Sex ed 101: How to talk to your kids about the birds and the bees

It’s up to you to help them make sense of sex. Anne Christine / Getty Images

TORONTO — They’re passing love letters in grade school, going to Friday night dances in junior high and planning dates by the time they’re teenagers. Crushes, kissing and sexuality are confusing and tumultuous topics for kids and adolescents.

Children are surrounded by sex — on the television and computer screen, in books and among their friends — but they may be confused about what it is and how it affects their relationships. Parenting experts say it’s a parent’s job to help kids understand how to be safe and how to establish their beliefs and values.

“Sex and sexuality is a part of the world and a part of life. We don’t just want to think about talking with kids in order to impact their behaviour, we want our kids to know about the world and be able to think critically about safety, whether or not they are engaging in sex,” Cory Silverberg, a sex educator and author of What Makes a Baby, told Global News.

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Silverberg is working on a series of books for kids about gender and sexuality. He’s taught parents about the subject for the past two decades.

“Very few kids want to have the sex talk with their parents but they wish they did because they felt so unprepared. It’s uncomfortable but parents have to be prepared for that,” says Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist and Ryerson University instructor.

Here’s how to talk to your kids about sex, according to the experts.

Exposure to sex is all around them…: Kids are exposed to messages about sex all the time, and from a very early age.

“It’s in advertising, it’s in entertainment — music videos, computer games, television, movies, online videos and it’s in the news,” notes Silverberg.

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Parents often tell him anecdotally about driving home with their kids in the backseat when news about a sexual assault comes on the radio. In other instances, the word “sexy” comes up in a song. Parents are speechless — they don’t know how much of the word “sex” their child is understanding in context to the situation.

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They’re learning about sex in school, too. Public and private schools may have separate curriculum and approaches, but the classroom will touch on anatomy, reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases, for example.

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These lesson plans may not be relatable to kids, though. Cautionary tales about HIV may not mean much to a 12-year-old whose concern is holding his or her crush’s hand, Silverberg notes.

It’s up to you to help them make sense of it: With handfuls of stories about sex doled out by the mass media, the classroom and from their peers, kids are inundated with information.

This is why parents need to step in to help their kids wade through what’s age-appropriate, and important to you and your family’s values.

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“If as a parent you aren’t talking to your kids about sex, they are getting information from all sorts of other sources that won’t reflect your values, beliefs and knowledge,” Silverberg said.

Without guidance on how to filter sexual messages, kids could learn an inappropriate sexual script, to objectify women or other clichés.

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“The greatest myth that’s perpetuated is that being exposed to [sexual] materials at an early age empowers kids and makes them more knowledgeable. It doesn’t. When you’re not prepared for it mentally and maturity-wise, you’re more susceptible to false beliefs,” Amitay explained.

And here’s how. Start early: How in-depth your conversation will get depends on your child’s age. What a four-year-old needs to know about sex is going to differ from a 14-year-old, Amitay reminds parents.

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Young children simply need to know about their bodies and their boundaries. Messages like “Always ask before you touch someone,” and “No one should touch you in a way you don’t like, and if they do, you can say something,” should suffice. That’s the extent of sexual education for a younger audience.

By the time your child moves into puberty, conversations about feelings, crushes, love and sexual behaviour will become more pivotal.

You can be generic and you can offer amnesty: This isn’t going to be an easy conversation to start, but it is necessary. Amitay suggests that asking about friends or a TV show, anything that doesn’t focus on your child specifically, will help.

“Have any of your friends started kissing?” or “Do people have crushes on each other?” are great icebreakers.

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You don’t have to jump into a talk about intercourse. Your child may not even know what sexting is, let alone having sex, Amitay notes.

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Let your child know that he or she can come to you with questions if they come up. You may not have the answers right away, but you can promise to think about the questions and help them.

Remind them that you were once confused about the topic, too.

Don’t turn sex into something that’s dirty or wrong.  In the reflections Amitay receives from his university-aged students, some still recall feeling guilt or shame about their sexual identity. Focus on your child’s happiness, health and safety. “You want to promote a sense of self-efficacy. Make your child feel his parents trust him enough to go out there and do the right thing,” he said.

Give them amnesty when you have this conversation. This hands your kids a safe place to talk without fear that you’ll cast judgment or get angry.

Always come prepared: This is especially important with today’s tech-savvy generation. If you want your kids to take you and your wisdom seriously, don’t let them catch you off guard. Know your stuff – learn about sexting, SnapChat or other ways your kids are communicating. “Ask yourself before you say anything, ‘how would my kids try to dismiss this or turn this around on me,’” Amitay suggests.

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Put together sources so they’re readily available for your kids if they need it.

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It’s especially important with today’s tech-savvy generation: In his psychology classes, Amitay asks his students to consider when they were first exposed to sex. The responses are varied – 6 to 8 years old, 10 to 12. But there’s a common link: the Internet tends to lead to the first encounter.

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Leave age-appropriate, relevant books about sex in your house and make sure they’re accessible without your kids having to ask you. They may be shy or embarrassed, so a book can feel like a safer way to start a conversation, Silverberg said.

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