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Talking to kids about sex: when are kids ready?

One of the tricky parts of being a parent, is when should you start talking to kids about sex.  Are they ready to hear about this sort of stuff? There are a  lot of reasons why parents struggle with talking to kids about sex, and we worry about whether they are ready to hear about this sort of stuff!

A parent sent me a question recently, asking me how would they know when their kids would be ready to learn about sex.

So… when do we know that it is safe to start talking to kids about sex?

There is no hard and fast rule about when it is safe to start talking about sex with kids. It depends on a whole wide range of  factors: whether your kids mix with older kids, do they go to school, do they listen to music on the radio or watch tv, the neighbourhood that you live in….

I live in the inner city and we have quite a few ‘sex shops’, brothels and sex workers on the street. My kids have known about prostitution and sex toys well before they would normally become interested in this sort of thing. But because they see it, they ask questions about it. The challenge for me as a parent is to provide them with age-appropriate information about a topic that is not age-appropriate.

You’ll find more information about sex education in my Sex Education 101 page.

Mind you, some questions I do brush off! Like the Sunday afternoon, someone set up a small tent in our local park, next to the playground. It was moving rather rhymically on a non-windy day. I was  quite intrigued by this, and sat and watched (I had my suspicions but i thought ‘no, surely not’ and not right next to the children’s playground!). Five minutes later a couple emerged, money was exchanged, the tent was bundled up, and they both went separate ways. The questions from my kids about that episode, I did brush off as I was struggling with the inappropriateness of the situation myself (ie once I stopped laughing, that is!).

So, back to the point of this blog post, when it comes to talking to kids about sex, kids will usually let you know when they are ready. And they do this by asking questions.

Some kids ask questions and some kids don’t ask questions, but this  doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t interested!

Kids that ask questions

If you are lucky, you will have a kid who will start to ask questions. When kids become curious about things, like where babies come from, they will usually start to ask questions.

If they are asking a question about something, it means that it is something that they want to know more about. It is a clear sign that it is time to start talking to kids about sex. It may be something that they are naturally curious about, like where do babies come from. Or it may be something that they aren’t naturally curious about, but have heard something that they don’t understand, like oral sex or pornography.

Research and anecdotal evidence tells us about healthy child sexual development. And as a child develops sexually, they start to display certain sexual behaviour and to be curious about certain topics eg a 4 year old is usually very interested in where babies come from.

So, why are you lucky if you have a kid that asks questions?? Because, you can just answer their questions and talk about the stuff that they are interested in. You don’t need to remember to talk about where babies come from because your child has started the conversation for you!

Plus, you can control the information that they are receiving and make sure that it is age-appropriate! And they see you as a reliable source for information! Pretty important if you want to control the information that they receive.

It also means that your child knows that you are open to talking about stuff – if they can talk to you about sex, most kids know that they can then talk to you about anything!

Some kids don’t ask questions

Some children don’t ask a lot of questions about sex and relationships, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested. They may have picked up the message that this isn’t an okay subject to ask about. When this happens, you need to take the initiative and raise the subject yourself.  By doing this, you are giving your child the clear message that this is a subject that you are happy and willing to discuss.

When kids don’t ask questions, it can be hard to know if talking to kids about sex, is the right thing to do. And how do you know what they are are (and aren’t) ready to hear?  It can be difficult to know where to start when your child doesn’t provide you with any clues, when it comes to talking to kids about sex.

But what if it isn’t an age-appropriate topic?

In this sexualised world that we live in, kids are hearing about sex related stuff much earlier than they probably should be hearing about it. Once they start mixing with other children, going to school, accessing the internet, listening to mainstream music and watching tv/movies/cartoons, your child will be exposed to messages about sex.

Which means that they may be coming to you with their questions about what they hear. Now, kids are naturally curious about sexuality at different ages and stages. They start off wanting to know about where babies come from and as they understand, they then progress onto how babies are made, eventually progressing onto sexual intercourse.

The problem though, is that they may have heard about stuff (eg oral sex) before they are interested in the different ways that we can express sexual attraction. Kids hear about sex stuff , that they are not ready for, every day! And it is natural for them to be curious about stuff that they don’t understand.

Your job as a parent, is to provide your child with an age-appropriate  answer based on a topic that is clearly not age-appropriate. It is important that you do give them an answer, as your child needs to know that you are a reliable source for information. And if they come to you with their questions, you can give them age-appropriate information that will help them to process the sexualised messages that they are hearing everyday!

So how do you know when they are ready, again?

At the end of the day, you can’t stop your child from hearing about sex related stuff that they are just not ready for. But you can help your child to process the sexualised messages, by answering their questions about what they hear.

And you  can answer their questions when they ask them – whether they are age-appropriate or not. Have a look at this age by age guide on talking to kids about sex, for a guide on what you could be talking about.

So, when are kids ready to hear about sex? If you are lucky, they’ll let you know with their questions. Otherwise, if you have a kid who just doesn’t ask questions, you just need to be aware of what they may be interested in. This is where books come in handy, and you can find some great books on talking to kids about sex in this parent  resource – Sex Education Books for Children: A Parent Guide.

About the Author Cath Hakanson

I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and to empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. You can join my online parent support group here and visit my shop for helpful resources.

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