Family Counseling Bethesda MD
Research indicates that kids who have had a “comprehensive sexual education engage in less risky sexual behavior use protection, have fewer sexual partners and are less likely to become pregnant during their teenage years.” There is some evidence also that they will delay their sexual interaction if they have been provided with sex education (Robinson, Smith and Davies, 2017).
Most of us can agree that sex education is important. Many of my friends wonder about the best age to start talking about “the birds and the bees.” Their ideas are interesting and varied. Some seem uncomfortable with the idea of explaining sex to kids so they withdraw from the responsibility of doing so (e.g. distracting the child and not answering questions, leaving the teaching to others). Others take on the responsibility but feel insecure about how and when to best approach children.
I strongly believe that sexual education is primarily meant to be taught by parents to children. School and others (e.g. peers, siblings, TV) should be the secondary information, both in timing and in importance. Why? Schools are teaching for the group– families have the ability to teach for each individual child. This allows for questions and for one-to one interactions that could potentially lead to a productive conversation. Plus, schools very rarely have the time to fully address and teach all the needed sexual education topics. There is some evidence that says that most schools are doing a poor job teaching sex education (check out this article). Second, as a family therapist, I believe in the power of relationships. You are a permanent presence in your children’s lives–you were there when they were born, as they they grew up, and during their dating period. Schools, teachers, and coaches come and go. Typically, you will be present for most of their lives. So, important topics should be addressed by you. This also would make your child more likely to come to you when they have questions. Third, you are teaching your kids that talking about sex can be part of a healthy relationship. To have a healthy sexual life they will need to talk to their partners. By talking to their parents, they learn that sex is an okay topic of conversation. Fourth, you can impart your values and your beliefs about sex to your child. School cannot do that. They are not supposed to teach values. They are supposed to teach science, biology, etc. Furthermore, you can correct misunderstandings or misinformation that has been provided to your child by peers or media.
Of course teaching does not always happen in the ideal way. Most of us are uncomfortable when thinking about the idea of talking about sex with our children. We may feel incompetent as we don’t know how to do it. Yet, it needs to happen, sooner rather than later. While writing this article, I asked my kids how old they were when they first were told something about sex by someone. Their answer? Third and Fourth grade. This matches the recent research that says kids are being exposed to some sort of sexual material in the internet around age 10. So, parents have the burden of teaching their kids about sex at a very young age. However, sex education is not just about “SEX”, is much more than that. When we teach a 2 year old the word “penis” or “vagina” we are providing sex education. Parents are frequently imagining an uncomfortable talk with their children when in reality, most of them have been doing some sort of sex education without noticing it.
I propose that sex education is something that should be happening frequently, per the developmental stage of the child. Below I have some suggestions on what can be discussed at what age.
- Birth to 5 years: Naming body parts, teaching safe touch, teaching that others should not touch them in their swimsuit area can all be done. The book “I said No: A Kid-to-kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private” is a good resource on this.
- Kindergarten to 2nd grade: talk about privacy, establishing boundaries (e.g. going to bathroom with door closed), teach them your values about families, and discuss internet and social media expectations.
- 3rd to 5th grade: “The American Girl” book is a must for girls of this age. Teach that sex is an activity for adults. Teach about puberty for both boys and girls. Hygiene is an important one here too, start teaching them about ethical and respectful relationships; teach about pregnancy, consider talking about homosexuality and gender as well as non-traditional families.
- Junior High/ High School: teach about consent, choices, protection and abstinence, porn, discuss alcohol use and how it relates to sex.
Here is a good video that suggests ways to talk to your teenager about sex.
Importantly, remember that your ability to be relaxed and comfortable in a conversation about sex and sexuality with your children will help send a message that you are a safe person with whom they can discuss these issues. This makes it significantly more likely that if they need help in the future, they will choose to come to you.
Sabrina Bowen, MS, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.