Sex Education 101: The Conversations You Should Be Having With Your Kids

When it comes to sex education, experts say parents should talk to their kids early and often. Here’s an age-by-age, stage-by-stage guide on to how to start.

A mother and her daughter are sitting on her bed whilst she curls her daughter's hair.

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What Should Sex Education Look Like in 2023?

This year, for the 2023 Parents Sex Education survey we asked 1,500 caregivers to find out what they really think about the state of sex education today. Here's what they said—and how to start the conversation with your kids.

My parents never gave me "the sex talk." This says a lot, because they were both pediatricians. But like many Asian—and non-Asian—parents, they never discussed things like puberty, sexuality, or mental health with me as a kid.

Now, as the parent of a teen and a tween, I find myself working hard not to fall back into the same patterns that would have me avoiding the conversations I know I need to have with my kids. 

Turns out I’m hardly the only one. In a Parents sex education survey of 1,500 caregivers, 70% of parents said that they are more comfortable talking to their children about topics related to sex than their own parents were with them, and 69% believe that sex education should be mandatory in schools.

Sex education, in broad terms, includes discussions about anatomy, puberty, consent and communication, and sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, but also about body image, gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation and expression.

Parents Sex Education Survey 2023: Conversation Topics


But only a third of parents surveyed said they are familiar or very familiar with their state's sex education requirements. And while 70% of them feel prepared to talk to their kids about sex, the numbers vary when broken down by factors like gender (noting that 77% of fathers feel confident in this space) or ethnicity, with only 44% of Asian parents noting they feel confident talking to their kids about sex. Like my parents.

So I chose to take the opposite tack with my daughter as she ventured reluctantly into puberty. I bought her a stack of carefully vetted sex education books, I stocked up on pads, got period panties (a lifesaver for my little water baby during summer swim season), and I opened the door to discussion early and often.

And, if there's one thing we've learned from the Parents Sex Education survey, more parents are being proactive about having conversations about sex education with their kids. Which is a great thing. But if the topic feels fraught, you're not alone. Here, some guidance on how to start—and continue—the conversation.

The Onset of Puberty Has Shifted

"Kids will be learning about these topics with or without us," says Rosalia Rivera, Consent Educator, Abuse Prevention Specialist, Sexual Literacy Advocate, and creator of Consent Parenting. "It's best to be proactive and create a trusting relationship that's both safe and respectful of their development.

That's why it's important to start early. "Getting ahead of the curve and establishing yourself as their go-to authority on all things puberty, sex education, consent, gender, and other sensitive topics will help kids trust that you're the safe person to ask for honest, shame-free, accurate information," says Rivera. "It's about being there for your child and being their safe guide."

And now, more than ever, there are resources and tools parents can use to teach themselves about sex education so they can teach their kids, too.

"Let's take the shame out of it," says Cara Natterson, M.D., author of the bestselling Care and Keeping of You book series and co-host of The Puberty Podcast. "For any parents who are curious: 100 percent of your children are going to go through puberty. Learning about it, teaching them about it, having those necessary conversations is critical."

These days, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the onset of puberty can start as early as age eight. That means if you're waiting until your kid is tween or teen, you're already late—but it's more important than ever to start now.

The Concept of ‘The Talk'—Singular—Is Outdated

In the "old days," many parents thought a single "birds and bees" chat meant they'd done their due diligence as parents. But we all know how well that turned out. That's why it's critical to start conversations about sex education early and have them often.

"As parents, we all want the authority and privilege of explaining the changes in adolescence and sex education,” says Megan Michelson, director of The Birds And Bees podcast. “We want parents to start talking and keep talking."

She recommends an approach that's "frequent and frank," but notes that "there is so much power in the first impression! Be proactive, not reactive. At the same time, we all know this practice requires a clear vision, direction, and a goal in mind."

