The birds and the bees, the TALK, or whatever you want to call it, for many parents, it’s difficult to have. Talking about the mechanics, techniques and consequences of physical intimacy can be uncomfortable, awkward and embarrassing. And this is especially true if you grew up in a home where it was never talked about. Knowing how to have the TALK with your kids is one of the hardest parts of parenting!
So how do you talk about this very important subject? And not only just get the basics of the mechanics across to your kids, but how do you share your values, tips, and experiences — without scarring your kids or oversharing?
Here are seven things to remember when you’re having the TALK with your kids!
1. Start early.
Many parents make the mistake of waiting to have the conversation about reproduction until preteens or even the teen years. And this is not only a huge mistake that will make having these conversations even more awkward than they have to be, it’s dangerous.
If you wait to have the talk, your kids will learn more about their body and relationships from sources that may not have your values. So they may start believing some myths or having some negative preconceptions about intimacy that can lead to some devastating consequences. And those consequences can be life changing.
So start early.
Start with giving proper names to body parts.
While you’re changing your infant, potty training your toddler or letting your preschooler play in the bathtub, name their body parts. Toes, nose, knees, vagina, shoulder, ears, etc — treat their private parts with the same respect you do their other parts.
While it’s often cute to give those special parts special silly names, studies show that cute names can mean that it’s harder to protect our kids from abuse. When a child doesn’t know the name for their parts, it makes it hard for them to report inappropriate touching or worse.
Encourage your child to say no.
We love those sticky kisses and squishy hugs from our little ones. And when they’re sometimes hesitant to give them, we can often feel hurt or push them into doing it anyway. But what if we gave them permission and respected their right to say no?
When we give our kids as much bodily autonomy as is safe for them — asking if we can hug them, pick them up, or even to help them — we show them that they have a choice and a voice. And that will protect them better than any safety talk we could give about tricky adults and safe touches.
Of course there are moments where you have to grab a child in imminent danger. But for the most part, we can help our kids say no and take control over their own bodies.
It’s not even just about permission to touch them. We can teach them that they can say no by not forcing them to share a toy, or pushing them to play with someone or even talk to someone right away. Teach them how to say no politely. And when they say yes, it will be even more special.
2. Talk often.
The TALK should never be a one-and-done conversation. It’s an ever growing, ongoing conversation that needs to be revisited over and over again.
The old saying is that more is caught than taught when it comes to kids learning something. So having frequent, regular conversations about bodies, changes, relationships and intimacy will go a lot farther than a single awkward, fumbling conversation. It’s not really about knowing how to have the TALK with your kids, but about having multiple talks with them on this topic.
Be open and control your reactions.
One of the best ways to have those frequent conversations is to control your reaction to all their questions. If you act horrified when they ask you awkward questions, they’ll be less likely to ask, and you’ll miss out on those opportunities.
Be open to questions — any question. And make sure they know it. These questions don’t have to be about physical intimacy either. If your child wanted to ask you if they could have a tattoo, would you act disgusted they would even consider it? Or would you talk logically about the reasons why they’d want one, what they would put on their body, and why you would or wouldn’t approve?
It doesn’t matter how silly, shocking or scary a question might seem, my kids know they can ask me anything, and I’ll treat it as a serious question.
Ask questions before you answer.
Sometimes when our kids ask us these uncomfortable questions, we can jump to conclusions about what they’re asking.
When my 4 yr old asked me where her baby sister came from, at first I thought she wanted to know the whole story of reproduction. When I asked her if she meant how babies are made, she shook her head. She just wanted to know if her baby sister came from the store like her baby doll did. She was happy to know that her baby sister came from me, her mama, just like she did. And that’s all she wanted to know.
If they’re old enough to ask the question, they’re old enough to get an answer.
Sometimes we want to just brush off our kids by saying, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” But it’s healthier to give them answers when they ask questions. You don’t have to always go into a ton of detail either. Remember, frequent conversations are important, so you can always give more detail later. But you can give an age appropriate answer every time they ask a question.
