SEX: Kids have questions—You’ve got answers

Dear Duana,

My husband and I want our kids, ages 5 through 11, to delay sex at least until college.  But he thinks it’s too soon to talk, and that The Talk “just gives them permission”.  I think if we want our kids to have our values later, we must become the go-to resource now.  Your column is about adult relationships, but we are trying to create tomorrow’s functional adults, so I am hoping you’ll tell me whether, what, when, and how we tell our kids about S-E-X?

The Mom

Dear The Mom,

As the t-shirt says, “You can’t scare me, I’ve got kids.”  But you *can* scare us about our kids, especially when it comes to their burgeoning sexuality.    Although over half of USA high-schoolers are virgins, the non-abstinent are having intercourse younger than ever before –age 15, on average—more often, with more partners, and are sans protection 1/3 to half the time.  So now, 2/3 of sexual diseases are diagnosed in the under-25 set , and US teens have 6x as many pregnancies as those in liberal Sweden (!). 

And early sex with many partners is a long-term intimacy risk, potentially undermining eventual marital stability by eroding the perception that sex and fidelity are a Big Deal.  To wit, in one study, among women who had sex at/before age15, 48% had affairs later…3x as many as those who were virgins ‘til 21.    

Fortunately, there is a prophylactic for this misery:  You and The Dad.  When parents Talk, kids typically not only wait longer to have sex—they have fewer partners, avoid high-risk behaviors, and use contraception

Here’s how to Talk Sex (and, of course, Listen, Listen, Listen):     

                      Talk Early:

The perfect time to begin is when your kids start asking…usually by age 4.   First questions are often direct and simple, ala “Why do I have a wee wee, and Sister doesn’t?”  or, “How did the baby get inside the mommy?”    

If age 6 has come and gone without questions, the time is Right Now.  The sooner you start, the easier it gets and the more impact you’ll have.  Plus, it lets you prepare them for things kids don’t know to ask about until after they’ve been scared witless—such as wet dreams, first ejaculation, and first menstruation. 

With young kids, you can say, “What do you know about where babies come from?”  Just asking the question, and answering it plainly and openly, will say you’re their go-to. 

With older kids, you can start, “Just like we talk about everything else, I’m here to answer your questions about sex.  What do you know about it already?  What do you want to know?”  If you’re uncomfortable, it might soothe your kid’s nerves (and yours) to acknowledge it:  “Nobody talked to me about sex, so I might be uncomfortable sometimes, just like this might be awkward for you.  But I want to listen and do my best to answer you.  What are your questions?”  And if there aren’t any, revisit it in a few days with a topic or two you’ve picked.    

                       Talk Often:

The most influential Talk extends from toddlerhood through early adulthood in a string of opportunity-inspired conversations.  Did your zoo outing reveal beastly behavior?  Talk.  Did your daughter witness your period?  Talk.  Did your son log on to Ho’sForHire?  Talk (and update your net nanny).    

                        Talk Values:

When it comes to your sexual values and expectations, You’re The Experts.  But if you don’t show ‘n tell, it’s hard for your kids to adopt your views—especially as peers and programming rush to fill the void.  “We expect you to wait until high school is finished before you have sex, no matter what anyone else is doing or how much you want to do it.  Let’s discuss why that’s so important,” is a conversation you can begin with your oldest child now.       

Research suggests a few specifics you might want to address.  For instance, kids whose parents stress personal responsibility for sexual and other behavior tend to avoid pregnancy and infection.  And parents need to keep an ongoing dialog about alcohol and school performance, too—more use of the former and less achievement with the latter are tied to everything that makes Daddies want to wield a cudgel. 

But it’s best to avoid guilt-mongering; your kids might wait, but if they don’t, science shows they probably won’t use protection, and guilt is not the best trip towards further communication.  Or healthy adult sexuality. 

Speaking of which, it’s important to acknowledge sex’s  emotional and positive aspects.   Someday, your kids are going to grow up and be Ready—and you’ll want them to cherish the lifetime bond that willing, joyful sex helps to create and continue. 

                       Talk Contraception:

If you’re like most American adults, you’d prefer that schools teach about contraceptives as disease-and-pregnancy prevention—and your kids’ school can’t, doesn’t, or won’t.  Even if you value abstinence as the only acceptable path, you can’t trust its being taught as you would prefer.  Bizarrely, some abstinence-only courses do not define abstinence—resulting, in one Love Scientist’s observation, in too many college students who are shocked when told that pulling out doesn’t qualify.    

Fortunately, though, you don’t need to wait for the school district to come around; your kids will (inwardly) thank you for talking Condom Sense.  And they will become more—not less—likely to abstain from the behavior that necessitates contraceptives to begin with.  To wit, almost 90% of middle-schoolers in a national survey said they’d feel better-able to wait and to prevent pregnancy if only their parents would teach them about contraception.  And no study has found increased promiscuity tied to contraceptive education in school districts or at home.  

