Talking About Sex and Puberty
For decades, movies and sitcoms have presented a caricature of the sweaty-palmed, birds-and-bees conversation in which Dad stammers through a convoluted description of sex to a preadolescent child — who, it turns out, knows all of the details already. The humor arises from the tension most parents feel about discussing sex with their kids. (“What if we tell him too much?” “Will this rob him of his innocence?” “What if he starts asking about what we do?”)
What isn’t so funny is the reality that too many children learn about sex from everyone but their parents. Playground slang and obscenity, a distorted description of intercourse from the tough kid up the street, or worst of all, a look at some pornographic material on cable TV or the Internet often provides a child’s first jarring glimpse of sex. What should be seen as the most beautiful, meaningful and private communication between a married couple becomes a freak-show curiosity. “Mom and Dad did that? More than once?!”
Efforts by public schools to correct misinformation from the street and lack of information from home often leave out a critical ingredient: the moral framework within which the facts about reproduction should be presented. Without an ethical context, sex education becomes little more than basic training in anatomy, physiology, infectious diseases and contraception.
Many churches have made laudable efforts to teach biblical principles of sexuality to their youth groups. But these important concepts are not always accompanied by accurate medical information or refusal skills. Furthermore, youth-group presentations usually begin late in the game (i.e., during the teen years) and rarely involve an on-going dialogue about this subject.
The best place for a child to learn about sexuality is at home from those who care most about him. Anyone can teach the basic facts about reproduction in an hour or two (or they can be read in any of several reference books), but you are in the best position to put this information in the proper context and give it the right perspective over a period of years. There are no cut-and-dried formulas for carrying out this assignment, but keep the following principles in mind:
Giving a child facts about reproduction, including details about intercourse, does not rob him of innocence. Innocence is a function of attitude, not information. A school-age child who understands the specifics of sex, while seeing it as an act that, in the proper context, both expresses love and begins new life, retains his innocence. But a child who knows very little about sex can already have a corrupt mind-set if he has been exposed to it in a degrading, mocking or abusive context.
If you feel squeamish or inhibited about broaching this subject with your child, reflect for a moment about your own attitudes. Do you harbor any feelings that sexual activity, even within the context of marriage, is somehow base or something that God really doesn’t approve of? If you realize that this is an issue for you, some conversations with your pastor, a counselor or both may be in order. Hopefully these discussions, and perhaps a reading of the Song of Solomon and other Bible passages, will alleviate any uneasiness you might harbor regarding God’s attitude toward sexuality. Books that are reliable, informative and honoring to sex, marriage and the Creator of both can also be very helpful. Two good examples are The Gift of Sex: A Guide to Sexual Fulfillment by Dr. Clifford and Joyce Penner and Intended for Pleasure by Dr. Ed and Gaye Wheat. But for many people uneasiness about sex may be rooted in life experiences, especially if they involve sexual abuse experienced during childhood, adolescence or even adulthood. It is never too late to address such issues with an individual who has training and experience in this area and can help you work toward healing.
Don’t wait to tell your child everything you know about sex during a single, intense marathon session. Doing so risks either waiting until it’s too late or dumping more in the child’s lap than he can process. Instead, information should be released gradually during many conversations over a period of several years. (The same principle applies to any other area of life — faith, values, responsibilities, relationships, handling money and so on — in which you intend to offer guidance to your child. These subjects are too important to be confined to a single conversation.)
In many instances, you will be giving information on a need-to-know basis. Your five-year-old is probably going to want to know how the baby inside Aunt Susie is going to get out. But your child may not think to ask how the baby got there, and you don’t need to broach the subject at that time. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet had any discussions about reproduction with your ten-year-old, you will need to take the initiative to start some conversations. She has already heard all sorts of things on the playground and needs to hear from more reputable and mature sources.
What if your child asks you questions you can’t answer? Be honest, and then do some research. You gain far more stature in your child’s eyes by showing candor than by bluffing. You may not have a detailed knowledge of the intricacies of the menstrual cycle or the developmental stages of puberty, but you’re never too old to learn.
Before the Talk: Dealing With Our Past
The first step in raising our children to honor their sexuality is to come to terms with our own.
You put her to bed as your precious baby; she awoke as a nearly fully developed adolescent, full of questions — questions you sense her stifling in deference to your obvious discomfort. Time flies when you’re avoiding “the talk.”
Do you remember how important the topic of sex was to you when you were a teenager — and how your parents skillfully evaded it? You promised yourself you’d do better as a parent.
Thinking back to your own teen years, you remember your obsession with boy-girl relationships. Still the question rattles around in the back of your mind: Why haven’t I talked with my teens about relationships and sex?
