feet in a bed

What is sex education?

Inside:  Learn what sex education is and how you can have open and honest conversations with your child about sex, all while respecting your personal values. 

You're not alone if you're unsure about what sex education actually is. 

It can mean many different things. What it can mean to one person, will be different for another.

It also has a lot of different names as well...

sex education... sex ed... sexuality education... sexuality and relationships education... the talk... the birds and the bees... comprehensive sex education... respectful relationships... abstinence only education... virginity pledges...

So you're not alone if you're a little confused!

So in this article, we're going to look at the sex education that happens in the home. The type that happens when parents talk to their kids about love, sex, relationships and growing up.

Where the emphasis is on sexuality and not  sexual intercourse. 

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

Sex or sexuality?

Before we get started, it is really important that you are clear on the difference between sex and sexuality.

Despite having 'sex' in its name, sex is a small part of sex education.  A very small part!

Sex education is all about sexuality.

But what's the difference? Between sex and sexuality?

Sex is pretty simple. It is commonly  seen as sexual intercourse or activity (or sex). Or as biological sex i.e. the sex you were assigned at birth - male, female or intersex. You can read more in this article about gender and sex.

Sexuality is big. It is a bit like the 'tip of the iceberg' ie there is a lot more to it than you initially think.

iceberg

Sex is just the tip of the iceberg

Sexuality is much more than sexual intercourse and reproduction.

Using the Circles of Sexuality model, sexuality  is about sensuality, sexual intimacy, sexual identity, reproduction & sexual health and sexualisation.

  • Sensuality helps us to feel good about how our bodies look and feel and what they can do. It also allows us to enjoy the pleasure our bodies can give us and others. 
  • Sexual intimacy is the ability to be emotionally close to another human being and to accept closeness in return.
  • Sexual identity is a person’s understanding of who they are sexually, including a sense of gender. It  consists of three interlocking pieces that, together, affect how each person sees
    themself - gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation.
  • Reproduction & sexual health are a person’s ability to reproduce and the behaviors and attitudes that make sexual relationships healthy and enjoyable.
  • Sexualisation involves how we use our sexuality and may include manipulating or controlling others. it includes media images/messages, flirting, seduction, withholding sex, sexual harrassment , incest and rape. 

Sexuality influences how we view ourselves and our bodies, how we interact with each other, how we fit into the world and how we express ourselves as individuals.

 It's a dynamic process and changes as we learn and grow.

What sex education is

Sex education can mean many different things.

When we first think about it, we often think that sex education is when we first tell our kids about sex.

But that is only just a very small part of it.

Sex education is where you give your child the skills to form good friendships and to have healthy loving relationships i.e. to start their own family.

And as parents, we know that there is a lot more to sustaining a healthy relationship than just good sex!

And we don’t just do this with the one big long talk, like the ones that we received, back when we were kids ourselves.

Today it is about many small conversations that happen over a very long time.

Think about it for a moment.

Have you ever told your child to do something once? And they've remembered to do? I have told my kids a gazillion times to not leave their towels lying on the bathroom floor and they still don’t remember (or care).

So it is about lots of little small conversations that are repeated over a very long time.

family laughing together

Sex education is a lifetime of open and honest conversations.

Why you need to talk to kids about sex

So why do you need to talk to your child about sex?

Can’t you just let them pick it up by themselves?  Or leave it for school?

Well, you can, but in the world that we live in today, that isn’t a very good idea!

Kids are bombarded with sexualised messages from a very young age. The times have changed and we need to step in and help our kids to make sense of the sexualised messages that they hear each day from their friends and through the media. Today’s children hear about sexual behaviour a lot younger than we ever did. 

I didn’t know what oral sex was until my mid to late teens, but my daughter first heard about ‘blowjobs’ when she was 6! 

So as a parent, it is important that we step in and help our kids to process all the sexual information that they hear. To help them to make sense of it and to then promptly forget about it and move onto their next big worry, like, ‘What are we having for lunch today?’.

Research also tells us that there are a lot of benefits for kids who have received good sex education. Things like being happier with themselves, being able to talk to their parents about anything (eg bullying, worries, sexual abuse), being less vulnerable to sexual abuse, acceptance of diversity within themselves and their peers, and much more.

The benefits for the teenage years are the ones that I am looking forward to!