So, The Mom, thank you for broadening our view of Relationships.  These discussions may be cringe-worthy to start, but they’re vital in sustaining some of the most intimate, loving connections we can have—those with our children, and theirs with their own eventual mates and kids.  Your kids have questions.  They’re lucky to have you and The Dad for answers.    



If this article intrigued, surprised or enlightened you, please click “Share Article” below to link it with your favorite social media website.

All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D. and Love Science Media, 2010

Do you have a question for Duana?  Contact her at

The author wishes to acknowledge the following scientists and sources:

—Centers For Disease Control, 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, for data regarding percentage of abstinent and active youth

Brooke E. Wells & Jean M. Twenge, for data showing that the average age of first intercourse is now 15—three years sooner than at the peak of the Sexual Revolution

American Academy of Pediatrics, and Freya L. Sonenstein, for showing that teens are failing to use protection between 1/3 and half the time

American Social Health Association, for data indicating that  2/3 of sexual diseases are diagnosed in persons under age 25 in the USA

Jacqueline E. Darroch and others, for data on national differences in the pregnancy rates among teens in various Westernized nations

Shirley Glass, for summarizing research showing the connection between early promiscuity and later infidelity for men and women

—Robert J. Levin and Amy Levin, for national research into infidelity rates among women with varying ages of sexual intercourse initiation 

 —Bonnie L. Halpern-Felsher; Sally T. Lehr;  and many others, for research showing that parental involvement in children’s sexual education helps kids not only wait longer to have sex, but encourages fewer partners, less risk-taking, and more contraception use

Floyd L. Martinson, for data regarding when kids first ask questions about sex 

—Robert L. Crooks & Karla Baur, for their text cataloging the things kids need to know but won’t know to ask; for thoroughly reviewing the impact of parental and school sexual education of children; and for describing the ongoing nature of parent-child sex talks

Susan Sprecher and others, for finding out whom young adults point to as their main influence on sexual matters

—D. J. Whitaker and others, for data showing that emphasis on personal responsibility is associated with risk avoidance

David G. Myers, for summarizing research on the relationship between alcohol and unprotected teen sex, and guilt and unprotected teen intercourse

Jonathan D. Klien, for describing how higher school performance is related to waiting longer for sexual intercourse

Bill Albert, for a national survey on middle-schoolers that showed 87% wanted and valued parental sexual advice, particularly about contraception


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Reader Comments (31)

I absolutely think that starting these discussions early (much earlier than you think is necessary!) is what sets the tone for later discussions. Demystifying the topic of sexuality, and making it seem like just another (slightly awkward) thing that you talk about with your kids makes it that much more likely they'll come to you when they have Really Big Important Questions. And the good news is that after a kid or two (or in my case four....) the conversations get less and less uncomfortable, and the littles join in conversations-in-progress that the bigs continue as the years go on. In other words, it becomes just part of what your family talks about, and not something that sticks out as The Talk. Here we are, still working out our own adult feelings about sexuality, so obviously it's not a one time discussion! It's an on-going dialog that I hope to have with my children for a long time to come!

May 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

OMGosh. What rock was I born under.

I had no idea "the talk" should be an ongoing matter. But it makes perfect sense. I assumed "the talk" would be an uncomfortable 10-minute explanation, delivered around the time that Nature delivered my daughter's first period.

Needless to say, my own parents didn't model this subject very well for me. In fact, I don't recall having "the talk" in my house at all. One day, around age 10, my sister and I discovered a book "The Joy of Sex" (complete with extensive illustrations) on my parents' bookshelf. I remember some of the pictures feeling very scary at that age. We also discovered Playboy Magazines piled neatly in the cabinet in my parents' bathroom above the toilet. My sister and I used to sneak peeks at the centerfolds. We wanted assurances that we were developing normally. Well, we didn't look like those models, that's for sure.

And there was all sorts of misinformation at school. For example, In Junior High, one very popular boy was well-known for carrying a condom in his wallet. He insisted that any girl he was "going with" had to "do it" with him because "his buzzard ailed him." ("Buzzard" was his pet name for his penis.) I actually believed his line that if a guy didn't relieve his buzzard with a girl, he would suffer physical pain, become ill, or die. One of my girlfriends insisted that the boy was wrong: the condom was supposed to go over the girl's breasts, not the boy.

I would laugh, except it's not funny. The amount of misinformation was shocking.

We did have a "health class" at school, which taught the girls about mentruation (we watched a film), but in the 1970's in public schools I don't recall much discussion at school regarding sex education. And, as I pointed out, I didn't get it at home, either.

For the longest time, I thought the term "oral sex" referred to something that was made-up, i.e., impossible. When people would speak of it, I was confused. I remember being shocked when I found out the truth of its actual definition.