Sitting down for a big, serious, face-to-face conversation can be intimidating, for both parents and kids. "You can start as young as three or four years old when a child pulls a tampon out of a purse and asks, 'What is this?'" says Michelson, who is also a former middle school educator. "Rather than grab it and tell them to not touch things like that, simply say, 'Oh sweetheart, this is a tampon. [Some parents] bleed once a month, and it's called a period. A tampon helps keep things clean.' While this might be your first conversation about periods, it should not be your last."

As a pediatrician and a parent, Dr. Natterson recommends parents encourage open discussion. "My mantra is talk early, talk often, talk about everything. But not all at once," she says. "We can't just sit down and information dump on our kids because that's a lecture, and it's too much. Every day offers teachable moments: You might be watching a show together and press pause. You might hear a story about something that happened at school or on the field. It's never too early to start these conversations."

Explain Things In Terms Your Kid Will Understand

Rosalia Rivera, Creator of Consent Parenting

"I like to think of these conversations as layers, like lasagna. Start with a good foundation and keep adding on throughout their different ages and stages."

— Rosalia Rivera, Creator of Consent Parenting

Different ages and stages will require different frameworks for approaching discussions about puberty, sexuality, identity, and consent.

"I like to think of these conversations as layers, like lasagna," says Rivera. "Start with a good foundation and keep adding on throughout their different ages and stages."

Books, videos, and classes like Michelson's Birds and Bees workshop can help parents learn to navigate these conversations with grace and authority.

"We want parents to feel empowered to break sex education down into multiple, age-appropriate conversations that begin at a young age," Michelson says. "By answering our kids' questions in an age-appropriate way, we also have the power to normalize the changes that come along with adolescence, too. 'Where do babies come from?' 'How is that baby getting out of there?' 'What's a tampon?' are all normal questions for curious kids to ask and we want parents to feel equipped and empowered to answer them in a way that fosters confidence and open discussions."

And when it comes to consent, whether you're talking to a toddler or a teen, in the end, the bottom line is the same. "The very core values of that concept are the same, whether you're talking about a toy or whether you're talking about someone's personal physical space," says Dr. Natterson. "So those types of conversations about nutrition, about respecting your own body, about pleasure, and what feels good."

Michelson says speaking from a place of authority is important—and so, too, is ensuring kids that what they're experiencing is something everyone goes through.

Here, an age by age, stage by stage approach to starting conversations.


It may seem strange to talk to toddlers about sex. But sex education conversations at this early stage lay the groundwork for the future—and ideally, these honest and frank chats give information on a need to know basis, establishing trust between the child and parent.

"Parents should be the experts and a trusted source for their children. For example, start by addressing body parts with anatomical names," Michelson says. "This can begin as young as bathing your toddler in the tub or potty training. As they grow, find small, age-appropriate ways to address body boundaries."

That may sound complicated, but it's how caregivers educate children about the world around them every day—and it works just as well here. "When discussing consent, you'd take a different approach with a toddler, talking about it in simpler terms, like sharing and not sharing, teaching what's appropriate," Dr. Natterson explains. "Like 'I'm just making sure it's okay with that person that I shared this toy they're playing with."

Consent for Toddlers

Conversations about consent are particularly critical at this age—and every age—so start early. "At this stage it's all about helping them understand their body autonomy, boundaries and what consent means," says Rivera. "'Did you know that your body belongs to you? And because it belongs to you, you get to say what happens to and with your body. Those body rules are called your body boundaries.'"

Use clear language and definitions. "Consent at this stage can be explained as permission," says Rivera. "It can sound something like, 'When someone wants to hug you or kiss you, they should ask you first, since it's your body and you get to say what happens with and to your body.'"

Little Kids

As your kid grows older—and more curious—conversations around sex education will expand beyond bodily autonomy to grapple with bigger concepts.

"Talking about puberty and periods before they happen helps them realize that changes like this are normal and to be expected," says Michaelson. "These matter-of-fact conversations create a shame-free place for education and communication."

But how do you know your kid is ready? "Cues can be that they are asking more questions about their bodies or other people's bodies," says Rivera. "They may be exploring their own body and trying to understand the functions of their bodies. Those cues should signal to a parent that it's definitely time to talk about body literacy and safety."