After a little honest reflection many parents will realize that their own sexual history is the roadblock. It’s nearly impossible to talk frankly with our children about sex until we have acknowledged the wounds from our past — and worked to heal them.
Back to childhood
When we begin to process our sexual past, some of us must begin in childhood because that is where the pain began. As we lived through our childhood, some people loved us well — appropriately and unconditionally. Their love was not dependent on what we did or how we looked. Others experienced poor loving relationships. Some of us may have felt we had to earn love and approval with our appearance or through our achievements.
Poor loving relationships also may have been manifested in sexual abuse from family members or close family friends. Typically, children deal with such abuse by blaming themselves: I’m not pretty enough or handsome enough; I deserve this mistreatment. Or maybe they thought they were too pretty or too handsome: Older people cannot help themselves around me.
As we grew into adolescence these assumptions may have led to unhealthy behaviors, such as eating disorders, as we tried to make ourselves more attractive — or less so. They may even have led to suicidal thoughts or attempts. We may never have heard the truth: The abuse was NOT YOUR FAULT.
It is never appropriate for one person to sexually abuse another.
Back to the teens
Some of us may still be tending wounds from what we believed, at the time, to have been appropriate teen behaviors. Some were a part of the “sexual revolution” generation. We spent our teen years in the “free love” 1960s and 70s. During those decades, sexual behaviors that had been taboo became common. “The pill” mitigated the consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage.
Parents, along with schools and churches, were caught off-guard by society’s rapid changes in sexual mores. It took years for the educational system and processes to begin to catch up with the changes.
Many reaped the consequences of being impressionable teens during the sexual revolution. Some carry the scars of being sexually active outside of marriage. For others, emotional scars have persisted. We may have had trouble bonding or really being in love with our spouse because we emotionally bonded to several previous sexual partners. Many of us are haunted by mental scars. The images of past lovers may inhibit our efforts to be psychologically exclusive to our spouse. The physical scars of teen pregnancy, abortion, or sexually transmitted diseases may have taken a fierce toll on our health.
For others, pornography has insidiously captured their minds and souls.
Back to the present
As parents, what can you do to get healed so that you can talk about Scriptural truth?
You may feel like a hypocrite if you insist that your children avoid behaviors you engaged in. But, this is to avoid the teachable moment that constantly springs up for those watching for it. Assessing your child’s age and maturity level, you can speak frankly with your child about the damage — initially and lasting — that resulted from such behaviors. You can also point them back to Scripture and God’s warnings to His people to avoid the things that will hurt them and cause separation from Him and others.
In the King James Bible, God says,
- “Flee fornication. Every sin that man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.”1
- “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”2
- “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies…”3
These passages use the word fornication (sexual intercourse with someone with whom a person is not married) as an evil sin. We are to run from sexual immorality. God designed the gift of sex to be given to one another as husband and wife. Therefore, Scripture counsels us to marry so that we don’t sin sexually.
Furthermore, Scripture uses the word fornication in the same context as other grievous sins, such as murder, adultery and thievery. And these are but a few Scripture passages that tell how we are to use our sexuality according to God’s plan.
Many people — even some Christians — look at these passages as proof that God is angry and vengeful. Yet, if you have gone through the heartache of violating his precepts and principles, you know first hand that his boundaries were put in place to save us from a multitude of pain and sorrow. His Word will guide us to the best life we can live; a life full of His blessings and free from guilt and shame.
On to the future — yours and your child’s
Whether we like it or not, parents are pressed into God’s service to tell the good — and often difficult — news to our teens. Our past does not disqualify us from telling our children the truth. The good news is that your teens will hear God’s Scriptural truth from the person who loves them most — you. The difficult part is that some parents will still be going through a painful healing process even as they talk with their kids.
Here are some suggestions to begin this process:
- Talk with your spouse about your past. This discussion will allow your relationship to become closer and free of secrets.4
- Talk with your pastor about your past. Your pastor may provide wise counsel for support and healing.5
- Talk with a professional Christian counselor. Keep in mind that this healing process may require a series of counseling sessions.
- If appropriate, schedule counseling time for you and your spouse together.
- Persevere. Continue working through your difficult issues until you resolve them. For some of us, healing is a lifetime process, but one well worth undertaking.
If you are still afraid of or unsure about your role as your child’s spiritual and sexual teacher and role model, take some time to examine what the world and the culture is cramming into kids’ minds every day. If you do not take the time to teach your child, the only teacher he or she will ever have is a world vehemently opposed to Jesus Christ and His truth.