So if your 5 year old starts asking where babies come from (and they don’t mean the store), give them a short answer that babies come from moms and dads. They’ll ask more questions if they want more details. Let them take the lead to get the information that’s important to them.
3. Start with science.
When it comes to having these conversations, it’s easier and ultimately more effective to start with the technical, scientific explanations. It’s also less awkward, especially if you use the proper terms and scientific vocabulary. Rather than using slang, use terms like “intercourse” and “reproduction” and you’ll probably be able to get through an explanation without too much difficulty.
Think of describing the human reproductive system the same way you would the skeletal or circulatory system. You can talk about ovaries and fallopian tubes the same way you would the heart and lungs. And if you don’t know the scientific explanation, grab any human anatomy book and learn with your child!
Using books is a great way to have these conversations. Whether you want to talk about the mechanics of childbirth or what to expect during puberty, getting the facts from a book or two can take the pressure off of parents. And, you can tackle the myths of contraception, conception and pregnancy all at the same time.
Get your doctor involved too.
Let your child’s doctor know about your conversations so they can confirm the information you’re giving your child. Doctors can help with the discussions on puberty and it’s changes, health and hygiene, and the consequences of intercourse with an authority that preteens and teens might hear better than they can listen to their parents.
4. Don’t forget about relationships.
The physical side of intimacy is just one part of the conversations you need to have with your child. The emotional side is just as important a conversation to have. And sometimes, this can be even harder than talking about body parts and interactions.
Conversations about consent, safety, emotional connections and your moral values are essential. But often, us parents aren’t sure what to talk about when it comes to these topics, because what we were taught wasn’t always healthy.
Both boys and girls need to learn about consent.
As I mentioned above, it starts early. Teaching your child how and when to say no, and giving them the right to say no, even when you wish they’d say yes is just the first stage. It’s a message that needs to be repeated over and over again.
Teaching kids about setting boundaries, respecting other people’s “no” — even if it’s about sharing toys, playing together, talking together, or physical interactions like roughhousing, wrestling, tickling or playing tag — and backing up their no is so important. It’s this kind of lesson that will help change the culture of entitlement that plagues our society now.
Both boys and girls need to hear about safety.
When you know how to have the TALK with your kids, you know that it isn’t just boys or just girls that need to hear this info. Often we just give girls the message about safe behaviour and staying safe, especially in intimate situations. Learning about walking in pairs, calling for a ride after dark, and not going certain places may be the realities of being female in today’s world. But we can also give boys the message about being safe too.
Teaching boys about watching out for the vulnerable, about being aware of boundaries and their surroundings, and calling for a ride if they don’t feel safe will go a long way to making sure everyone can interact safely, from little to grown up.
Talk about emotions.
We often talk to our kids about eating right, staying clean, going to sleep and drinking more water. We talk about road safety and sharing toys. But do we talk about emotions?
Helping our kids name their feelings, acknowledge them, and express them appropriately is a great start to these conversations about emotional connection. We need to teach our kids about how to handle our disappointment, how to be sad and express it and how to be worried or scared without resorting to unhealthy escapism habits. And if we can model it, even better.
As we have these early conversations, and talk about it often, talking about healthy relationships will also be easier. And then our kids can make healthier choices with their relationships, because they’ll know how to handle their own emotions — even when they feel overwhelming.
5. Share your values.
The only way your kids will know where you stand on these issues is if you talk about them. And fumbling through awkward lectures on the technical details isn’t going to get our kids to listen to what’s really important.
Of course, as parents, we want our kids to share our values in more than just their choices about their bodies. But in all of those conversations about honesty, generosity, moral and spiritual beliefs, we need to include our values about physically and emotionally intimate relationships .
Some of the most difficult conversations I’ve had with my kids haven’t been around where babies come from or how they get out, but about how you know when you’re in love, and how you decide what kind of marriage partner you want.
Talking about physical intimacy can feel awkward enough, especially if you aren’t used to it. But discussing the difficult topics around your views on marriage, dating, courtship, living together or not, as well as the whole host of related topics — well that’s even more challenging.
First, do you know what your values actually are?
Here’s the thing that many of us don’t realize. Part of the reason that these conversations are so difficult is because we haven’t fully decided what we value and believe about them.
