The New Sex Talk: 3 Tips to Get You Started

Times have changed, and so has how we talk to our kids about sex.

The summer before I started high school, unbeknownst to me, my mother tasked my father with giving me the “sex talk” on a six-hour road trip.

I had never kissed a boy, or seen an R-rated movie. We didn’t have the Internet yet. I didn’t know that people have sex for pleasure; that would be weird and gross. I honestly thought that sex was something adults did only a couple of times in their lives in order to have children.

About 20 minutes before we arrived at our destination, my dad said something like this: “Now that you are going to high school, boys are going to try to get you on the rack. Especially the older boys. Just say no.”

I gazed out at Highway 33, near Ojai, California, where ugly oil derricks were dunking their heads below the earth. Our old white Wagoneer was making a weird noise. I had no idea what my dad was talking about. Drugs, maybe?

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll say no,” I replied, still looking out the window.

One Thanksgiving dinner 22 years later, my dad used the phrase “he’s going to try to get her on the rack” again. The memory of that road trip when I was 14 years old came flooding back, and I finally realized what my dad was talking about all those years ago. I threw my head back and guffawed. My stoic German mother, usually highly composed, came undone when I told her why I was laughing. Two decades later, she was furious that no one had ever really talked to me about sex.

Needless to say, I’ve tried to be a bit clearer in discussing the birds and the bees with my own children, all teenagers now. Experts say kids do better when parents start talking to kids about the basic biology of sex when they are very young – as toddlers.

This post is for parents of kids who are starting to be exposed to the more complicated aspects of sexuality: pleasure and romance, unplanned pregnancy, “hooking up”, heartbreak – even prostitution and pornography. Most kids will learn about puberty, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases from their school’s sex ed program. But any kid who has ever seen even a fairly chaste romance movie knows that there’s a lot more to adult – and adolescent – sexuality than is taught formally at school. Part of the trick as a parent these days, I think, is in knowing what our kids are being exposed to at any given age. Here’s how to get started:

1. Ask questions and listen rather than simply sharing information. Here are some starter questions, which you’ll obviously have to modify based on the age and experience of your child:

  • “Do you know anyone who has watched porn? Where did they see it? How do you think it affected them?”
  • “What does it mean to ‘hook up’ among your friends?”
  • “How many of your friends are sexually active?” Or: “Do you think any of your friends are sexually active yet?” You could also ask if any of your child’s friends have kissed a boy or girl.

Brace yourself, and keep your best poker face on. Instead of instructing, just keep asking follow-up questions, such as “What do you think of that?” and “How does that make you feel?” If they tell you something concerning about a friend, inquire further. “Are you worried about her?” Or: “Do you think he needs help?”

Deal with discomfort by breathing deeply and slowly – not by preaching or avoiding the conversation. If we don’t stay relaxed, our kids will only remember that we nearly choked every time we tried to talk to them about sex. This will not make them likely to come to us when they have a pressing question or – heaven forbid – a serious problem in the sex department.

2. Foster closeness with your teen. Research shows that adolescents who have better relationships with their parents tend to have a lower likelihood of “early sexual intercourse initiation.” On the other hand, the same study showed that lower relationship quality and less parental monitoring increased the odds that a teen would initiate sex.

I try to spend a little bit of time every day alone with each of my kids, so that they always have a time when they know they can talk to me about their lives. We also have same gender “date nights” when I’ll take one of our daughters out to dinner and my husband will take our son out separately.

3. Don’t preach abstinence-only and forgo sharing other relevant information. Refrain from keeping kids in the dark about birth control and protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even if you believe abstinence is the best thing for your children.

Many parents fear sending a “mixed-message,” so the only message they send is that sex before marriage is not OK. But research clearly shows that teens in abstinence-only education programs are no more likely than those not in an abstinence-only program to delay sexual initiation, have fewer sexual partners, or abstain entirely from sex.

In other words, telling our children to remain abstinent doesn’t increase the odds that they will delay becoming sexually active, but it does deprive them of our guidance about sex. Instead of “Just say no,” give your kids guidelines for their sexual behavior while still giving them the information they need.

What do you most want your teen to know about sex? What are your expectations for them? You can give them information and still send a very clear message about what you think is best for them. Here is what I said to my kids once they got into high school: “I feel strongly that having sex while you are still a teenager is not likely to be in your best interest. That said, I want you to have information about birth control and STD protection, so that someday, when you are ready to have sex, you will be better prepared to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or disease.”

This new sex talk isn’t a lecture – mostly given to girls – but a series of short conversations that we have with our sons and daughters. Kids need our wisdom about how to know when they are ready for sex, and our advice on birth control. They need to talk to us about what they are seeing in the media, and how they experience their own sexuality. We need to talk to them about the pornography they’ve been exposed to. And they can benefit from hearing about our own experiences, both good and bad.

Just as we need to teach kids how to take care of their physical and emotional health, we parents need to teach our teens how to be healthy sexually. It’s hard to talk about sex with kids. It’s also the right thing to do. If you feel like you’re going to chicken out, simply take a deep breath. Feel your feet on the floor. You can do it.

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If you’re looking for more ways to deepen your emotional connection with your kids, I hope you’ll check out my online class, The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Join thousands of parents who have experienced a positive shift in their household as a result of skills they’ve learned in this comprehensive online class. Learn more or enroll now here.

This post was originally written for U.S. News & World Report.

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  • NotborninBerkeley

    I wonder why you say “having sex while you are still a teenager” is not in your children’s interests? At 18 they are fully adult yet still teenagers. Do you think it’s different if they wait until they’re 20? I find this blanket implication that a “teenager” is not an adult and should not be having sex very baffling. It extends childhood in ways that I don’t think are healthy and that in fact are in opposition to your usual position that parents encourage their offspring to gain maturity and independence.

    • Christine Carter

      I’m so surprised that more people haven’t pushed back on this. I agree with you — I also think it’s highly personal to the family and the kid. That’s just what I said to my kids when talking to them about high school, when they were still very young (basically, very naive 8th graders). It’s an example about how you can give them information without also confusing them (as the “mixed message” abstinence-only argument goes).

      As my kids have gotten older, our conversations have become more nuanced. And their actual experiences, and potential for experiences, has varied so much I personally wouldn’t just “ban” sex as a teenager (even though one of their high schools has done that) — as I think that would just shut the conversation down. Whether or not I personally think sex is appropriate for a teen is highly individual in our family, and I am certainly not saying my personal opinion for one of my particular teens should be right for others.

      • NotborninBerkeley

        Thank you for clarifying. I find your article itself very useful and appreciate your conversation starters. It’s much too easy to think sex education at school is covering the topic – but far from it!

  • Great advice for parents of teens and pre-teens – as well as those who have kids even younger. Our sex ed programs are beginning as early as grade one, so parents need to be one board with supporting schools in the messages kids hear at school, or at least putting their own family (religious, family values, cultural etc.) spin on that information. Thanks for sharing.