What to Teach About Sex
What information you should cover when you talk to your child about sex and reproduction
As you ponder the process of communicating to your school-age child about sex, remember that the primary message you need to give him — more important in the long run than the specific facts and figures — is the importance of respect:
- Respect for the body each of us has been given and for the Creator of that body.
- Respect for the wonder of reproduction.
- Respect for privacy in sexual matters, not only his own, but parents’, friends’ and others’.
- Respect for his future and an understanding that sexual activity can have a profound effect on his health and happiness for the rest of his life.
- Respect for marriage as the appropriate context for sexual expression.
Think in terms of a gradual and relaxed release of information to your child: During the preschool years, begin with the basic naming of body parts and a general understanding of where babies come from, and before puberty begins, progress to full disclosure of the reproductive process.
Young children should know the correct names of their body parts (usually learned during bath time) and gain a basic sense of privacy and modesty for the “bathing suit” areas of the body. While understanding that their genitals are not “bad” or “dirty,” they should also know that they are not intended for public display. Now that diaper days are over, your child should learn that the genital area should be touched only by the child himself, a doctor or nurse during an exam, or a parent for a specific reason. Tell your child that if someone else tries to touch those areas, he should protest noisily, get away and tell you as soon as possible. He must know that you will not be angry or upset with him if this should happen.
It is extremely likely that before age five, and possibly later as well, your child will engage in some form of genital show-and-tell with a sibling or another small child. If and when you discover this in progress, your response should not be overblown. Don’t tell him that you are shocked and terribly ashamed of him, but instead clearly reinforce the privacy rule and remind him about respect for himself and the other child. The same should happen if your child streaks through the house or yard when others are present or exposes himself to someone else to get a reaction. More significant consequences should follow, of course, if you have talked to him about this behavior but he repeats it anyway. Here, however, the issue is obedience more than the specific act itself.
At some point he may barge into the bathroom when you’re in the shower or even wander into the bedroom at a highly inopportune time. Again, don’t overreact, but calmly ask him to leave. Later let him know that there is nothing bad about what he saw, but that it is meant to be private and that he should knock on the door first before coming into your room. Incidentally, once the toddler years have passed, grown-ups should abide by a dress code when the kids are at home: If you’re not wearing enough to be seen by adult houseguests, you’re not wearing enough to be seen by your children.
Where do babies come from?
Along with learning the names and addresses of body parts, younger children will also be interested in the big picture of reproduction. Questions will undoubtedly come up if you are expecting a new baby in your family, and this event can provide a nice long window of opportunity to talk about the entire process of pregnancy and birth. With or without a nine-month object lesson at home, a straightforward explanation that a baby grows inside the mother and that at the right time he or she comes into the world through the mother’s vagina will satisfy the need-to-know concerns for many children through the first or second grade.
Some will want to know more: How could the baby get through that small hole? Does it hurt to have a baby? Does Daddy help the baby come out? Matter-of-fact answers can alleviate a lot of concern: Yes, it is uncomfortable when the baby is born, but a doctor helps the baby come out and can give medicine to help the mother feel better. Moms who are going to have babies go to special classes, usually with the dads, so they’ll be ready when the time comes.
Eventually, one way or another, the Big Question will come up: Why and how does a baby start to grow inside a mother? (Another common scenario: Once your child is old enough to appreciate a reading of the Christmas story, you may need to explain what a virgin is.) You should avoid mythology (storks) or pseudotheology (“God sends the baby to the mother”) or misleading euphemisms (“The mother and father sleep together, and then the baby begins to grow inside the mother”). Some parents talk about mothers and fathers having a very special kind of hug, just for the two of them, which starts the baby growing, but even that explanation may be unclear. Indeed, all of these explanations suggest that pregnancy is a random or unpredictable event.
Only you can judge the readiness of your child, but in most cases when the question needs to be answered, offer a very simple but straightforward explanation. You can talk about how a mother makes a tiny egg inside her body every month, and if there is some sperm from the father to join with the egg at the right time, a baby will begin to grow. When you get more specific about the process that brings the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg together, remember to stress context: A man and woman who are married and love each other very much have a special time, just for the two of them, when they get very close to each other — in fact, so close that the man inserts his penis into the woman’s vagina. After a while he releases his sperm inside her. Younger children will usually find this idea rather strange, and you can stress that when the man and woman love each other very much, they feel very good while this is going on.
You will need to supply a name for this activity: Having sex is probably the most direct without being vulgar; making love is a little vague; and sexual intercourse is rather clinical, although children should know that this is the term they’ll be hearing later in life. Throughout, stress how good sex is — provided it occurs at the right time, with the right person and in the context of marriage.
