"I do know how babies are made," my then-8-year-old son recently told his 13-year-old sister. She ignored him.
"Mum, he really doesn't," she said. "You better tell him before he goes to camp and hears it from older kids."
She was right. I had talked to him about love for years, but I must have glossed over the mechanical piece.
According to Deborah Roffman, a teacher and author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids' 'Go-To' Person About Sex, I was late to the game.
"If we're not deliberately reaching out to kids by third grade [age 8-9], almost everything they learn after that is going to be remedial," she says. "Sexual intercourse in the service of reproduction is thoroughly age-appropriate for 6-year-olds."
Not long after I got my son up to speed, I taught middle school health and wellness for the first time. No amount of parenting readies you for a roomful of curious 13-year-olds.
To prepare me, my principal showed me questions kids had asked in the past. "How many times can you ask a girl out before it becomes sexual harassment?" "What are all the different sex positions?"
Well, OK then. I could do this. As Roffman notes, these conversations are simply part of the nurturing process, and we miss the big picture when we focus on "the talk".
"That's where I start with parents. It's about how we can raise sexually healthy young people from birth," she says.
Kids have five core needs when it comes to sexuality, Roffman explains. They need affirmation and unconditional love; information about healthy and unhealthy behaviours; clarity about values such as respect and integrity; appropriate boundaries and limits; and guidance about making responsible, safe choices.
Within that framework, here are seven tips to help parents raise kids who know how to make well-considered decisions.
1. Fill in gaps and debunk myths
Karen Rayne, a sex educator in Texas and author of GIRL: Love, Sex, Romance and Being You, says that parents shouldn't make assumptions about what their kids know.
She recalls a student who avoided trampolines because she believed that every time a girl is jostled, an egg dies. Another girl sobbed in a bathroom at a water park when she got her period for the first time. "She was being raised by a single dad who never talked to her about it, and she thought she was dying," she says.
Yuri Ohlrichs, an author and sex educator at Rutgers Netherlands, says that kids are picking up information from peers and the internet and that parents need to debunk myths. One boy told him that if you clean your genitals with a medical disinfectant after sex, you can't get a sexually transmitted disease.
"Some of the misconceptions are disturbing, and as responsible adults we can take away the tension they create," he says.
2. Admit discomfort and stay calm
For parents, acknowledging discomfort is a good first step.
"You can begin the conversation with, 'This is going to be awkward, but we're going to talk about it anyway because it's important'," Rayne says.
Even if parents are fine, it doesn't mean their kids are. "Parents need to normalise the dialogue and provide a space where kids can ask anything," she says. "If young people say something shocking, it's OK to say, 'That's surprising to me'."
Still, she recommends parents stay calm and delay their gut reaction. "Process with a friend, partner or religious figure, and then respond in your best emotional state," she says.
3. Talk about your family's values
When Roffman talks to parents, she asks them to list at least five values they want their children to bring to all sexual situations they encounter in their lives. She then urges them to name those values to their kids as young as possible.
By taking this approach, parents can teach the importance of compassion, honesty and respect long before they broach them in a sexual context.
"Parents can say, 'You're standing too close to me. You're not respecting my boundaries', and talk to children about how no-one is allowed to touch them without their permission," Roffman says.
4. Share personal stories with caution
Before sharing personal information, parents need to think deeply about why they're sharing it, Roffman says.
"There should be a point to the story. What do they hope their child will learn?" She notes that trying to steer a kid's behaviour is not a good motive. "The goal should be to help your child think through decisions they're going to make," she says.
Parents also can draw a line when kids ask intrusive questions. "The act of drawing boundaries is powerful, and parents can say, 'That's a personal question, and maybe I'll answer it when you're older'," Rayne says.
5. Address stereotypes and gender difference
Ohlrichs encourages adults to take a positive approach to both male and female sexuality.
"Not all boys or men are going out there to have sex as much as they can," he says, noting that boys have insecurities but may struggle to express them. "We have to make sure that boys understand that you're just as much a man if you're not experienced sexually as if you are."
He also urges parents to explain that although there are no hard-and-fast distinctions, males and females might approach sexual scenarios differently. "Boys don't always understand that a girl might stop kissing because she's focused on what's going on around them," he says.
"Boys might be all green lights, but if a girl hears someone in the house or the boy says something that reminds her of a negative experience, it's over."
Parents can explain that it's not necessarily a rejection and that the couple needs to work together to make it comfortable. He also suggests that parents tell teens that if someone is giggling or nervous, "it might not be a positive situation for them".
Ohlrichs urges parents to address stereotypes about female sexuality, noting that girls throughout the world internalise the idea that they need to protect their reputation. "They're getting the message that they need to conceal excitement and avoid taking initiative, and it's still one-sided," he says.
6. Use media and other sources to start a conversation
"Everything in life can be connected to human sexuality," Roffman says, and parents can find natural segues in a variety of topics, such as music and sports.
Sexetc.org, a website that is run by teens and affiliated with Rutgers University, features polls that parents can use to start a dialogue. Scarleteen.com also has a parenting section and an adult-moderated dialogue board for teens.
Rayne has used the movie Wonder Woman and the TV show Grey's Anatomy to talk about gender issues with her own children. She also talks to her kids about sexting and shares other internet cautionary tales when they unfold publicly. Books about sex, gender and reproduction are readily available in her home.
Ohlrichs suggests that parents raise indirect questions using the news or research. "You can say, 'I just read in the newspaper that half of young people are in love. What do you think of that?'" he says.
7. Understand the developmental phase
Different ages pose different challenges, Roffman says. "Parents will say, 'my child used to talk to me all the time and now they've stopped, what am I doing wrong?'"
She notes that more often than not, the child in question is an 11-year-old girl. "Girls that age can be self-conscious about their changing or not-changing bodies and pull in," she says, adding that the important point is that you don't back out of the situation.
"They're not adults. They need us, but they're also looking for increasing independence." Parents can explain to kids that to earn that privilege, they need to be willing to engage in conversation when they start new behaviours, such as dating.
After I talked to my 9-year-old, he asked only one thing. "Do people always love each other before they make a baby?"
My 13-year-old's questions also skewed more toward relationship issues and body image than the mechanics of sex. "How do you convince someone to like you as more than a friend?" "Can you date someone a lot older than you?" "If I've been through puberty, have my breasts stopped growing?"
Simply put: At an age when the body tends to mature faster than the mind, kids want to know what's normal and what's next. Parents need to be brave enough to tell them.
Phyllis Fagell is a school counsellor in Washington, DC, and a therapist. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.
- The Washington Post