So .... fast forward 40 years. My own daughter is age 9. She has not come to me with any questions or voiced any curiosity about sex (I'm sure my own queasiness may subconsciously color this ...), though I know she must hear things, and like me at her age, she must wonder. So, thank you for the research that gives me the kick in the pants I need to open this conversation.

I'm thinking of buying an age-appropriate book and leaving it available where she will find out.

Any recommendations for such a book?

May 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA Mom

Dear Leslie, I was trying to find something in your response that stood out as particularly relevant so I could re-emphasize it here, luck. Everything you said was spot-on perfect.

And I agree with you that 4 or 6 is even unneccessarily late; Love Science is based on science data and opinions arising from those, and it seems that there is some agreement in the scientific community that "when kids ask" is a good time to launch the Series O' Sex Talks. But my own opinion and personal practice is to see sexuality as something that is a part of our lives, cradle to grave, and to therefore work in acknowledgements and life lessons as they arise...even prior to age 4. You're right, it just becomes an on-going conversation that is as natural

Thanks again for a great contribution.

Dear A Mom,
I read your poignant and often hilarious letter with a mixture of recognition, sympathy, and anticipation. The anticipation was, of course, that you've opened the door for me to reveal so much more about the science ;).

But first, to answer your question about book recommendations: I don't actually have just one (gasp!).

That's because choosing a book (or series of books) is really so personal. What book you pick depends on the kids' ages, what they might already know, and your own value system. There's a book for every possible audience and every possible age, including adults.

That said, writing this article convinced me that *I* want to provide some more comprehensive sex ed for my kids (ages 8 and 12)--so I am getting two of the three books in Robie Harris' acclaimed series: "It's So Amazing" for 4th and 5th graders ( and "It's Perfectly Normal" for pre-teens (see it at

Harris has also authored a book for younger children, "It's Not The Stork", but in my opinion, it looks a bit young for a 9-year-old and might be better for ages 4-8:

And I've heard good things about Lynda Madaras' book series, which you can preview here:

There's also an interfaith-based but non-dogmatic series that's received international acclaim: Our Whole Lives. This comprehensive sexuality education program is broken down into modules appropriate to every age, kinder through mature adult, and is taught at the Unitarian Universalist Church (for those who don't want to Do It Yourself). You can read a bit of information about it here: (This is the link to the parent guide for k-4; it presumes you are looking to educate yourself about how to educate your child.)

Of course, you can preview all of these and more by going through interlibrary loan at your local library, and then elect to purchase the one(s) you prefer.

Finally--since you didn't ask, lol--I would advise *giving* the book to your daughter, rather than letting her find it; the latter approach could add to any impression she already has that Sex Is Dirty & Should Be Hidden. Instead, you could tell her something along these lines:

"Sweetheart, you are growing up, and you might be curious about some things we've never discussed. You have probably heard some things about sex, right? (Await embarrassed response.) Well, I would like to talk about what you've heard, and be the one you trust for your questions about sex, just like I'm the one you trust for everything else. Nobody ever talked to me about it, so I haven't known what to say to you.
"So, we are going to start out by reading this book and talking about it. Here it is. Let's read some of it together in a couple hours. You can look at it 'til then, if you like."

Good luck, A Mom, and kudos to you for beginning this series of talks with your child. Please write back and let me know how it went, which book you chose--and how you liked it.

A Mom, your letter brought up some other vital points research has addressed, including the fact that it's common for parents to assume one or more of the following:

a) If I don't tell my kids about sex, then they will remain unaware of it.

Scientific reality: If we don't tell our kids, others will--and what they tell is almost certainly NOT what we would approve.

In the absence of parental influence, Susan Sprecher and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that today's USA kids say their #1 and #2 sources of sexual information are their peers and the media.

Peers matter: Not only do they give grossly inaccurate information (as you so aptly experienced), but in 2006, Sieving and others found that if a girl or boy had friends who were sexually experienced, the more such friends they had, the more likely they themselves were to have sex within the course of the study.

And programming matters: Unlike when you and I grew up, the media is a much greater and much more inaccurate source of misinformation and influence than ever before. Think of the shows that aired when you were a child--where belly buttons could not be displayed, and even the married could not appear to sleep in the same bed. Now picture today's cell phones, where kids surf the 'net unsupervised and post pornographic photos as their phone's wallpaper. It's a Terrifying New World.

The reasons unfettered access to sexual programming is problematic are many: First, kids learn scripts for what their sexual behavior should be like from media exposure--and the scripts are based on anything but reality. For instance, in the real world, most of the sex is being had by married people who use protection; in the digital world, the opposite is true.

Second, kids learn inaccurate stereotypes from the media--such as the body image problems you developed from Playboy, or the penis size and performance issues boys get from watching porn.