Sooner or later, you will also need to talk about situations in which single adults are pregnant or raising children without a partner. You may be having these conversations with your children as a single parent. Children will need to know that some people have sex even though they are not married and that a baby may begin to grow inside a mother as a result. Or they may be married when the baby starts to grow but not married later on.
Whether you will want or need to delve more deeply into the complexities of adult life will depend upon your situation and the age of your child. A young child is going to be more concerned about basic information and his own security with you, whether married or single. A child approaching puberty will probably need more details: What happens when a single woman becomes pregnant? Do they all have their babies? Why do some mothers and fathers split up?
These may be emotional questions to tackle, especially if you have been involved in a divorce or are rearing one or more children on your own for whatever reason. But without condemning others or justifying irresponsibility, this can be an appropriate time to talk about the fact that sexual activity should not be taken lightly. You may want to mention that the Designer of human beings laid down some rules about sex for good reason — not to be a killjoy but to maximize our enjoyment of it and to prevent painful consequences. Sex experienced within those boundaries — between one man and one woman, maintained within a marriage relationship to which both are committed for the rest of their lives — is not only right but the safest and most pleasurable.
Talking About Sex and Puberty
What your kids need to know about their developing bodies and about their interest in the opposite sex
As your child approaches puberty, you are going to have to shift gears from talking about sex in general to more specific briefings on his or her own sexuality. Whether you make this a specific discussion or include it as part of a more extensive explanation of what lies ahead during the adolescent years, you will want your child to be ready for the physical changes that are about to take place.
Girls need to know about breast development, new hair growth and the reproductive cycle. The first menstrual period should be viewed in a positive light, as a passage into adulthood rather than a burden or a “curse of women.” Some parents honor the occasion by taking their daughter to dinner at a nice restaurant or presenting her with a special gift. This event is usually the final stage of pubertal development. If you and your daughter stay in communication about the changes she is experiencing, you can usually anticipate and discuss what she can do if her first period begins when she’s away from home.
Similarly, boys should be aware that changes are on the horizon, such as deepening of the voice, enlargement of the genitals and new hair growth. They should also know about the likelihood that they will have an unexpected emission of seminal fluid during the night (the “wet dream”), and that this is not a sign of disease or moral failure.
Parents will need to discuss with their child the increasing interest in the opposite sex. The boy or girl will also need to be prepared to deal with attention from the opposite sex if and when it occurs. This is an important time to review specific guidelines, and perhaps a little street wisdom, about relationships and physical contact. While reinforcing the importance of saving sex for marriage, what will you say about other kinds of affectionate touching?
Your preadolescent child will most likely wonder if you’re going overboard in broaching this subject. “Dad, I’m not going to jump into bed with people, okay? What’s the big deal?” But he or she must understand that we are all designed in such a way that physical contact, once started, naturally progresses to increasing intimacy. Indeed, sex is like a car that begins rolling down a hill. At first the hill is nearly fl at, but then it becomes progressively steeper. The farther you go, the harder it is to stop. That in itself isn’t bad or wrong but simply the way we’re made. Since the right time to have sex will be some years away, it will be important to make sure that the car doesn’t roll very far before the wedding night. This means that your child will want to have a clear idea what his or her boundaries are, and how to maintain them effectively, well before the first socializing with the opposite sex begins.
At some point (probably more than once) during these years, you will need to deal with the subject of masturbation . As children approach adolescence, you will have to make a judgment call on what to say about the significance of self-stimulation after puberty arrives. It is extremely likely that masturbation leading to sexual climax will occur at some point, especially for a male. If he is racked with guilt about it and repeatedly vows never to let it happen again, he will probably expend a lot of energy feeling like a moral failure and worrying unnecessarily about his spiritual welfare.
But when masturbation becomes a routine and frequent habit, especially when accompanied by vivid sexual fantasies or, worse, the viewing of pornography, it can be damaging to sexual and emotional health. In essence, a young man may have hundreds of sexual experiences associated with unrealistic or overtly distorted imagery, reinforced with the extreme pleasure of sexual release. At the very least, when he marries, his real-life sexual partner may seem disappointing by comparison, and his physical and emotional bonding with her may be impaired. This problem will be more significant if there have been many actual sexual partners before the wedding night. At worst, he may come in contact with violent or degrading images and associate his own sexual release with them.
Your approach to this issue will need to be both tactful and realistic. A bottom line worth stressing is that masturbation should not play a major role in your child’s life, either as a source of relentless guilt or as a frequent and persistent habit that displaces healthy sexual relations in the future. If it happens once in a while, it happens. But it should not be pursued as a form of recreation, especially while viewing sexually provocative material, and it should never be allowed to occur with other people.
