Hey, children of the ‘80s: Remember The Sex Talk? It was a Big Deal. Something parodied in countless movies, it’s a wonder we reproduced at all. My husband recalls his dad drawing a diagram. I remember getting my period for the first time at the Toronto Zoo, and my father rushing to get me pads (pads!) at a Canadian pharmacy. I called my grandparents in Lowell — an international call, mind you! — to stage a formal announcement. Mortifying.
Aiming to be a modern mom, I bought my fifth-grader, about to embark on a health-ed curriculum, a book that many parent friends recommended: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Puberty — and Shouldn’t Be Googling: For Curious Boys. It was a graphic novel! Written by a young, relatable dude! My uncurious boy appeared mortified and went back to playing “Minecraft.” It’s still untouched on his nightstand.
I’m not alone: Lots of you have reached out about this topic, torn between supporting your kids in this high-stakes sea of TikTok, toxic masculinity, porn hackers appearing on YouTube, and more. But nobody tells us how to do this. Like relationships themselves, you have to fumble around for yourself. Here are some guidelines (to read in bed at night under the blanket with a flashlight) for starting the discussion with your elementary-schoolers.
On the pressure: Banish all thoughts of a deep, meaningful conversation on the edge of the bed in which you impart the mysteries of life in one shot.
“Have a talk — not ‘the’ talk,” says Dr. Anthony Rao, a child psychologist in Lexington who works with adolescent boys. Think of it as ongoing conversation, not one revelatory moment.
On the timing: Ran Courant-Morgan, manager of parent education at the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, says they see a lack of health education information for kids under 12, and parents say they’re concerned about starting conversations too early. It’s never too early, they say.
“There are a lot of things that we can be talking to kids about in order to support their knowledge about how bodies work and their self-esteem, their communication and relationships with friends, working toward the skills that help them be healthier adolescents and adults,” they say. “Having conversations [such as]: ‘How do we treat our friends kindly?’ is laying the groundwork for many different types of relationships.”
On reading material: Let your kids know you’re available for questions, but offering a book (see picks below) “is a great intervention,” Rao says. This isn’t a cop-out. It means they can browse on their own time, in private, when ready.
On your attitude: “Cultivate a ‘culture of approachability’ in your household,” says Newton-based parent coach Amy Behrens, who works with families across the country. “Say, ‘It’s totally fine to ask and normal to have questions, and I’m here to help you figure things out.’”
Behrens remembers driving a carpool with her daughter and a group of friends when she overheard them sharing totally incorrect tidbits. “I said, ‘I just want to share some information that you might find helpful. I heard you guys say this, but what actually happens is this,’” she recalls. Just a quick conversation and readjustment; no big lecture.
On your role: You’re a shepherd, not an oracle. Instead of bombarding your child with information (which is totally reasonable: There’s so much to cover, and we want to get it right), start slowly: “What are your questions?” As Rao notes, they’ve probably already seen a lot, depending on age, media consumption, and chats with friends. You don’t need to start from scratch. Think of yourself as a guide, taking cues from their questions.
On your values: University of Massachusetts Boston counseling psychology professor Sharon Lamb, creator of the Sexual Ethics for a Caring Society curriculum, urges parents to approach conversations from a place of values, not just black-and-white protection around contraception and safety.
“That’s the shame of sex ed and what’s become of it: It’s pretty much factual and not value-oriented today. I think parents have to catch up and provide the values talk. What do you want for them in the future?” Chances are, it’s the capacity for fulfilling, respectful relationships. Those values are often distorted or lost on social media.
In reality, intimacy “takes time, and you hope that [your child] gets to know people and understand how vulnerable people are. No matter what other what people say about sex in a braggy or invulnerable way, people feel very vulnerable about sex, their bodies, and what they look like and … whether somebody cares about them,” she says. Making sure kids understand that is just as important as the basics.
On crushes: To Lamb’s point, if your child is on the receiving end of a confusing crush, Rao suggests framing it as a self-esteem-builder. You don’t need to egg them on (even if you’re flattered as a parent) or force the issue.