What is your belief on marriage? And are you ready to show why you believe that way? What is the purpose of dating or courtship? How do you feel about how the human body should be treated, clothed or displayed?
And what about the related questions surrounding friendship, bullying, internet safety and boundaries? What about mental health issues like anxiety or depression? What are your values on our emphasis on appearances, and how should we handle food, exercise and other health-related choices?
Get really clear on what you believe. Kids know when you doubt yourself, and they aren’t going to listen when you aren’t sure yourself.
Second, do you live your values?
We can talk all we like, but as I said before, more is caught than taught. So before you can really share your values with your kids, make sure your lifestyle reflects what you say you believe. And if it doesn’t, or didn’t always, you’ve got some thinking — and explaining — to do.
It’s actually ok if you haven’t always lived the way you say you believe. Sometimes we make choices when we’re younger that we wouldn’t now. And sometimes we develop a value because of some of those choices we made when we were younger — and the consequences made us change our beliefs.
Those kinds of stories can be extremely effective in sharing our values with our kids, because they are real and honest. Getting vulnerable about our past choices and why we want different for our kids can bring the message home better than just about anything else.
What doesn’t work is lying. Kids know when we say we believe something but we don’t actually live that way. If you want your kids to tune you out, act the hypocrite.
How do you have these talks?
If you haven’t started early, or it’s still awkward, how do you talk to your kids about these very personal issues? You’ll have to find the courage, take advantage of the moment and be willing to expose yourself.
It really takes courage.
But isn’t that always true of parenthood? Parenthood requires a bravery that is unlike anything else. So if you’re finding it hard to talk to your kids about intimacy, relationships and health, you’re going to have to draw on some of that courage and just do it.
Pick your moment.
It’s almost easier to have these conversations when our kids are little, because they’re curious and they ask the questions. But if your kids aren’t asking the questions, how do you talk with them about it?
There are certain moments of the day that you can pounce on — usually when they are the most inconvenient. Think about those moments at bedtime, when you know they’re just asking a question to delay bedtime. Or when you’re driving, and your teen is sitting beside you. Capitalize on those moments.
Bedtime is a really good time to have these conversations. First, your kids are generally less distracted, so they’ll listen more. And second, if they really aren’t interested, they’ll go to sleep faster!
Driving is also a really good time to get into these kinds of discussions. You aren’t having to look at each other, so there’s less pressure and less awkwardness about it. You’re stuck in an enclosed space, so you can’t get distracted by chores, games, toys or other noise. And there’s something about the monotony of driving that creates an interest level in your kids that might not otherwise be there.
But no matter where you have these conversations, you need to make sure they happen.
Get vulnerable with your kids.
If you haven’t started young, or deliberately created that atmosphere that invites questions, then you’re going to have to create the moments to talk about intimacy. And one of the best ways to do that is to get vulnerable with your kids.
This doesn’t have to mean you have to share everything. Some things no child wants to know about their parents, no matter how old they are. And this doesn’t have to mean just the negative side!
One of the best ways to spark a conversation is to go through your photos, and start reminiscing. Your wedding album, or pictures of you and your partner before you married are attention grabbers for even the most jaded teen. And those can lead to some great conversations about relationships, healthy choices and even the mechanics of intimacy.
Another way to jumpstart some tricky topics is to openly discuss current events, with your values front and center. You might get some pushback from a teen, and that can lead to some lively debate about values, morals and making good choices. Make sure you listen as well as talk, and control your reaction when your child is trying to shock you. They’re testing to see if you can be trusted!
Try having conversations about these topics or related ones with other people around your kids too. Maybe you talk about dating with your best friend over coffee, while your preteens are hanging out nearby. Or maybe you talk about your parents’ relationship stories at a family dinner, with the kids still at the table. I promise you they will be listening.
The TALK doesn’t have to be difficult.
Be open. Be honest. Start young and talk often. The more you talk about it, the less awkward it will get. And the more you get comfortable talking about it, the more comfortable your kids will be to ask you about it too. Take advantage of the moments when they come up, and try to create moments too.