Sex ed: how soon is too soon?

Did I really want to know that?
Did I really want to know that? 

Q My partner and I have 10-year-old sons from previous relationships. When the kids are around, we're very discreet about the sexual side of our relationship. Recently, his son found a condom packet on the floor and asked what it was. We gave him a basic explanation but didn't elaborate because we think he's a bit young for too much detail. Later, he asked his mum about it and she gave the full explanation, including demonstrating how to put a condom on a zucchini. We think she went too far. What do you think?

A This is one of the many challenges couples face in a blended family. This boy is not your son and his mother has every right to decide how she teaches her child about the facts of life. If your partner is unhappy about what happened, he will have to talk to the mother of his son to negotiate how the two of them will approach the subject in future.

Although it is only human for you and your partner to discuss what occurred, you must be very careful about criticising his ex. Encouraging hostility between the two of them is not helpful. You must be particularly careful to avoid criticising the other woman when her son is present. The situation is difficult enough for the boy and trying to split his loyalties will only confuse and hurt him.

As a general principle, however, I do not think 10 is too young to learn about condoms and safe sex, especially when the topic has come up organically. The less ignorant and anxious young people are about such issues, the more likely they are to be confident about using protection when they become sexually active. If something arises in the conversation the boy cannot understand, he will probably ask more questions as he develops.

You and your partner need to have a conversation about how you want each other to handle this subject when the children are with you. The most important thing to remember is to avoid getting anxious and embarrassed. It is important that kids feel comfortable and safe to talk to all their adult carers about topics that might be troubling them. If you are unsure how to react, refer the child to their parent rather than risk muddying the waters with conflicting opinions.

If these two boys are friends, they will probably talk to each other about things, so you and your ex need to discuss how you want your son to learn about sex. Try to adopt a strategy within the new relationship that is respectful of, and consistent with, what the other parents will find acceptable.

Perhaps all four parents could agree on a book you can all refer to, such as Peter Mayle's classic, What's Happening to Me, or Sex, Puberty and All That Stuff: A Guide to Growing Up by Jacqui Bailey.

Maureen Matthews is a sex educator, speaker and founder of the online female sensuality business, bliss4women.