Health & Science

What to include in “the talk” at every age

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Talking to your child about sex is not exactly the stuff every parent looks forward to, but it’s one of the most important things you can do. Perhaps no other parenting act is as misunderstood as sex education. Some parents think of it as a one-and-done conversation (it’s not), and others think it’s a topic that can wait until puberty is knocking at the door (nope). The reality is that sex education is an evolving subject that should be explored appropriately at every age and stage, even babyhood.

As recently reported in The New York Times, researchers have discovered that far too few conversations are happening at home about sex, our bodies, boundaries, and consent. In some cases, parents are hoping the schools will teach kids what they need to know, but that’s just not the case. Twenty states don’t require any sex education, and only 18 require the info that’s taught to be medically accurate! And even in a perfect world with a wonderful sex education program, these conversations need to start much earlier and go far beyond a few classes at school.

“The Talk” has many benefits

One of the many benefits of talking appropriately about sex at different ages is that your children are assured of receiving correct information, rather than the muddied misinfo they might hear from a bestie, the dangerous versions they may find on the internet, or the dramatized take that a movie or television show might provide. It also creates an open line of communication between you, so your child knows they can always come to you for the truth or if something uncomfortable or potentially dangerous comes up. There’s even research that shows children who receive good quality sex education are more likely to delay having sex and are more likely to be responsible when they do. 

In reality, conversations about body positivity and sex should be happening throughout childhood at age-appropriate levels. Instead of having the occasional one-off conversation, try weaving the topic into everyday discussions, providing more information over time as children become older and more mature. Here’s a general guide to help you have “the talk” at every age and stage.

Babies and toddlers — Ages 0-2

As babies learn to talk, it’s important they know the correct words for all body parts, including their penis or vagina, and their functions. Not only does this send the message that it’s OK to talk about private parts, it helps them identify those parts for health or injury reasons later on, should they need to. Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto-based sex educator, advises parents to avoid using language that connects sexual anatomy to gender—so, for example, you can say “people with penises” instead of “boys have penises.” That will make later discussions about sexual identity and gender roles much easier.

It’s normal for little ones to explore their bodies; as soon as they realize their hands will go into their diapers, it apparently becomes irresistible! Just remind them that there’s a time and a place for it—like in the bathroom or bedroom, rather than the middle of the grocery store. They’ll probably need lots of reminders, so try not to overreact or get angry when it happens. It’s important to be compassionate and gentle here, ensuring you don’t inadvertently instill any shame around their nudity.

Topics to discuss:

  • Proper names of body parts and their functions.
  • It’s OK to touch your own body parts. 
  • Give gentle reminders that touching their private areas should be done in private.
  • Early demonstrations of consent, like asking before you pick them up.

Preschoolers — Ages 3-5

This stage is all about understanding when touching is and isn’t OK, such as a fun tickle sesh versus playing doctor with someone else’s genitals. It’s important, too, that children realize they have a say in what happens to their body, even if they’re simply not happy being tickled anymore. Consent is about way more than sex or dating—at its core it’s about respect for yourself and others in any situation, and making choices about your own body (and having those choices honored). It’s important to start the lessons early. Here’s a helpful script to show you what that convo might look like, along with simple tips for incorporating consent into your daily lives.

Also, body image issues, believe it or not, can start as early as three years old—so start planting seeds of body positivity at a young age! Here are some ways to start combating negative feelings about bodies early in their lives.

This is also a good time to talk about what’s appropriate in terms of nudity as many young kids still love to run around naked—which is totally OK at home, just not at daycare or the park. Admittedly it can be challenging to get a little one to comply with that, especially if they’re going through a phase when they remove their clothes a lot. They’re learning new skills like how to whip off a t-shirt or remove their own underwear, and they love both the new freedom and showing off what they can do. Keep reminding them, and maybe try clothes that snap in the back or are otherwise tricky if you’re going out and really need them to stay dressed,

If your child is curious about where babies come from, the most important thing is not to lie. You can keep things simple, following the lead of what you think your child will understand. At a basic level you can just say there are “lots of ways,” or you can get more detailed (explaining that two grown ups will share their sperm and egg to start a baby growing, or they’ll get the sperm and egg from other people). You might also explain it using their own birth story—just make sure that it’s clear that their own path to joining your family is only one potential path of many.

This is also a good time to let your kiddo know that it’s always acceptable for them to come and talk to you about anything related to their bodies or other people’s bodies, signaling that this subject is never taboo. This will help minimize the likelihood that they will be keen to keep secrets about the subject, even if someone else asks them to.

Topics to discuss:

  • Their right to privacy—and others’ right to privacy too.
  • How bodies are the same (we all have nipples) vs how they’re different (some have vaginas and some have penises, some people are rounder and some are taller), but that differences are good!
  • Where it’s appropriate to be naked (at bath time and the doctor’s office) and when it’s not (at the park or at a friend’s house).
  • Body positivity—model it yourself by not talking about diets or insulting your own appearance, and point out things like all the amazing stuff their bodies can do.
  • Consent in daily life (tickling, playing games, medical treatment, etc).
  • You can keep subjects like where babies come from very simple, just be sure not to lie about it!

Big Kids — Ages 6-8

Even if you have set boundaries for screen time and internet access, children this age will eventually find their way around online, so it’s important to talk about why sharing photos and talking to strangers is a bad idea. Talk about online safety, and make sure they know what to do if they see something inappropriate online.

