberty, first crushes, first kisses, discovering masturbation, discovering pornography, and perhaps specific sexual sins we regret. Sex is not a topic some relish talking about.
In some sense, the fear of talking about sex with our kids is normal because we know sex is a powerful force, and whatever we say to our kids about it, we want to say right.
Too Much Too Soon?
Some parents fear saying too much too soon to their young children. Won’t these conversations spark sexual curiosity in them too early?
I think it is important to dissect the question a bit.
- First, what is meant by “sexual curiosity”?
- Second, what is meant by “too early”?
For some parents, curiosity about sex, especially in children, is seen as somehow dirty. For these parents, sexual curiosity is intimately linked to sexual sin. In reality, this is far from the truth. Sexual curiosity includes a wide variety of interests: curiosity about sexual anatomy (one’s own and that of the opposite sex), curiosity about how babies are made and grow, curiosity about romance, and curiosity about sexual intercourse are all as natural as the day is long. None of these curiosities is an indicator of an unhealthy or premature desire to have sex.
Furthermore, the fear that we might initiate conversations about sex “too early” is often based on the assumption that our kids are living in a sexual vacuum. This is far from the truth. Kids are coming home from the playground learning about oral sex at age 6. Kids are seeing sexual themes in video games, TV advertisements, and in the grocery store checkout aisle. Even if you take away the overtly sinful examples, kids hear about sexual themes in the midst of wholesome activities all the time: listening to a sermon, watching you and your spouse kiss, and even reading the Bible. The reason why you, as a parent, need to start conversations about sex now is because you have the opportunity to shape and mold what they are already picking up from the environment they’re in.
You will not rob a child of his or her innocence by giving them biblical and biological information about sex. Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care says it well:
Giving a child facts about reproduction, including details about intercourse, does not rob him of innocence. Innocence is a function of attitude, not information. A school-age child who understands the specifics of sex, while seeing it as an act that, in the proper context, both expresses love and begins new life, retains his innocence. But a child who knows very little about sex can already have a corrupt mind-set if he has been exposed to it in a degrading, mocking, or abusive context.
Talking to Young Kids About Sex (Ages 4-7)
1. Get used to it.
I have a friend who routinely speaks to groups of parents at churches addressing hot-button sexual issues like pornography. He’s a dynamic speaker and well-loved by all the audiences he addresses. He gets one complaint everywhere he goes, however: “It was a little uncomfortable when you said words like ‘testicles’ and ‘clitoris.’ Next time you do this talk you should really censor some of your words.” Good grief. If you can’t get together in a room with other adults—adults who have all chosen to gather in a room to hear a talk about pornography—and you can’t stand to hear basic anatomy terms, no wonder you can’t talk to your kids about sex.
For some, sex is embarrassing. They can’t picture saying words like “penis” and “vagina” in the same sentence—let alone talking about how they go together.
If this is you, you have three choices: push through the awkwardness, get comfortable with it, or be silent. If you don’t speak, the world will be more than happy to fill the void.
2. Teach it like you would any other subject: according to what they can grasp
You need to talk to your kids where their cognitive abilities will allow them to go. For the same reason you don’t teach your child their times tables at age 4, you also don’t have a long chat with them about the birds and the bees at age 4. Toddlers are in what is called the preoperational stage of child development. Though their language skills are maturing, they do not have logical reasoning skills. They think very concretely. Concepts like cause and effect are unknown to them.
During this stage of life, talks about sex should be brief and very concrete. My brief conversation with my son about his erection is an example of this. It was not a no-holds-barred everything-you-need-to-know conversation. It is about giving them little bits of information about sexual biology and sexual norms over time. Sometimes, time will permit you to have longer conversations, but remember to keep things focused on one subject at a time.
3. Teach it like you would any other subject: progressively over time
Don’t feel the need to have a single talk about everything sexual. Not only would this take far too long, these conversations and themes work best when they are repeated over and over, progressively over the course of a child’s life. In the early phases of life (0-3), give them correct labels for their body parts and confidence that their bodies are created by God. As they start to notice gender differences, explain some of the obvious outward differences between boys and girls. Affirm them in their gender identity. Help them practice modesty. Model how your child should joyfully react to things like pregnancies and weddings.
As your child gets older (4-8), you can unpack more information about human reproductive organs (male and female). Model the importance of privacy when it comes to nakedness. Warn them from time to time about pornography: tell them that if they see images, cartoons, photos, or videos that show naked people that is not healthy to see. Especially as they get closer to 1st and 2nd grade, children start to enter a new phase of development where they can reason more logically and can start to understand things from another’s perspective more easily, making more detailed conversations much easier.
These do not need to be sit-down, fire-side chats, but they can happen in the context of daily life as questions are asked or opportunities arise.
4. Let the Bible break the ice for you
For more formal discussions about sex, the best context is during conversations about the Bible.
First, get into the habit of opening the Scriptures together as a family, reading from the Bible, praying together, and talking biblical truths. This is Christian Parenting 101: establish a routine in your home that communicates the importance of the Bible to our understanding about God and human beings.
Second, use specific passages from the Bible to break the ice on these sexual topics. I recommend texts like Genesis 1:24-31, 2:18-25, Exodus 20:14; Psalm 139:13-18, and 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. These texts cover major themes like the creation of male and female, the command to procreate, the mystery and beauty of life in the womb, the evil of adultery and sexual sin, and the importance of honoring God with our bodies.
If you need help with this, my family Bible study, The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality, gives you a script to walk through these texts with a child
5. Let real life break the ice for you
Sometimes the most natural conversations about sex happen in the context of real life—all the way from the very wholesome or mundane to the perverse.
- Some kids are naturally inquisitive and will be forward about their questions, like, “How do babies get in your belly?”
- If you are around farm animals or wildlife, or if you have pets, your kids might catch animals “in the act.”
- If your pastor preaches something with a sexual theme, your child might become curious about what is being taught.
- If you see a pregnant woman, you can always stoke their curiosity about how God makes a baby grow in the womb.
- If your child sees something inadvertently on TV or in a movie that has a sexual theme, don’t be silent. Ask them, “What’s wrong about the way they are portraying this?”
- If your child comes home from school or a play date and relates some bad information he heard about sex from one of his friends, take time to correct the error.
Encouragement to Parents
The book of Proverbs, written especially for the young, warns its readers many times about the seduction of lust and easy sex. But the readers are promised they can avoid the snare of sexual sin. How?
…keep your father’s commandment,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching.
Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck.
When you walk, they will lead you;
when you lie down, they will watch over you;
and when you awake, they will talk with you. (Proverbs 6:20-22)
Be encouraged. Your words have power. Your commands are life giving. Your teachings are critical. In years to come, the echoes of your voice will watch over your children even in the darkest corners of temptation.
Luke Gilkerson is the Educational Resource Manager at Covenant Eyes, where he teaches others about staying pure online. He blogs about adventures in parenting at IntoxicatedOnLife.com with his wife Trisha.