It’s a conversation parents sometimes dread. How much should you tell your kids about sex? What’s “too much” for them to handle?
As an obstetrician and gynecologist, DaCarla M. Albright, MD, physician at Penn Medicine, has had these conversations with many parents. Every child is different, so there’s not a single “right way” to educate them, she says. But she does have some insight for parents who are not quite sure how to handle “The Talk.”
Q: You have a teenage daughter. When did you begin to talk to her about sex?
DaCarla M. Albright, MD: She’s 13 now, but I started talking to her when she was almost nine years old. It’s partly because I’m an OB/GYN—she had heard a lot about pregnancy, so she was curious. And there was no way I was going to get past that age without having a frank discussion with her.
Q: So is eight or nine the right age to talk to kids about sex?
Dr. Albright: It’s up to the parent, but that’s a very typical time. Once a child gets older and approaches puberty, they’re going to start being educated—mostly erroneously—by their peers. Or they will pick up information from the Internet, from sources that aren’t always reliable.
The onus is really on the parents to guide the conversation and control it before the child gets misinformation.
Q: Why do you think there is so much misinformation going around?
Dr. Albright: We live in a society that overall is not that comfortable talking about the body, and differences between men and women. We have trouble just naming body parts—people have very creative names for penises and vaginas, instead of just labeling them correctly.
When my daughter was very young, I felt strongly about saying, “These are your body parts. They’re nothing to be ashamed of.” I also made sure she knew that only certain people should see those parts, and that she should tell us if something else happened.
Q: What if an even younger child asks about sex?
Dr. Albright: Kids’ curiosity often begins when they start seeing differences between their parents’ bodies, or when they want to know where babies come from.
For a young kid, you can say something like, “Dad has something in his body called sperm, and Mom has something called an egg. When those come together, they make a baby.”
When the child gets older, he may start wondering how the sperm and egg actually meet. If your child asks, actually answer the question. But do it in a way that’s informative and factual, and keeps the emotion out of it.
Like, “The penis fits inside the vagina. The sperm comes out of the penis. It meets the egg. The baby is created. And then the baby begins as a tiny little cell that then grows into a bunch of grapes.”
Q: When you’re talking to a child who is a little older, like a young teenager, what are some key points to discuss?
Dr. Albright: Try not to describe sex as a forbidden fruit. I like to explain that in a certain setting, in the proper relationship, that level of intimacy is okay. It just has to be chosen wisely. It’s a healthy and normal thing to do between two consenting people.
Also, try to speak calmly.
Q: When should you bring up contraception and preventing sexually transmitted infections?
Dr. Albright: When you’re explaining that sex is healthy and normal under the right circumstances, use that as a branching point to talk about safe sex.
Also read: Her First Pap Test: How To Help Your Daughter Get Ready
Q: Some people think that talking to teenagers about safe sex gives them permission to have sex. Do you agree?
Dr. Albright: Absolutely not. For some reason, many parents believe that information will lead to bad behavior. And that’s a fallacy. If you educate them, they will be more informed and can better assess or judge a situation.
Kids like hearing about cause and effect, so make sure that you do emphasize the consequences of not being safe. Also, emphasize that it’s absolutely okay to talk about preventing consequences.
I told my daughter, “You may make decisions before you’re ready to deal with the consequences. But if you think you’re going to make those decisions, talk to me. I’d rather us have a conversation about it, so I can protect you in the best way possible—so there are no negative consequences of those decisions.”
Q: What about talking about oral contraceptives? Any advice for talking to daughters about that?
Dr. Albright: When I talk to my daughter about it, I feel like I’m empowering her to know how her body works.
Explain to your daughter that birth control pills aren’t just about preventing pregnancy. They can help with symptoms like cramps, headaches, or heavy bleeding. It’s important for her to understand that it’s a medicine with various uses, and it’s not used for just one purpose.
Also read: Do Birth Control Pills Work When...?
Q: Should moms talk to daughters and dads talk to sons?
Dr. Albright: It really depends on the parent’s relationship with the kid. It’s different for every family.
There may be young ladies who don’t have a mother in their lives. If the dad is not comfortable talking about it, he may need to elicit the help of another female in his daughter’s life.
The same goes for women who are raising sons without a father. Not all mothers are comfortable talking about it, or they don’t think they can because they never had a male perspective. So, they may need to hand off the conversation to a male.
It’s okay to do that. The most important thing is to make sure your child is getting accurate information in a setting where they are comfortable asking questions.