Here's how and when to talk to kids and teens about sex, puberty, sex education and sexuality at different stages of their childhood.
Teaching children about the birds and the bees is a reality every parent must face, but gone are the days where you could put it off as long as possible and awkwardly approach the topic sometime in their teens—or avoid it altogether and let them learn about it during health class.
According to Dr Patricia Weerakoon, speaking with our children about sex should be an ongoing occurrence and integrated throughout their lives. An evangelical Christian as well as a sexologist, Patricia has long been passionate about healthy sex education through a Christian framework.
“Parents and carers need to take responsibility and educate children about sexuality,” Patricia said in an article on ABC Health and Wellbeing. She defined sexuality as not just the physical act of sex but as the concept of how bodies work, gender, the act of having babies, relationships and values.
Patricia has previously written sex education resources for kids, including Growing Up by the Book (for 10–14-year-olds) and Teen Sex by the Book (for adolescents over 15). Parents appreciated these earlier resources but repeatedly asked her for a resource for younger children.
She complied by writing a six-book series, Birds And Bees by the Book, targeted at children between the ages of 7 and 10. The series is described as an “age-appropriate, biblical, Christ-focused view of the body, brain, identity and sex, for parents and carers to read with children”.
From Patricia’s perspective, the books can be used in two different ways: as proactive and reactive sex education.
As proactive sex education, Patricia suggests setting apart time to discuss these issues with your children and designating a special area in which you read the books with them.
“Some parents report that this special area becomes the ‘go to’ place when the child has something difficult or sensitive to discuss,” she explains.
In terms of reactive sex education, the Birds And Bees series can be used in response to a question or situation. Patricia recommends asking questions such as “Where did you hear that?”, “What do you know about it?” and “What do you think it means?”
“Not talking to children and thinking, Don’t children just learn these things? means we’re finding young people are turning to the internet for sex education,” says Patricia. Her concern is valid.
“Part of the problem is that the internet is a very big and diverse place,” Youth Alliance Coalition’s deputy director, Joshua Genner, said to ABC Health and Wellbeing. “The sheer volume of information on the internet means it is difficult to deliver the right information to the right age group. Some of it’s going to be good and some of it won’t, so of course leaving sexual education to the internet would not be a good thing to do.”
But the volume of information available online isn’t the biggest concern. It’s the content of what is available.
According to Psychology Today, research estimates that a whopping 90 per cent of children today first learn about sex by viewing pornography. When turning to the internet with questions about sex, pornography websites are only a click away and there are seldom filters in place for underage viewers.
Today's children are learning about sex from an early age but in an unhealthy and unrealistic way.
Today, the average age that children are first exposed to pornography is 11 years old. In an interview on our show, Patricia said she has personally spoken to children as young as nine who believe they are addicted to porn.
Recent statistics are showing that the age a child is first exposed to porn is rapidly decreasing. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald claims children as young as six years old are actively watching online porn and Centre Against Sexual Violence counsellor, Kate McCormick, noted there appeared to be “a lot of sexual assault” occurring within the school environment as a result.
“This has been linked back to early exposure to pornography,” said Kate. “From the age of six, some kids are accessing pornography online and that becomes their norm of how to treat people and how to do relationships.”
In the same article, counsellor Katrina Weeks noted that increasing numbers of school-aged children were contacting the Centre Against Sexual Violence, complaining about victimisation on revenge porn sites, pressure to participate in or watch porn and repeated requests for sexualised photos.
This means today’s children are learning about sex from an early age but in an unhealthy and unrealistic way. On the other hand, learning about sex from parents and primary carers can have a positive foundational influence on children.
“Research reveals that early sexuality education from parents and primary carers influences children’s values and attitudes to relationships and sex,” Patricia explained to Christian media source Eternity News. “It can reduce the likelihood of sexual risk-taking behaviour, protect against sexual abuse and benefit healthy sexual development.”
“Many parents are rather shocked at how early I suggest they should start talking to their kids about sex,” agrees Meg Hickling in an article on Today’s Parent. “But what I also hear from parents is ‘I want to be first.’ If you want to be first, you have to make sure you’re first; otherwise kids will get their information and attitudes from other children and the media.”
Meg is a sexual health educator in Vancouver and author of The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It. Like Patricia, she believes it’s never too early to start introducing the human body and its functions to children.
“Children of Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2009) are the most digitally connected, socially informed, advertised and sexualised generation that ever walked this earth,” Patricia says on her website.
“As parents you have to be informed and connected with your children if you want them to grow as whole sexually healthy human beings capable of making informed biblical decisions about life. Ignorance is no longer an option. You are their primary sex educators.”
So, as awkward as it may initially feel, if you want to be able to talk to your teenagers, it’s probably time for you to start considering how you will introduce conversations about sex to your children in an age-appropriate manner.