Talking about sex with your kids doesn’t have to be awkward. Here are expert tips for starting the conversation, plus the best books for every age when it comes to helping kids understand the birds and the bees.

By Fiona Tapp
Illustration by Emma Darvick

Learning about sexuality, and anatomy is a vital part of growing up. As sex education varies so widely across the country and some states completely opt out of teaching kids anything about their own bodies, the basics of reproduction, issues of consent, unintended pregnancies, STIs and contraception, it falls on parents to do the heavy lifting.

If you feel embarrassed to give your kids the birds and the bees talk, you're not alone. I was a science teacher and taught comprehensive sex education for 13 years, but my 5-year-old has still managed to make me blush with some of his curious questions.

Bonnie J. Rough, a parent educator and author of the new book "Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex, Love, and Equality" says that the most important thing parents can do is to keep communicating.

"It's important to talk about bodies, sex, and reproduction, but most of sexuality actually consists of thoughts, feelings, and relationships. When kids have crushes, meet a new baby, attend a wedding, or see a couple holding hands, take the opportunity to talk encouragingly about all the love in the world, and what a wonderful feeling it is to find someone you like and who wants to be close to you."

Starting young and using the correct body part names, like vulva and penis, is important. Rough says that parents need not worry about bombarding their kids with too much detail.

"If you are offering accurate information with the intention of educating the child, they'll grasp what they need now, and the rest will go over their head."

She is also quick to correct parents who are worried that sex ed will corrupt young children's minds. "Knowledge about sexuality does not spoil innocence. Children who are proud and confident in their bodies and know how human reproduction works are still kids. These early, open lines of communication let them know they can trust their guardians to help them be prepared for everything in life, even the tricky topics."

Research also shows that receiving accurate information about sexuality actually leads to delayed sexual experimentation. The more kids know about sex, and contraception the better-informed choices they can make for themselves and their bodies.

Rough reminds parents that it's OK to be nervous and that they can't expect to be able to answer every question, that's what Google is for! "Trust your ability to communicate with your kids about complicated things. It's okay not to know, and it's okay to be imperfect. Most American parents today never had the benefit of open, honest, compassionate, and shame-free conversations about sexuality, even though we know that's what's best for own kids," she says.

Having the Birds and The Bees Talk

So how should you begin an important conversation about sexuality with your child?

Rough has the following tips:

  • Find a cheerful tone of voice and practice. Frequently repeat accurate terminology for body parts and body functions. This knowledge is protective. Children should learn accurate names for body parts before nicknames.
  • Don't wrinkle your nose or convey that you think [certain body] parts or their functions are gross. For example, instead of calling a diaper "stinky" or "dirty," you can use neutral terms such as "full," "wet," or "dry."
  • Keep cross-gender friendships thriving. Parents and teachers can do a lot to encourage kids to maintain cross-gender friendships throughout the elementary years. These friendships benefit children and pay off in adolescence and adulthood.
  • Manufacture time for talks: a ride in the car, a hike in the woods, a walk to get ice cream. Your mission is to show your tween or teen that you can listen without getting too uncomfortable. After a while, if they know they can trust you not to overreact, they'll bring the topics to you.

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski, Director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach and President of the Academy for Adolescent Health, has taught sex ed to a quarter million young people and counting.

She feels that kids are being let down by most school sex ed programs. "Young people need more than the typical anatomy lesson and fear-based messages about pregnancy and STIs (sexually transmitted infections). My focus is sexual health and includes consent, communication, relationship skills, decision-making and problem-solving skills, and an overall message of worthiness. All young people are worthy," she says.

Podgurski agrees that starting to talk about sexuality early is the key. "Starting with a 'talk' at puberty is awkward and doesn't encourage open conversation through the child's life. Messages about sexuality are given all through a child's life, even if parents are silent. Silence screams, 'Don't ask me questions!'" she says.

Even though some parents might feel uncomfortable talking about these topics with their child at first Podgurski says we must persevere. "Don't be afraid to be vulnerable. If you feel uncomfortable, say so. It's OK to say, 'When I was a kid, no one talked with me about this stuff. I want to be the adult you talk with as you grow up. If I don't know an answer to one of your questions, we'll search for it together. I'm here when you're curious about your body or things you hear about at school. Nothing you will ever ask me will make me think less of you. I promise not to judge your questions,'" she says.

Rough suggests the following resources for parents starting this discussion with their kids:

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