Which parent should talk to your child?
Who should deliver these messages to your growing child? In many families, everyone will feel more comfortable if mothers talk with daughters and fathers with sons. It may be more fruitful in the long run, however, if both parents participate in many of the discussions of sexuality, where mother and father can each offer specific perspectives, and one can pick up the thread if the other draws a blank in a particular area. This also solidifies the notion that sex is a matter for couples who are committed to one another and provides your child with two sources of appropriate information rather than one. In single-parent families in which the child is of the opposite sex from the parent, a trusted friend, relative or youth pastor may need to fill in some gaps in sensitive areas.
While it may be useful to have both parents involved in discussions of sexuality, it will usually not be wise to talk to more than one child at once. This is especially important when you are dealing with your child’s own sexuality rather than with less personal topics. A ten-year-old girl who is learning about very personal changes that will be taking place in her body should not have a wisecracking eight-year-old brother in the room. If necessary, take her to a place where you can ensure privacy before you bring up these subjects.
Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Abuse
Parents must keep their children out of potential risky situations and teach them what to do if someone tries to exploit them sexually.
He was the last person she ever suspected, but the evidence against her new husband was undeniable.
The young mother of two little girls sobbed uncontrollably as her story unraveled. The man she thought was a loving husband and stepfather was now in jail – accused of repeatedly molesting one of her daughters.
As a police officer and major crimes detective, I have investigated numerous murders, suicides, accidental deaths, and brutal assaults. In my opinion, the physical, emotional, and sexual victimization of children is among the most despicable crimes.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes the natural progression of a culture bent on satisfying fleshly desires – a culture much like ours today.
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God he gave them over to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.(Romans 1:28-29, NIV)
Parents who consider their children “safe” from sexual victimization live in false security and set a dangerous course for their families.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 67 percent of all sexual assault victims are children. Another study by the National Center for Victims of Crime (2000) shows that 33 percent of girls (1 out of 3) are sexually abused before the age of 18. Sixteen percent of boys (roughly 1 out of 6) are sexually abused before the age of 18. These alarming figures demonstrate why parents must work diligently to keep their children out of potential risky situations and teach them what to do if someone tries to exploit them sexually.
The person most likely to sexually abuse your child is a person your child knows – and trusts. The sex offender looks for a child who trusts him and can be convinced to stay quiet about inappropriate physical contact. It could be a family member, close relative, neighbor, or trusted youth worker.
Discussing sexuality and/or sexual abuse with your child can be uncomfortable, but in today’s world responsible parents cannot afford to skirt the issue. Here are some practical suggestions to incorporate in your home:
- Plan a specific time to sit down with your child to discuss sexual abuse.
- Explain to your child that God made their body very special. Every part of their body is good, but some parts of their body are private.
- Clearly identify for your child which parts of their anatomy are private. If your child is young, consider sharing the above information during their bath time. Another idea is to have your child dress in a bathing suit and show them that all areas covered by a bathing suit are “private.”
- Let your child know they must tell you if anyone touches them in the private areas – no matter who the person is, or what the person says to them. Assure your child they will not be in trouble if they tell you they’ve been touched inappropriately – rather, you will be proud of them, and help them through the situation.
It is possible that when you have this conversation with your child, he or she may reveal inappropriate contact someone has had with them in the past. Listen closely to what your child says, but avoid asking a lot of questions. Young children are sometimes quick to affirm information that may or may not be true. Instead, let your child know you believe them and love them. Report suspected sexual abuse to your local law enforcement agency, which will work to substantiate or rule out the information.
As parents, we will never completely eliminate the possibility that our child will be sexually abused – there are simply too many factors outside of our control. Nonetheless, parents empower their children through simple conversation and love. A conversation with your child could save them, and you, a lifetime of pain.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional information on sexuality
Popular questions on this topic:
- Is there any sex education information on your site?
- How can we help our teen pursue purity?
- I’m pregnant; how do I explain to my preschooler how the baby will be born?
- How do I talk to my young child about sex? He’s already picking up certain words.
- Our teen is involved in premarital sex.
- A Chicken’s Guide to Talking Turkey With Your Kids About Sex
- Teaching Girls the Truth About Modesty and Purity I-III
- How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexuality
- How to Talk Confidently With Your Child About Sex
- What’s the Big Deal?
- Preparing for Adolescence
- What Your Teens Need to Know about Sex
- Prevent the Sexualization of Your Daughter
- Teaching Children Healthy Sexuality
- Healthy Childhood Sexual Development