Also, kids who view the most sexual content are the ones who start sex sooner (Collins et al., 2004). And this is *not* merely correlational. Experiments show that exposure to sexual behavior on TV causes more permissive sexual attitudes towards nonmarital sex (Bryant & Rockwell, 1994).


Parental assumptions b, c, and d, per the science, are:
b) If I tell my kids, they will think I approve of their having sex
c) The influences Out There (peers, media) are so profound, whatever I say won't make a difference
d) My kids really don't want to hear whatever I have to say about sex

Scientific reality:

As the article shows, kids actually delay starting sex, have sex with fewer partners when they do start, and keep themselves safe the more their parents talk with them. The more often parents speak with the kids, the truer that is. And that's vital on every level--from disease and preg prevention, to emotional development and future happiness (or, as a reader wrote to me privately, "Knowledge is power and blissful ignorance frequently precludes future bliss.").

And Parents' Influence Is MORE Important Than Media Influence--*if* the parents choose to express their values, and comprehensively address not only what sex entails (and what its dangers are), but also the contraceptive facts and emotional and pleasurable aspects of sexuality.
A national study by Albert in 2004 showed that nearly half of middle-schoolers said that their *parents* were the single greatest influencers of the kids' sexual decision-making. Given that a third or more of kids say their folks *never* talk to them about sex, it may be appropriate to assume that the near-half of kids who follow their parents' preferences are the ones who know what those preferences and expectations are.

If any of us thinks our kids will simply tune us out--think again. Kids *want* our input, but by middle school, they're unlikely to ask for it because because by then, they have developed specific fears: fears that they will be embarrassed, be misunderstood, or be presumed sexually active (Lederman et al., 2008).

Kids also prefer *both* their parents talk to them about sex--yet even in families where sex and sexuality are discussed, it's mostly Mom doing the talking. Time for The Dad to get more involved, even if he has to take a major chill pill first!


Finally, many parents assume that
e) I don't need to get involved in my kids' sex ed. The schools take care of that!

The scientific reality is, that's inaccurate on many levels:

--No matter how comprehensive the schools' education is, it leaves out the positives and emotional side of sex and sexuality, aspects which are important for kids' development into adults who are ready to have a great relationship with a mate.

--Because federal funding in the past several years has supported abstinence-only education (despite studies showing that as many as 90% of parents prefer comprehensive education, particularly for high-schoolers), most of the available courses do not discuss contraception. Those that do, stress the failure rates of contraception--causing many kids to assume that "what the hey, condoms don't work anyway, so I'll just go without (without condoms...not sex)".

And imagine my surprise when, to prepare for this column, I went to a local public school to review their abstinence-only program--only to find that *abstinence was nowhere defined*. The course literally said "Be Abstinent" but did not say what that meant.

No wonder, then, that my college students (who went through these programs) routinely assume that pulling out, oral sex, and anal sex all qualify as abstinent. And studies bear out that ignorant kids are in fact doing those very behaviors while believing themselves virginal and safe.

--Finally--by the time schools become involved in sex ed, even the best program is too late. Our kids need to hear about sex early and often, from us, for maximum impact and imparting not only preventive behaviors--but also for adopting values that only we can pass on.

Go team Duana! Preach it, sister!

My parents didn't tell us much about sex -- they both thought that they were totally open about it with us, and we think it's kind of hilarious that they thought we'd ever have dreamed of asking them anything whatsoever about sex.

Fortunately, I got access to a copy of The Joy of Sex when I was 11 and read it about 50times. It was very positive about sex but discussed it mainly in terms of grownups in long term monogamous relationships. Among other things, it convinced me that the smelly, yell-y, annoying creatures that were teenage boys would be incapable of actually doing anything like a good job of making sex worth my while.

One huge caveat: both old and new editions of TJoS repeat the myth that using, ahem, female personal novelty devices to maximize enjoyment might somehow interfere with later sensitivity. This is a load of BS, and the last thing a parent should do is allow a teenager to be scared off of masturbation. Masturbation is a profoundly important aid to abstenence. Kids need to know that it is a safe and healthy option as long as it is kept profoundly private. My whole first marriage could have been avoided had I known that. (Not kidding.)

My mom did me one huge favor -- she mentioned to me quite a few times (before I hit puberty) that as a girl she had found a friend's dad's Playboy collection and that it was important for girls to know that those photos are not realistic. They used to use dozens of rolls of film (when they used film) and then the resultant handful of ideal pics were airbrushed with a heavy hand. It's important that girls know that not only are the ideals held up by Maxim and Victoria's Secret not realistic, they aren't even *real*. It takes a lot of body makeup to make someone who eats like a model look healthy on the runway.

It strikes me as hilarious (and sad) that we believe strongly that we must educate our children thouroughly about drug and alcohol abuse so that they are less likely to do drugs or binge-drink but we also think that explaining the pluses and minuses of sex will make them do it. Again, what a load of BS.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER, PEOPLE! Between The Joy of Sex and the chart giving the failure rates on birth control that I found in one of my mom's women's magazines, I waited quite a while to "get busy" -- because I knew that it wasn't something that a 17 year old boy would be either an expert on or a reliable partner for.