As they explore the internet, pornography is one of the things they might stumble across (or seek out, if they’re curious). There’s no need to refer to pornography overall as bad, just distinguish the difference between adults doing adult things and children doing adult things. The important point to make here is that, just like other types of movies and shows, adult films don’t often depict things in a realistic way. They might also portray disturbing or really confusing acts that aren’t appropriate for kids. 

Most children this age have explored their bodies already, so talking about masturbation and how it’s best done in private may be a good idea, too. They might also be ready for a more detailed discussion about sex, including the physical mechanics of it—but it’s OK to save that for later if your child doesn’t seem ready. Toward the later years in this age range, you can also prepare them for what to expect during puberty. You should also introduce your child to the wide range of gender and sexual identities—this glossary can help. If you have any of your own biases about the LGBTQ+ community (or even think you might), you can address them first so you don’t pass them along to your child.

It isn’t easy, but parents also need to teach their kids the warning signs that a predator might be grooming them for abuse. They should tell you or another trusted adult right away if they see any red flags like someone asking them to keep a secret from you, offering them gifts or favors, paying them attention that makes them uncomfortable, asking to see or touch each other’s genitals, or talking to them about sexual topics.

Topics to discuss:

  • Pornography—what it is and why it’s suitable for adults only.
  • Why sharing photos and talking to strangers is a bad idea.
  • Masturbation—what it is and that it’s perfectly normal, but best done in private with proper hygiene.
  • The difference between good secrets (birthday presents) and bad secrets (anything that makes you feel yucky, scared or uncomfortable), and other warning signs of grooming. Emphasize that no one should ever ask them to keep a secret from you, and if someone does anything that makes them uncomfortable they should tell a trusted adult right away.
  • The mechanics of sex (if your child is ready) and the basics of what to expect during puberty.
  • The range of gender and sexual identities.

Tweens — Ages 9-12

This is a good stage to talk about stereotypes, sexism, and the importance of respecting others, including as it pertains to how someone looks (for example, girls can have short hair and boys can have long hair). It’s also important to discuss gender roles, avoiding toxic masculinity, and feminism, which just means supporting equal rights for all genders (you can use our feminism explainer for kids to learn more about what to say). Try making a point to highlight that many women work in tech jobs and many men become nurses—we are all equal. Remember, ensuring they respect others is the foundation for consent. 

Alarmingly, well over half of girls starting at age 10 have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment (lewd stares, sexual comments, catcalling, and other objectifying behavior). By the time they’re 14, 75 percent of our daughters report feeling “unsafe as a girl.” It’s critical to discuss this with ALL kids so they understand that it’s not OK, what to do about it when it happens, and that it’s not their fault if it happens to them. Here’s a resource about kids and sexual harassment where you can learn more.

This prepubescent stage is also full of questions and concerns about their bodies, so plan to have regular check-ins with your child to ensure they know you’re always ready to listen or answer questions. Even a simple question such as, “Is there anything you want to talk or ask me about?” can spark conversation and help your children feel supported. Provide factual details about what they can expect during puberty. Safety is key to the sex talk at this stage, too, whether it’s about the different methods available to ensure safe sex or the type of online behavior that can lead to trouble, such as sharing nude photos, even with friends. Whew!

Topics to discuss:

  • Their bodies are changing, and will continue to change. With that comes a lot of questions and feelings—and that’s totally normal.
  • Let them know you’re always there if they have questions or concerns, and that you’ll always tell them the truth.
  • Discuss stereotypes and generalizations about sex, including sexism and the need for mutual respect. 
  • Talk about catcalling and other sexual harassment—why it’s not OK, what to do about it, and that it’s not a girl’s fault if it happens to her.
  • The importance of safe sex and the different types of protection available.
  • Why it’s important to be safe and respectful online, and the dangers of sharing “racy” photos.
  • The mechanics of sex and what to expect during puberty.

Teens — Ages 13+

If you’ve been openly discussing sex and sex-related topics for years, this is when it can really pay off as your teen will be more likely to feel comfortable coming to you about sex or talking about it overall. If this is the first time you’re addressing it, that’s OK. It’s more important to be a little late than to never talk about it at all! 

Talk to your child about healthy relationships, and red flags they should watch out for when dating. Signs they should seek help or break things off can include things that are rather obvious, like violence or threats, but can also be subtle, like gaslighting or attempts to control what you wear or who you’re friends with. In a healthy relationship, your child should feel safe, respected, and like they can really be themselves.

At this age, it’s critical to discuss when it’s OK to have sex and address issues such as peer pressure and dating violence, even if it seems unlikely this would ever happen to your child. The more informed kids are, the better prepared they will be if difficult situations arise. Encourage them to tap into their instincts and moral compass—that gut feeling they get when they know if something is right or wrong, safe or risky. It’s important that they feel empowered to make good decisions on their own, especially when you’re not around. Continue to discuss the importance of safe sex and consent. 

Topics to discuss:

  • When it’s OK to have sex (when there is consent, safety protocols, and the feeling that they are ready to) and when it isn’t (peer pressure, violence).
  • Assure them they have the tools and ability to make good decisions.
  • Signs of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.
  • Expand on your ongoing lessons about consent, clarifying how the concept applies to sex and dating.
  • Online safety around sexual topics, such as sharing photos.

These might not be the easiest conversations to have, but they’re so critical to our kids growing up to be confident, body positive, respectful, and safe.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.