Consent for Little Kids

Rivera says it's important to continue to incorporate the concept of consent into these chats, "helping them learn about the nuances of communicating boundaries. Allow kids to say no and support their decisions and be advocates when adults don't respect their nos. [This] helps them develop confidence for vocalizing boundaries. But also, helping them learn how to talk about how they feel if someone pushed them or hugged them without consent."

This is the stage to talk to kids "about things like coercion and withdrawal," Rivera says. "This is key, because at this stage peer groups become a more prominent influence for kids. That no one should make them feel obligated to say yes or guilty for saying 'no thanks,' because they're not responsible for the feelings of others."

Tweens and Teens

If you've laid a foundation of conversations around anatomy, emotions, and consent, then you have a place to build from, says Michaelson.

But for many parents and caregivers, their kids' tween and teen years may be the start of their experience with sex education. Starting these conversations early—and having them often—is critical because these days kids are inundated by more information than ever.

"If your kid has a question and you don't want to answer it, they're going to seek out the answer. And they live in a world where they can get an answer," says Dr. Natterson. "As parents and adults who are in the lives of these kids, we are at a crossroads where we have a choice. Either the information can come from us, or we can outsource it. Probably to the Internet or to their 12-year-old friends, and I'm not sure what, which is worse, right?"

Consent for Tweens and Teens

With tweens and teens, things can get more complicated as they find themselves navigating peer groups—online and IRL. "For kids who are navigating the online space, the topic of consent can be translated into internet safety and what's safe and appropriate for peers to ask of them online," Rivera says. "Letting kids know that the same boundaries that they applied about their bodies, also apply in digital spaces. Remind them that they have body autonomy, and that includes virtual autonomy in the digital space."

She recommends talking your child through "what if" scenarios so they know how they would handle situations that might come up. "This will give you a lot of information about their understanding of boundaries, consent and how they would communicate these understandings to peers," Rivera explains.

Keep the Conversation Going

Dr. Natterson reminds parents that the access kids have to information today carries greater risks, too. "Kids who have access to the Internet have access to pornography. It finds them, you know," she says. "So caregivers need to arm kids with really good, healthy information and have those conversations."

While that may sound intimidating, "Sometimes it's as simple as, 'You might see a naked person on the Internet. If that happens, you didn't do anything wrong, but come talk to me because we can talk about what you saw and how you're feeling,'" Dr. Natterson says. "You don't want to get so far ahead of it that your kid's not ready to have the conversation. But you do want to be baby-stepping your way into these conversations, and by saying to a child, 'It's not your fault. I'm not going to be mad,' you are leaving the door open should something come up."

Cara Natterson, M.D., author of The Care and Keeping of You

"Even when you say something wrong, or it doesn't resonate, or it embarrasses your kid, having had the conversation is good. When it doesn't land, go back and have it again. And if they haven't heard you, listen to them. Conversation is two ways, and not just us telling our kids how it is, but that they tell us what life is like for them, what's real for them, and what language they're using."

— Cara Natterson, M.D., author of The Care and Keeping of You

And if at first you don't succeed? Definitely try again.

It's okay if it feels awkward. "Kids are supposed to be curious and ask questions—it's part of healthy child development," Michelson says. "Just because it's normal doesn't mean it's easy to answer them."

In the long run, your relationship with your children will be better for it. "Even when you say something wrong, or it doesn't resonate, or it embarrasses your kid, having had the conversation is good," Dr. Natterson says. "When it doesn't land, go back and have it again. And if they haven't heard you, listen to them. Conversation is two ways, and not just us telling our kids how it is, but that they tell us what life is like for them, what's real for them, and what language they're using."

If anything, that's the real message this Parents sex education survey is sending. It’s about creating an open, comfortable relationship, a place where your child feels safe asking questions or raising concerns.

And like many parents, that’s what I have to remind myself the conversation comes up again, as it inevitably will. 

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