BTW, another vital thing: One friend of mine made a "pact" with another adult friend (it has to be someone truly trustworthy) to provide birth control, if needed, for each other's teens. That is, the teens had it explained to them that if they chose to be sexually active, they could go to the *other* mom and ask for help. Both moms were totally sworn to secrecy -- no tattling allowed! This was set up to make sure those teens had a reliable source of birth control AND knew that their parents took the matter seriously. The "if you can't stay abstinant, be smart" approach seems to have worked.

Another friend simply bought a bunch of condoms and individual packets of lube, put them in a basket in the hall closet, and announced to her three teenage sons that she hadn't counted them but would replenish them whenever they expired. If nothing else, this gave her kids the vital knowledge that CONDOMS HAVE AN EXPIRATION DATE.

Why do I think these moms were brilliant? Because they wanted very much for their kids to have no excuse to skip the birth control! I can't tell you how many good Christian abstinence-only kids I knew who would semi-consiously set things up so that sex would "just happen," as in "we didn't mean for it to happen, it just did."

I heard so many "confessions" about these things as a teen that I began to think all teens but myself were complete idiots. They weren't all idiots, actually, but they were going on some sort of idea that it was morally better to stray "accidentally" than to plan enough to have a condom handy. Or as one pregnant teen famously told her mom, "Of course we didn't use birth control, that's a sin!"

So make sure your kids know enough to know that if you can't talk to your partner about birth control and/or safer sex, then you don't know that person well enough to have sex with them. This is something that is just as true for those who wait until college and beyond as it is for teens, so teach them whether you are dead set on absinence only or not. There is nothing in the world wrong with teaching your kids that sex should never be an "accident." That kind of accident leads to other accidents, as well as STDs.

This is too long already, so I can't hurt it by adding: make sure your kids know that other teens and adults may not know what the heck abstinence is. A guy who honestly believes that pulling out makes him "abstinent" will not know that he could easily be carrying an STD that he might share with your daughter, regardless of whether the uneducated one and said girl are 18, 25, or 70 (don't ask about how many of the elderly don't understand safe sex, that's a whole other column).

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMocha's Mom

Mocha's Mom, You make a number of valid points, particularly about masturbation (which we will cover in another column or three); the fallacy of parents who Offer To Be There For Your Questions --and then never actually tell the kids anything (!); and the complex role religion plays in abstinence.

It's hard to find *anyone*, regardless of religion--from heads of state to heads of households--who doesn't want kids to have as few partners as possible, as late as possible. It is simply a huge public health concern in addition to being vital to our kids' future ability to sustain a solid relationship.

That said, religion both helps and hinders abstinence. On the one hand, research shows that kids who are the most religiously active (that is, the ones who attend services weekly or oftener) tend to wait the longest to start having sex. BUT not always--and even then, they usually don't wait until marriage--and when they don't, there's the rub.

They are more likely, because of guilt induced in their religion, to not use any sort of protection. The chain of illogic runs this way: Birth control requires planning; planning indicates premeditation; premeditation is evil; but Just Letting It Happen is less wrong.

Resulting in STD's and teen pregnancies and sad statements like the one you reported: "Of course I didn't use birth control. That's a sin!"

Thank you, Dr. Duana, for another extremely beneficial and informative column! I'll never forget when I learned the basics about girlfriend and I were probably seven years old and in her backyard playing when an old man wandered up (no fence) and proceded to tell us the "facts of life". We were horrified and didn't believe him! Not a good way to learn the basics!

As a result, when my own two children were ages two and three, I checked out a book called "Where Babies Come From" and read it to them. I was determined that some dirty old man wasn't going to tell my children about sex. They loved that book and would ask for it to be read again and again. When their dad read it to them and tried to skip certain pages, they were quick to get him back on the right page--they had memorized the book!

They're adults now, and they sometimes tease me about that book, but I'll always be grateful that they learned the basics about sex from their parents and not some stranger .

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLouise

Dear Louise, What an awful way for you and your friend to find out the basics, indeed. Good for you for deciding to take your own children's sex education in hand so you could help them see you as the safe person to go to for advice--and so their first knowledge of what's what would feel safe, too, rather than frightening. I'll bet your children appreciate your approach, and you, tremendously. If you can tell us more about how that worked out over their growing-up years, that would be great.

Dear Dr. Welch:

Thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful answer to my question! I am benefitting immensely, as my daughter will, too, and still processing all that you've written.

My paradigm is shifting ... shifting .... shifting .... away from the common assumptions a) - d) (all of which I held to some degree) and toward the better approach to talk, talk, talk.