Instead, “It’s a nice opportunity to boost self-esteem. Say, ‘Someone thinks you’re a sweet, good-looking, nice person. That’s a compliment to you.’ Take it out of the realm of: “What does it all mean?’”
Rao also says that, when kids begin to date, they can think of it as “game on,” where normal rules of interaction go out the window. They might play games: ignoring a text, giving the cold shoulder one day and then being friendly the next.
If your child doesn’t know how to handle the situation, boil it down to simple human kindness. “Frame it as: They’re still human beings. You wouldn’t treat friends this way, and this is your friend. Am I doing something that would hurt a friend?” he says.
On porn and other fantastical portrayals of the human form: Chances are, at some point, your child might spiral down an Internet wormhole and be presented with images of the human body that are unrealistic. Pre-empt this. It’s OK to tell them that people come in all shapes and sizes — hands, feet, other parts. By explaining this outright, you’re not introducing them to something wrong; you’re protecting them.
Behrens urges parents to look for “the question underneath the question.” Your child actually might be asking about what’s happening to them based on something they’ve seen on TV or online.
On the cringe factor: Your children might be mortified that you even know what sex is. Shudder. Rao says that phrasing information in the third person, discussing what “all developing people” go through, can diminish awkwardness.
On projection: Especially in an era where topics such as consent and toxic masculinity are at the forefront — rightly so — discussions about sex can be tinged with shame and admonishment. “This can infuse kids with a sense of dread and anxiety,” he says. Don’t come at the conversation from a place of presumptive worry but with open-mindedness and compassion.
On teachable everyday moments: You don’t need to break out a monologue before the 6th-grade dance. There are plenty of moments in daily life that don’t directly apply to dating and sex but do offer chances to discuss sexuality. Maybe you’re watching a cartoon where most boy characters are in blue or girl characters are in pink, or a show with gendered stereotypes.
“Those are the kinds of things where a parent might say, ‘Hey, I noticed all the characters in that cartoon were either wearing pink or blue. And did you notice that? What do you think about that?’” Courant-Morgan says.
On gender norms: Courant-Morgan says they hear from parents of girls who worry about safety and parents of boys who worry about respect. They urge parents to take an holistic view.
“I would also say: Most people want their girls to be respectful and for their boys to be safe. There’s a cultural conversation that puts a lot of the safety concerns on boys. … It’s a very gendered concern. I would encourage parents to think about what both of those things look like for all of their kids,” they say.
On oversharing: Parents might worry that they’re offering information that kids aren’t sophisticated enough to hear. If a child asks a question, thank them. Then reply with a question of your own.
For instance, the classic “Where to babies come from?” sends some parents into panic because they think their child is asking about sex. But they may simply want to know: Does a baby come from a stomach? A hospital? The supermarket?
Courant-Morgan urges parents to thank their child for the question, acknowledging it in a way that frames you as a safe adult.
“You’re glad that they’re asking you instead of Googling it, or maybe you’re glad that they’re asking you instead of their friend’s older sister,” they say.
But then ask them: “What do you think? What have you heard?” In fact, your child might be asking something far more innocent than you suspect, and this will draw them out and help to frame your response.
On do-overs: Courant-Morgan wishes there was more support for parents of kids under 12 around these topics. Often, parents think they have just one perfect chance to get things right. That’s too much pressure. In fact, this is a conversation that will unfold over time.
“That also means that if someone messes up, there’s always a chance to go back. In fact, there’s value in messing up. Because if you say something to your kid, and you think back on it, it’s also an opportunity for you to say, ‘Hey, we were talking about this thing the other day. And I responded in a way, but I’ve been thinking about it, and it just doesn’t feel quite right for me. Can we try again?’” they say. “That’s just such a good skill to model for those interpersonal relationships, because we all mess up sometimes, whether it’s parenting, being in a relationship, being a colleague or a friend.”
On a little outside help, please: Behrens recommends four books: “The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It” by Meg Hinkling, R.N.; “Talk to Me First” by Deborah Roffman; “For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health” by Al Vernacchio; and “Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality” by Bonnie J. Rough.