Be an Askable Parent
Does your child feel it’s okay to talk with you about sex and sexual health? If not, have you thought about who will answer your child’s questions? Only you can tell your child that it’s okay to ask you questions. You want to become askable!
An askable parent:
- Shows respect, value, and love for children.
- Realizes that every difficult situation is not a crisis.
- Wants communication, but doesn’t expect to have all the answers.
- Knows the most important part of communication is listening.
- Doesn’t laugh when a child asks a question, even in reaction to the child’s cuteness.
- Doesn’t expect to be perfect, and knows that admitting mistakes is a valuable lesson for the child.
- Is sometimes embarrassed by questions about sex but acknowledges the discomfort and explains it to the child.
Loving and caring parents actively discover a child’s needs for information and then find ways to fill those needs. Even adolescents in their mid-teens are still learning from you.
What’s the best age to start teaching my child about sex?
You’ve already started! Young children learn by observing their parents. They watch how you dress and how you carry yourself. They see how you interact with the opposite sex; and they notice how you react to intimacy and affection. Now all you have to do is build on their observations.
How can I open the topic for discussion?
The first step is to understand how much your child already knows about sex, and the easiest way to do that is to be a good listener. Pay attention to what your child says to friends and siblings. From there, look for opportunities in everyday life to start a conversation. Remember, while we sometimes hear about having “the talk” with children about sex and sexual health, it is really a series of conversations that happen over time. Talking about sexual health is an ongoing discussion, and you can take many opportunities to continue the conversation.
There are Lots of Opportunities to Talk
- Go for a walk with your child…away from the house, the phone, the television and other family members.
- Turn off the radio in the car. Take advantage of the privacy to just talk.
- Find out if and when the topic will be addressed at school. Time your discussions to coincide with the information offered in the classroom.
- Television shows, books, movies, etc., provide plenty of situations you and your child can discuss.
How much should I tell my child?
Simply put, as much as she wants to know. A preschooler might want to know where babies come from and would be satisfied with a response such as, “a warm, safe place in mommy’s belly.” An older child’s questions would be more complex and require more detailed answers. A teenager needs answers to numerous sexual topics. Consider discussing:
- Anatomy and reproduction
- The physical and emotional differences between men and women
- Sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual behavior (oral sex, masturbation and petting)
- Fertility, pregnancy and birth control
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Sexual orientation and gender identity
- Self-respect, self-image and peer pressure
- Responsible behavior based on informed decisions
- Risky behaviors that can lead to pregnancy, STIs or abuse
Parents who are uncomfortable talking about sexual health may find it helpful to plan what they will say and how they might answer their child’s questions. When your child asks a question or does something that triggers a teachable moment, first make sure you know what the child is asking. Ask your child, “Do you mean…?” or “do you want to know about…?” After you’ve decided what to say, keep it short, simple and age appropriate—you don’t need to offer more information than you child wants or needs to know.
It’s equally important to prepare your emotional responses. It may be difficult to think of your child as a sexual being or to present yourself as one. Still, you know your child best and that puts you in the best position to answer his or her questions, resolve any confusion and share your feelings. Open communication and accurate information from you can help your child understand the impact of sexual activity, the benefit of waiting to have sex and the reasons why practicing safer sex is vital when he or she decides to become sexually active.
Research shows that teens are less likely to have sex at an early age if they feel close to their parents and if their parents clearly communicate their values.
Just Keep Talking
While talking to your child about sex and sexual health is important, it isn't necessarily easy for every parent. You may feel uncomfortable with the subject. But if you do, say so—your child will appreciate your honesty and your admission may even serve as an ice-breaker. Remember, talking about sex should be an ongoing conversation between you and your child, not an endurance contest for both of you trying to get through “the talk.”
What if I don’t know all the answers?
Then you’re like everyone else! Again, it might be helpful to prepare by doing a little homework before you talk to your child. Reach out to experts for the information you need. Other parents, teachers, members of the clergy, healthcare providers and the Internet are excellent sources of information and support.
When you talk to your child about sex, use the same open, honest communication skills you’d use when talking about any delicate topic.
- Be open, honest and available.
- Use words that are understandable and comfortable. Leave the technical jargon to the experts.
- Encourage your child to talk and ask questions. Listen to the answers.
- Try to determine what your child is really asking. Is he/she worried about being “normal”? Is there a moral, religious or cultural conflict? Does your child want to check his knowledge against yours? Listening – really listening – is the key to good communication.
- Maintain a calm, non-judgmental attitude. A sense of humor can relieve tension and facilitate discussion. It’s okay to talk about your own discomfort and make light of it.
- If you don’t have a ready answer, admit it. Offer to find the answer with your child or on your own.
- Above all, remind your child that you love and respect them and will always be there for them.
More Resources for Parents
iwannaknow.org: ASHA’s website designed for teens and young adults. The site offers comprehensive information on sexually transmitted infections and sexual health issues, from risk prevention to healthy relationships, geared toward a younger audience.
AMAZE uses digital media to provide children, adolescents, their parents and educators with medically accurate, affirming, and honest sexual health information along with free, engaging resources including age-appropriate animated videos for adolescents 10-14.
KidsHealth.org: The award-winning KidsHealth comes from Nemours, one of the largest nonprofit organizations devoted to children’s health.
Answer: Answer is a national organization dedicated to providing and promoting comprehensive sexuality education to young people and the adults who teach them.
Advocates for Youth, Parents Sex Ed center: Information and resources to begin talking with your children about sex. Includes sections on Growth and Development, Getting Started: Helping Parents and Children Talk, Other Important Topics in Sex Education and Advice from Parenting Experts.
Tools for Parents from Planned Parenthood. Offers advice to parents on talking to kids about sex and sexuality, setting healthy boundaries, and parenting LGBT and questioning kids.
There’s no place like home . . . for sex education: From Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon, There’s no place like home offers advice for parents on talking about sexual health, with specific information tailored for ages 3-18.(Note: There’s No Place Like Home for Sex Education is currently being updated. The revised English version should be available in late December, 2014.)