Now that I have this information (and I wouldn't have believed it, if it were not scientifically-based), I am determined to do a better job in this area than my own parents did. Thanks for getting the word out.

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA Mom

P.S. What if I ask my daughter (age 9) if she's heard about sex at school, and she says "no"?

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA Mom

Dear A Mom,
You made my day. Glad to be of service, m'aam. BTWay, I had not read much of the research about this prior to receiving The Mom's enquiry. There is a mind-boggling array of thorough science on this and many topics of sexuality about the under-20's set. And it is changing my approach to parenting, too.

If your daughter says she has not heard anything, you can follow up with, "Well, when I was your age, sometimes kids joked around about how babies were made, or about boys' and girls' bodies and how they are different. And I learned a lot of things that turned out to be not true, and some that disgusted and embarrassed me. So I want to make sure you learn it all right from someone who loves you, and that's me."

And go from there.

My very best to you and your child. Thank you for reading and contributing.

Dear Duana,

As I always do, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this informative, factual, and humorous article. As I have told you many times, YOU truly are an excellent writer, and have become one of my favorite authors. How's that for a genuine compliment?!

Regarding the seriousness of your article's topic...I have been a middle school band director and private instrumental middle and high school teacher for almost 23 years now. I have literally taught thousands of kids in the amazing 'wonder years' of 11-18 years old. Since I have the wonderful pleasure of teaching kids music in a one-on-one teaching environment, I get to know each child's unique personality, and often develop an awesome, trusting friendship with my students that last well into their adulthood. I feel so lucky and blessed.

Because I often have a good and trusting rapport with my students, they often come to me and ask me serious questions about life issues, and many of their questions are regarding sexual issues. Since so many kids ask me about this touchy subject, I made it a policy a long time ago to tell the parents, and get their permission, to please allow me to speak directly and frankly about any subject the student feels a need to discuss; HOWEVER, I also ask the parents to please trust my judgement and advice to their children, so much so, that I NOT feel pressured to reveal to them what their child has told me in private, unless they are going to hurt themselves or others. Thankfully, almost 100% of my student's parents have agreed to this policy. In turn, I have kept my word to my students about keeping their questions and our serious discussions between us, while at the same time, giving them accurate information.

I'm now 41 years old, and throughout the years, I have been asked so many unusual and horribly misinformed questions about sex. Because kids most often get their 'sexual education' from their friends or from t.v. shows...well, as a teacher and a mother, at times I have been simply dumbfounded at what teenagers believe about the following:
1. Many, MANY teenagers do NOT believe that oral sex is considered a sexual act. I inform them that yes indeed, oral sex is considered a sexual activity, and then tell them how easy it is to get a STD from this 'activity.' When I tell them this fact, 99% of the time their jaw drops to the ground, and then they turn a ghastly white color...not a pretty sight.
2. If the guy withdrawals before ejaculation, then there is NO possibility of a resulting pregnancy. Again my direct answer as to why this belief is so incorrect results in a repeat of the above reaction...their jaws hit the floor and that horrid skin pallor returns to their frightened faces.
3. Many kids have told me that they and their special boyfriend/girlfriend have decided to have sex, as early as 11 years old, but they don't know where to get contraception, and there is no way in hell that they would ask their 'parental units', because, in their words again, "my mom/dad would kill me if they found out I was having sex, or even thinking about it."

There are so many other questions that I have been asked over the years, but I just wanted to make the point about the misinformation most teenagers have about sex...because they get their 'fact's from their friends or the media. Kids feel comfortable talking to me, a middle age lady, about this embarrassing subject, because I simply don't make them feel embarrassed or awkward for asking a question about sex, or any other topic. Being a role-model and a trusted adult resource for so many kids has been quite an important life 'calling', and my way of helping kids grow up to be healthy and happy adults. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

Parents, PLEASE, PLEASE start talking to your children as soon as they become curious. There are so many opportunities to talk about sex in an open, direct, and non-embarrassing way. Your children should feel comfortable coming to YOU for the answer to these serious questions. If you make them feel guilty, shameful, or embarrassed even in the slightest...well, I'm here to tell you that your child will never ask you another question regarding this issue again. They will instead ask their friends, who more often than not, don't have a clue to the true facts...OR your kid will mimic the sexual promiscuity that is modeled on many popular teen t.v. shows, by their peers, YouTube videos, internet porn sites...etc, etc. Again fellow parents, TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT SEX IN A SIMPLE, NON-THREATENING WAY. Believe it or not, your child wants to be able to go to YOU to ask you these hard-to-ask it's up to you to open up the communication line with your teen.

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Lucio

Dear Laura,
Thank you for a powerful letter (compliments duly noticed, btway ;) ). You've got front-line experience with topics the Centers For Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics, Kaiser Family Foundation, and many, many other laudable research organizations have wrestled with for years.