Research tells us that teens who have received good sex education are more likely to start having sex much later than their peers do, and when they do have sex, that they are more likely to be doing it because they want to (and not because of peer group pressure). Plus they are less likely to catch any sexually transmitted infections and to fall pregnant accidentally. 

Now, that sounds pretty good to me!

When to start talking to kids about sex

So when do you start sex education?

Theoretically, sex education starts from when our kids are very young.

We are 'doing' sex ed when we teach our kids the names of their body parts, when we help them to name their feelings, when we teach them that they need to keep their clothes on when they are at the shops, and so on. You can read more in this article, about the different things to talk about

In our own childhood, our parents didn’t talk to us about sexual intercourse or reproduction until puberty, when we received ‘the talk’ or learnt about 'the birds and bees'. 

Today it is very different, because we have realised that kid's also need to learn how to have healthy and respectful relationships.  And those skills take many lessons to learn.

Today, we start a lot earlier, and we slowly provide kids with information that is designed to satisfy their natural curiosity but to also keep them safe. It is about lots of small, frequent conversations that you keep on repeating.

So when kids first start asking about where babies come from, we slowly start to talk about how babies are made, telling them in a way that they understand. We don’t start talking about sexual intercourse until they are curious about how the baby actually gets into the mummies tummy! 

If the thought of explaining sexual intercourse to your child is terrifying, then you might find my parent guide, Let's Talk About Sex, helpful as it breaks  the chat down into 5 simple steps.

If you're  thinking that yoru child isn't quite ready for sex education, you'll find a quiz in this article, that will help you work out if your child is ready to hear about sex (or not).

Who should be talking to kids about sex

I am a firm believer that sex education should start in the home.

Parents have long been recognised as a child's first source of information about sexuality. 

From the moment your child is born, you are teaching them about love, touch, and relationships. As they grow from a baby to a toddler to a preschooler, you are teaching them as you talk to them, dress them, show affection, and teach them the names of the parts of their bodies. As they reach puberty and grow into teenagers, they'll continue to receive messages from you about sexual behaviours, attitudes, and values.

But kids don't just learn about sexuality from you in the home. As they grow older, they begin to have more and more contact with the outside world. Your kids will also learn about sexuality from other sources such as friends, television, music, books, advertisements and the Internet. And depending on what school they go to, they may learn about sexuality through planned classes in school.

If you want to have any influence on your child’s sexual behaviour and attitudes, you need to be sharing your own sexual values and beliefs with them.

If you don’t talk to your child about what sexual behaviours and attitudes are okay and not okay, they will have to work it all out by themselves. And the decisions that they make will be heavily influenced by what their friends do, by what they see on tv and in the music that they listen to, and by what they read on the internet. So if you want to have any influence on what your kids get up to, you need to be talking.

Once kids go to school, they may (or may not) receive some sex education at school. Often though, it doesn’t start until secondary school. And then, it is usually focused on the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. School sex ed is a good thing though, because kids eventually get to an age where they don’t want to get information from you. So school programs can often be a good source of information or teens.

It is still important though to be talking to your own kids first.

It isn’t the information that we give our kids that is important.

It is the fact that we are talking to our kids that really matters. And by talking to our kids about the tricky stuff, like sex, drugs, porn, puberty, we are giving our kids the message that they can come and talk to us about anything!

Which is a good thing!

teacher at school

Not all schools provide sex education. And what they teach can differ greatly.

What to talk to kids about

Sex education can include chats about many different things.

So for young children, it is about learning:

  • which adults they can talk to about bodies, touch and feelings
  • to recognise and to manage feelings
  • how to relate well to other people
  • the names and functions of the male and female body parts
  • which body parts are private and public
  • about public and private behaviours and places
  • about the different types of touch and rules about touch

The important thing to remember though, is that it is more than just teaching facts. It is also about allowing your child to feel good about being a boy or a girl, to appreciate their own body, to practice making healthy decisions, to develop & maintain healthy relationships and to show love and affection appropriately.

It's also important to talk about more than just the facts, and to also share your feelings, values, attitudes and beliefs, and to explain why you feel the way you do about certain topics.

There are a number of ways that you can do this. The approach that is recommended today is based on making sexuality a natural part of our everyday parenting. This means that we take advantage of the daily opportunities to chat, provide comments, answer their questions, and even ask questions ourselves.