You're right: Guilt backfires; misinformation is the rule rather than the exception when parents can't or won't be kids' primary resource; and although in theory, kids could turn to a trusted adult besides their parents, the reality is that it seldom happens.

The generations, past present and future, who are lucky enough to have you to fill the knowledge and trust gap are fortunate, indeed. For the rest of our kids: We are the answer they seek.

Upcoming Love Science topics are often pre-announced on Facebook to see what readers want to know, or what they already know. Here is what several of our more astute Wise Readers said about this topic beforehand:

--My husband and I have approached talking to our children about sex and other topics such as drugs very openly, and with a sense of humor and sincerity. Our views are that our kids are exposed to alot of talk and some misinformation from friends, and we want to let them know that we can be talked to openly. We have found what was first an akward subject to begin with is now a common subject. We preach protection and responsibility. I am glad you are tackling this topic. Once the topic is opened it becomes easier to deal with.

--I'd keep a shotgun behind the door and nobody would need to know it wasn't really loaded. Seriously - whatever a parent's answer is on the subject, they need to be sure to make their standard loud and clear and to not leave room for confusion. Your kids are not your roommates, they are yours to dicipline and teach.

--There are too many teen pregnancies around here-I feel like passing out condoms at ALL teen functions-even at churches. Teens just want to fit in--fitting in does not mean giving in.

--All I know is, I messed up by not talking to my daughter earlier in life... In desperate need of knowledge on what to do now that she is entering teenhood.

--Not looking forward to "The Talk". My daughter is only 7 but I need to start early.

--It's more than just The Talk. it's a series of mini-talks that answer questions as they come up, over a period of time, like from age 7 to age 25. and it's important to answer each question, then recognize when the child is DONE talking about it at that time. (i.e. don't give more information than what they are asking at the time). they need time to process the answer. just throwin' my two cents into the mix.......

--I would venture to say that "The Talk" isn't as ideal as talking about it on a consistent basis, starting as soon as their curiosity blossoms. We don't have to explain everything all at once. Having open communication with no shame is ideal, even if you have conservative views.

--You'll get an earful on this one. I'm sorry to say girls have started as early as 10-12 yrs old. I see this in my job everyday. Often I ask myself: "Where are their mothers?" "Why don't they care enough of their daughters to make sure this doesn't happen to them?" I have to bite my tongue and keep my opinions to myself.

--Now if parents would turn off the radio/cell phones and teens would turn off the Ipod and cell phones---the magic can begin simply while driving in the car.

Well said, Wise Readers.

Here is an (edited to protect privacy) letter another Love Science reader sent:

Dear Duana, Boy do I have questions! I've had The Talk with my 10-year-old girl (used a book or two to help with that), and when we watch tv together and there are situations on tv that pop up, I point out how unrealistic they are. My questions are: What shold I do about the commercials that pop up on tv, such as those for KY Jelly and birth control? How much detail should I get into and at what age? How often should we talk about it? What about gay and lesbian relationships and their sex? We are very accepting of homosexuality; I just don't know how to convey my values and specifics of homosexuality to my daughter.

Dear Denise, Kudos to you for finding those teachable moments during TV time. Research shows that kids watch the media differently in their parents' presence, doing "social referencing", which simply means, looking to you for your response and guidance. Even when kids appear to be letting your reaction slide, they are paying attention and adopting your stated values over those they're seeing onscreen--as long as you're sharing those. (In fact, research shows that on matters of politics, religion, sexuality, and other values, kids still follow their parents' lead--if their parents make sure to lead them.)

Regarding commercials: The mute button is a beautiful thing (for all commercials, for many research-based reasons). Some parents make hitting "mute" for commercials part of the price of watching TV. Good idea.

But if you're keeping commercials on, use them as teachable moments just as you're doing with the TV shows. The oftener you find ways to discuss sex and sexuality, the better -- it's Not Just One Talk, as you've quickly discerned. Nobody knows your 10-year-old like you do, so you'll quickly figure out the right level of information and detail and length to share. Asking questions often helps you discern this, plus learn what your child does and does not know: "Do kids at school ever talk about this? What do they say?" "Do you know what this commercial is talking about?" You can also express your values: "This is a commercial that tells how some people prevent having babies. Here is what I believe about that."

Regarding homosexuality and what to teach your daughter about it: Good for you for creating another tolerant and accepting person. The self-esteem and life you could be saving could be her own--coming out is a high-risk time (suicidally) for gay and lesbian teens when they feel the weight of hatred from peers and families. So if your daughter were to be lesbian, you're doing her a huge service. Moreover, if she is heterosexual, she will know gay and lesbian people, and it is important for her to know it is not an orientation people choose. Indeed, there is not one shred of science showing that *anything* done after birth can cause or change a person's sexual orientation. The genetic and pre-birth environment reign supreme in causing orientation.

That said, what you tell your daughter about sex between same-sex partners will require your judgment of her readiness to hear--and just as with everything else, It's Not Just One Talk.

You might begin by asking what she already knows: "Sometimes, women grow up to love and marry another woman rather than a man. Sometimes, men grow up to love and marry another man and not a woman. What do you already know about that?" (If you disagree with same-sex marriage, choose an explanation that fits, like "live with" or "commit to" or "spend their lives with".)

As far as the nitty-gritty of what goes into gay and lesbian sex, you might just say something along these lines: "You remember that sex is something moms and dads do to have babies, right? Well, sometimes, men fall in love with men, or women fall in love with women. They cannot make a baby together, but they can still be in love, and they can still touch each other to show that they are in love. Sex is not only about making babies. It also helps people to stay in love for a long, long time." Then, as your child grows up, you can get into more detail as it seems warranted.

Thank you for great questions, Denise, and for creatively finding ways to make the media *help* you with The Talk(s).

Just curious. This article seems to talk about sex. I'm wondering what the difference is between that and sexuality. Do you advise talking about those things the same way?

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurious

Hi, Curious,
Your question is important, because sex and sexuality aren't the same thing, and you're right--the article focuses on sex, but it's best to discuss *both* things with kids.

Sex is The Act Itself. Sexuality is the psychology and emotion and nuance and comprehensive sensuality surrounding the sex act.

So although little kids don't have sex, they do have sexuality. For instance, masturbation is very common among infants and toddlers, even though the touching is usually pleasurable but short of orgasm (yes, orgasms have been observed in toddlers who are touching themselves). And little children do fall in love with one another, expressing it with words and hand-holding.

Our response to children's (and to our own) sexuality is life-altering, and I do advise speaking of sexuality and not just the act of sexual intercourse. For one thing, many risky behaviors involve sexuality (oral sex, for instance), and kids need to know parental expectations and values and facts about those non-intercourse activities. For another, sexuality points to a vital distinction between us and over 99% of the other species in the known world: We Are Sexual Beings Whose Sexuality Is Primarily About Making A Long-term Love Bond--not about making babies. Everything else on the planet makes babies, then cuts and runs...only we and a select few other species use sexuality to create and continue Love itself.

For that reason, then, it's important to discuss sexuality as the opportunities arise (and to show it through exemplifying physical and verbal affection with our own mates in front of the kids). Sexuality is about heart, and ultimately, that is the most satisfying, life-affirming, sustaining aspect of the entire deal.

OK, so I just discovered that yesterday a little girl in my daughter's class (age 9 - 3rd grade) had a private playdate (chaperoned by parents, of course) with a little boy in her class, on whom she has a crush. And the boy reciprocates the crush ... and Dang! That sound like a full-blown DATE to me.

This is confusing to both me and my daughter.

She wanted to know, "Mommy, do they like each other or do they LIKE LIKE each other?" I do not understand her code language, so I explained it like this: "Darling, there are 2 kinds of feelings about boys. One feels like just another friend, even a girlfriend. But the other kind ... well, it's when being around the boy or thinking of him gives you butterflies."

My daughter assured me that these 2 kids DO have the butterflies for each other.

Additionally, she wanted to know, "what do you DO on a playdate with a boy you have butterflies for? Is it like you sit a long time and look at each others' eyes and say, 'ohhhh, you're soooo Hottttttt?'" My answer was, "Nope. You do the same thing you would if you don't have butterflies. Just talk, hangout, play games, run around outside, and have fun."

Would you please comment on this? Is it good/healthy/normal/customary for 3rd graders to have private boy/girl playdates when a crush is involved?

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA Mom

I am reeling from all this. It will fall to my shoulders to do these discussions and according to you, I am late. The questioning by A. Mom makes me start wondering. What about kissing? When does that start in the young kids? Kissing causing pregnancy is not too far from the truth.

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranother Mom

I like this research column. It makes me think: My parents didn't talk to me about sex. I've made alot of mistakes that I don't want my own kids to make. Fortunately, I did not become pregnant too young, or unmarried, or catch a disease. But I sure had alot of opportunities.

I am dreading the questions I could get from my kids. I think it's natural for kids to want to know what their parents did when they were young, when they had their first sex, etc. For example, "Did you and Dad wait?" The answer to that is no, we had sex in high school. In such matters, is honesty always the best policy?

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterST

Please don't be afraid and don't feel - I dunno - ashamed about what you did or didn't do or know before.

The choices that we make each have their consequences. So it's important to (1) know that you do have choices, and (2) know what the range of consequences are for each choice set, and (3) make good decisions about what consequences you are able and willing to afford in your life . . . . and that includes the lives of your kids.

It's been my experience, with my four sons, that I haven't necessarily been their main source of "base information" about sex and sexuality, but I have been their point of reference for how they want to think about it. (They observe their parents.) I'm grateful that their choices have been positive.

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTom
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