All of this helps to make you an askable parent. By askable, I mean that your kids see you as being approachable and open to questions about sexuality. This can be difficult  as most adults received little or no information about sex in their own childhood. It isn't all that surprising that most parents find sexuality an embarrassing and difficult subject to talk about.

You can work out what your child is interested in, by knowing what stage of sexual development they are in. This way, you can talk to them about what you know they are interested in. 

How to talk to kids about sex

Just like parenting, there is more than one way to do sex education. 

Every kid is different and some kids are more mature and ready to learn about sex than other kids.

And some kids may be more curious about some things, depending on where they live. 

For example, I live in the inner city and we have a sex shop one block away, brothels 3 blocks away and street prostitutes at the park across the street (and I live in a nice part of town!). So in my house, we talk about things like sex toys and prostitution because my kids are asking questions abo what they see. If we lived in another part of town, I can guarantee that we wouldn’t be talking about this stuff at such a young age. But because my kids see it, they ask about it. So I satisfy their curiosity with age-appropriate information that helps them to make sense of what they see. 

It is also important that you answer their questions. If they are curious about where babies come from, it means that they want to know that it takes a part from a man and a part from a woman to make a baby. We don’t talk to them about sex until they want to know about how the baby actually gets inside the woman.

If they don’t ask questions, you can start the conversation with books, by finding everyday opportunities from which you can start a conversation.

Before you start sex education though, there are some principles that you need to keep in mind:

  • You will feel embarrassed – but the more you talk, the less embarrassed you will feel!
  • If you tell your child something that they aren’t ready for, they won’t remember it! It will go in one ear, and out the other!
  • It is about lots of small, frequent chats – and repetitive!
  • Keep it super simple – at a level that your child will understand!
  • Be honest – if they are old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to know the answer!
  • Look for everyday opportunities that you can use for a teachable moment! If you see a pregnant lady walking down the street, point her out and say ‘Why do you think that lady has a big tummy?’ and start talking about pregnancy.
  • Start building up a library of sex education books that will help you with initiating a conversation with your child. You can find some great sex education books for children.
  • Before answering their question, ask them ‘What do you think?’ first. This way you can find out what they already know and what exactly is it that they are wanting to know.
  • If you don’t know the answer to their question, tell them you will get back to them and find the answer!
  • And remember – you want to be approachable ie you want your kids to know that they can talk to you about anything

Resources

My mission is to create resources that will help you to naturally talk to your kids about sex, all while respecting your personal values.

Which means that inside this website, you'll find lots of resources to help you with talking to your child about love, sex, relationships and growing up.

My Sex Education 101 page includes all of the information on sex education. You'll find lots of different blogposts to help with getting started, on a wide range of different topics.

You'll find videos about sex ed in my Sex Education Videos resource page that you can watch with your child or to learn more about sex education yourself.

You’ll also find an extensive range of sex education books for children, for kids of all ages. There's even some books in there for parents!

If you're looking for some ideas on how to talk to your child about bodies, How to Talk to Kids About Bodies, will help you to start naming the private body parts and to have shame-free conversations with them about bodies. It is filled with lots of different ideas on how to have natural converasations with your child about their body. 

You'll also find some child friendly anatomically-correct cartoon illustrations of the genitals and internal reproductive organs that are appropriate for children from the age of 3 and up. Let's Look at Different Body Parts is a printable that will help take the awkward out of talking to your child about their body, so they grow up feeling educated, confident, and comfortable in their own skin.

If you need some help with explaining sexual intercourse to your child, then How to Talk to Kids About Sex, will help you explain sex to your child in a way they will understand. It breaks it down into simple steps that  take the stress out of explaining!

If you're unsure about how to answer your child's questions about sex, then I have a number of different resources that will give you word-for-word answers that are age specific.

If you want a printed book to hold in your hands, then the  The Sex Education Answer Book will give you age-specific answers to the most common questions kid's ask parents about sex. Which means you don't need to worry about finding a child-friendly explanation that your child understands. 

If you want the answers to questions about a lot more than just sex, then Sex Ed Quickies is your best option. It has answers to 300+ questions  that kids commonly ask parents,  including how babies are made, sexual intercourse, body parts, puberty, relationships, pregnancy, birth, masturbation, sexual diversity, gender, pornography, STIs, contraception and much more.

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 empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. To find a better way to talk about sex, you can join my community of parents and visit my shop for helpful resources.

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